The Bronx Celebrates:
 Whitfield Lo
vell

  February 2-March 23, 1993

   Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel
  Biographical Notes by Elizabeth Lorin


  Purple Heart, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper, 36 1/4 x 39 1/4"

 

The Bronx Celebrates: Whitfield Lovell
by John Yau


In a large work on paper, Pop/Pistol, 1991, the viewer sees the portrait of an elderly black man in profile. He and the image of the gun below him are in the center of the composition, surrounded by neatly written sentences. Done in muted browns and grays, the entire work evokes sepia and hand-tinted photographs of an earlier era, the time when these things functioned as mementos of one's life. At the same time, while the colors are evocative of an emotional and historical distance, Lovell's use of oil stick and charcoal imbues Pop/Pistol with a sensuous immediacy. This doubleness of distance and physicality is echoed by the disturbing subject which Lovell has chosen to address.

In the composition, the man looks toward the left, while the gun is aimed toward the right This balance, however, is more than a formal device, something which becomes disturbingly clear when the viewer moves beyond the act of seeing and begins reading the text which the artist has written out in orderly rows around both the man's head and the gun, forming a kind of frame in which the two of them exist. The text—something we read from left to right, thus echoing the gun's direction—was taken from one of the city's daily newspapers, and is a report of the robbery and murder of "Pop" Glover, the artist's grandfather. It is the kind of story one encounters every day in the newspaper. The tone is detached and the emphasis is on the events that transpired. Lovell's juxtaposition of portrait and text makes clear a fact many in the art world are eager to ignore, which is that we do not all inhabit the same post modern social space, and there is a gap between public events (in this case, a murder) and a personal life (the artist's grief). Lovell's drawing puts him in direct odds with those cultural theorists who believe the world has been drained of meaning, and what remains is a composite of simulacra, a shifting field of representations.

For most of us, the public event that Lovell transcribes in Pop/Pistol is a distant one, something we read about in a newspaper. However, as the artist's memorialization makes clear, it is a public event which affects some people very differently than others. We read newspapers and throw them away. Someone kills someone, and both lives are wasted. By joining portrait and article together, Lovell brings two perceptions into proximity: an image associated with a private and now-haunted memory, and the disposable "news" of a public event.

The article purports to tell the viewer/reader about a murdered man, the artist's grandfather. It is a familiar litany of mostly statistical facts, which includes the man's age, the name of his wife, and where they lived. Although the language is precise, we quickly realize that all we, as outsiders, know about the murdered man is a series of surface events, and that we know nothing of the depth of his life, and the grief that his unnecessary death caused. We not only do not see how this event marked those who knew him, but we also remain ignorant of the indelible marks themselves.

Lovell doesn't reveal his grief. He knows that it is not something he can share with strangers, that to do so would be to dilute that which is undiminishable. Rather, he uses art to illuminate the disturbing chasm between the facts as they are recorded in a newspaper and the fact of his grandfather's face. He makes a portrait of both his grandfather and the world we inhabit, a realm made up of unbridgeable spaces between I and you, and he and she (or he).

Directing his work toward the intersection between private space and social space, Lovell undermines the idea that what we all have in common is second-hand experience. His work underscores the fact that what is primary to our lives is an awareness of mortality, and the particular manner in which loss articulates itself in one's life. This approach to art and by extension life sets Lovell apart from many of his contemporaries, who believe experience is at best a simulacrum of events. By resisting the paradigm of the "simulationists" who believe art and art history are dead, and the best that art can do is embody the death of art, Lovell brings into focus the disturbing realization that the world is divided, that we do not all inhabit the same social space, and that experience marks each of us differently.

The gaps between what Lovell knows and what he sees is one of the recurring subjects of his art. His art arises out of the desire, as well as conviction, to preserve what he knows. Often, this includes the presence in his life of those who are absent. In a number of works, Lovell depicts an empty dress or suit. This symbol is a tangible reminder of the things that are left when a friend or relative dies. Clothes are something each of us wears out and, like the newspaper, throws away. In House/Dress, 1990, Lovell depicts the image of a house within a white, short sleeved, summer dress. Is it the house the woman who wore this dress lived in? Is it a house she dreamed about living in? An image we can associate with both the past and the future becomes a symbol of absence. The past and future are irrevocably changed when someone you know dies. The dreams you might have shared with someone else can no longer be thought of in the same way. The past recedes as time passes, but a person's absence does not necessarily fade. As in Pop/Pistol, Lovell uses oil stick and charcoal to clarify this disquieting fact personal loss is physical as well as emotional.

