Profile: Whitfield Lovell (1959-)

Whitfield Lovell is a contemporary African-American artist who is known primarily for his drawings of African-American individuals from the first half of the 20th century. Lovell creates these drawings in pencil, oil stick, or charcoal on paper, wood, or directly on walls. In his most recent work, these drawings are paired with found objects that Lovell collects at flea markets and antique shops.

 

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Early career

Born October 2, 1959 in the Bronx, New York to Gladys Glover Lovell, an elementary school teacher from South Carolina, and Allister Lovell, a postal clerk and photographer of West Indian descent. Whitfield Lovell grew up in the Bronx and attended The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. During high school, he also participated in a variety of extracurricular art programs: the Metropolitan Museum of Art High School Program, the Whitney Museum Art Resources Center, the New York State Summer School for the Artsin Fredonia, New York, and the Cooper Union Saturday Program.

In 1977, Lovell traveled to Spain to study painting and sculpture with Manhattanville College. At El Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain, he decided that he would become a painter. Lovell has said:

“I knew I would go into some form of art, but I wasn’t sure which. I was interested in fashion and advertising as options. But while I was standing in front of a Velasquez painting I had an amazing spiritual experience. The painter had communicated with me through centuries and cultures, and I suddenly understood the role of the artist. I ran from room to room. Goya, El Greco, Reubens, and Picasso all began to speak out to me. Whatever they were doing in those rooms was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Lovell spent a year at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Baltimore in 1977 before traveling in France, Germany, Italy, England, Austria and the Netherlands with the American Institute For Foreign Study in 1978. When he returned to New York, he enrolled in the Fine Arts Department of the Parsons School of Design and then The Cooper Union School of Art, from which he graduated in 1981. In 1982, Lovell traveled to Egypt, Nigeria, and the Republic of Benin, West Africa.

In 1985, Lovell attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where he reconsidered the nature of his own work:

“In Skowhegan I had time to really think about what I wanted to do with my work. I felt the formal issues about color were fighting with the narratives I was getting at … So I narrowed down the color, and began to work monochromatically. I had all of my father’s old photographs mailed to me, and I began a process of looking through these images each day before starting to work. The work became more personal and a reflection of the way I saw myself as an artist.”

This practice, using old photographs as inspiration and source material, has stayed with Whitfield to this day.

In 1986, Lovell stayed with relatives in Barbados, West Indies. In 1989, he attended New York University (NYU) Graduate Program in Venice, Italy. In 1990, he traveled to Mexico, where he began collecting ex-votos and retablos, which he cited as influences in his work.

“After looking at European paintings for so many years and then the great black painters Jacob Lawrence, Bob Thompson, and Horace Pippin, I looked toward other cultures for inspiration. I found myself more attracted to folk art, which wasn’t as concerned with making high art, but with the joy of storytelling. My training, however, was heavily steeped in European artistic values; even the earlier pieces, which had more modernist notions in them, really did come from that tradition. So I also found artists from Latin America to be a very refreshing discovery for me. They seemed to fuse European colonial styles with a different sensibility. I felt they were more passionate about the religious and social narratives and less concerned with skill. Although I didn’t grow up Catholic, I was attracted to that symbolism and to certain decorative elements that I feel are part of many images one sees growing up in a place like the Bronx. Rather than return to Venice to finish my master’s degree, I spent a lot of time in Mexico getting an education of a different sort.”

In 1994, Lovell’s work was shown as part of the American contingent at the IV Bienal Internacional de Pintura en Cuenca, Ecuador. Other American artists exhibiting at this show were Donald Locke, Philemona Williamson, Freddy Rodríguez and Emilio Cruz.

Installations

In 1993, Lovell visited a private artist’s retreat at the Villa Val Lemme in Capriatta d’Orba, Italy. The villa had been built by a slave trader in the early 20th century.