Lovell's approach to private pain is understated. He never tells the viewer how he feels. The images he uses—an empty dress, a portrait of a relative, a bird, hands, flowers—possess a directness that is visual and physical. They remind us of the things in our own lives, the range of associations a photograph or piece of clothing might have for us. We imbue things with meanings, make them into symbols. Something as ordinary as a summer dress takes on a different meaning when the person who once owned and wore it dies at a young age.

Lovell's art is the record of a survivor who knows he, too, is approaching the inevitable. He transforms his awareness of his family history into 1990, whose branches show how individuals are part of one unit, as well as separate organisms—each of whom will live out his or her life differently. There is in Lovell's art a resistance to trends, and the belief that art's goal is to record its own death. In his art he recognizes that consumer culture may try and appropriate and level cultural, regional, and sexual differences, but that its promise of assimilation is in effect a denial of the facts. We are simultaneously a part of society and separate from it. Life (or death) impacts each of us differently. The differences are what Lovell seeks to preserve in his art. A newspaper appropriated the murder of Lovell's grandfather in order to tell a story. Lovell reappropriates the story so that he can show us that the stories we read each day in the newspaper in no way tell us the truth of what has occurred. A newspaper embodies the world of appearances. Identity, however, goes deeper than appearances.

Lovell is concerned with both identity and what can be identified. An artist who has traveled extensively in Mexico and Egypt, he has combined the symbols inherent in the Mexican ex-votoes with the facts of his own life. The work is autobiographical, but it is not centered around the "I." The artist is a witness to a world over which he, finally has no control. The viewer, in turn, becomes a witness to the lives and deaths of others. In being a witness, Lovell does not speak for others. Rather, he lets their presence (or absence) speak through him.

In Pop/Pistol, Lovell registers a common fact, which is that society's institutions and their representatives continually speak for others. It is a way of denying differences, as well as silencing others. Lovell's art goes against this common tendency. He does so without becoming strident, knowing that such displays of emotion are easily co-opted. There is a dignity to Lovell's project which makes his art all the more compelling. The empty dresses and empty suits, the hands with the faces of his mother and father—these symbols remind us that we all came from somewhere else, that we are all born into this world with a history. What we do with this history, and how we tell its story in a way that makes it ours, is a fact which Lovell continually finds ways to address. It is this aspect of his work as much as the stories he tells, which should not be overlooked.

In their scale, Lovell's drawings are distinct reminders that there is a human dimension to every story, to every loss. In this sense, his drawings are neither mementos (something small and precious) nor monuments (something immense and heroic). Lovell's choice of large sheets of paper, oil stick, and charcoal are not simply recapitulations of his knowledge of formal issues. They are ways of underscoring the dimensions of what he knows needs to be told, that one can make marks out of the way he or she has been marked by life. There is a lovely democratic feel to his work, the sense that it is for all of us to see.

 

Yed, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper, 43 x 45"

 

 

 

 

WORKS IN
THE EXHIBITION

Al, 1990
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
71 x50"




Big Heart, 1991
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
47 1/2 x 43 1/4"


Bird, 1988
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
25 x 38"


Boston Road, 1991
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
70x50"


Earlene, 1988
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
38 x 64"


Head with Flowers, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
85 1/2 x 50"


House/Dress, 1990
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
60 x 50"


Marks. 1988
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
25 x 38"


I Did Good to Leave, 1990
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
71 1/2 x 50"


Left Hand, Right Hand, 1988
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
25 x 38"


Playing Dead, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
68 1/4 x 45"


Pop/Pistol, I990
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
63 x 50"


Purple Heart, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
36 1/4 x 39 i/4"


Tree, 1989
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
69 x 50"


Untitled Suit, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
76 x 41"


Yed, 1992
oil stick and charcoal on paper,
43 x 45"

All works are from the collection of the artist.