“There were grotesque paintings of Africans with nose rings lining the ceilings of some of the rooms. Also, the coat of arms on the front of the building had an African face on it, and a few very elderly locals could apparently remember the blacks who had lived there. The slaver had obviously continued to trade long after it had become illegal, but that was not unheard of in some other countries. It was hard to ignore the background of the place. Ordinarily the experience of being somewhere new would have fermented over time and then become a piece much later. That’s how I was used to working. But in this case, I later realized, it was only by leaving my marks in the house itself, giving a voice to those African slaves, that I could truly express what it meant for me–an African American–to be there in the seemingly luxurious environs of an Italian villa.”

In response, Lovell created site-specific drawings on the walls of the villa using its history as the theme, a dignified image of a black person. This was Lovell’s first installation piece.

In 1995, while an artist in residence at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Lovell created his second installation. The piece, entitled Echo, was at Project Row Houses, a venue comprising abandoned “shot gun” houses in which artists create installations. Of the project, Lovell has said: “Villa Val Lemme was the first time I worked directly on the wall. At the time I wanted to explore installation further but wanted the right circumstances to arise. When I was approached to do a rowhouse it was just the right time. The feeling in the house was ideal for trying new ideas related to my interest in old photographs of “anonymous” people.”

Whispers From the Walls was Lovell’s fourth installation, created during a 1999 residency at the University of North Texas Art Gallery in Denton. In a nondescript modern gallery space, Lovell created a rectangular house of salvaged boards with multicolored peeling paint. He covered the floors with soil and old clothing through which gallery visitors walked. Inside the house was a single room filled with furniture, clothing, personal objects, and sound. On the interior walls, life-size charcoal drawings suggested human residents. This exhibition received critical acclaim and toured nationally, appearing at venues such as the Seattle Art Museum and Harlem’s Studio Museum.

Portrayals, which originated at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY, in the spring of 2000, included nineteen tableaux.

Visitation: The Richmond Project focused on Richmond, Virginia’s historically African-American district Jackson Ward, “the nation’s first major black entrepreneurial community.” It traveled to the University of Wyoming, Laramie; the Columbus Museum Uptown, Georgia; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, in 2004.

SANCTUARY: The Great Dismal Swamp originated at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia. It was inspired by accounts of runaway slaves who hid in or escaped through the 2,200-square mile Great Dismal Swamp. Of the project, Lovell has said:

“The main inspiration for Sanctuary: The Great Dismal Swamp, aside from the readings and research I did, was visiting the swamp itself. The people at the Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge hosted me for a day of hikes and a boat ride across Lake Drummond, which is in the center of the swamp. Lake Drummond is an egg-shaped pond about three miles across and no deeper than six feet at its center. It was referred to by Irish poet John O’Reilly as ‘the most wonderful and beautiful sheet of water on the continent.’ The water is a rich brown color, like tea, the result of the tannin that dripped from the juniper trees over the centuries. That was the inspiration for the pool of water that became the centerpiece for the installation.

“Most important for me were the moments when I stood silently in the swamp and just listened to the sounds and felt the ambience.

“For the installation we got thirty trees and stood them up in the gallery, with branches, leaves, and vines extending into the space, creating barriers and obstacles for the viewer. The floor was covered with mulch, and there were sounds of crickets, cicadas, and barking hounds throughout. Twelve basins and washboards filled with water were placed around the room, with the faces of people looking out at the viewer. Many of the images and objects that implied human inhabitants and the shingle industry were submerged in water. Somehow the legacy of those who lived hidden in the swamp to avoid slavery seemed to have been nearly lost, buried under that lake.”

Tableaux

In 1997, during a month in Mount Desert, Maine, at the Acadia Summer Art Program, Lovell made his first tableaux: charcoal drawings on wood coupled with antique objects.

Kin Series

The Kin Series is an ongoing collection of individual portrait images in Conte crayon on paper combined with found objects. The objects sometimes overlap with the image and cast shadows. The drawing and object are then framed in glass and black metal.

The series began with a drawing based on a photo-booth photograph of a young boy. Lovell says: “There was something about that young boy’s face that captivated me. His eyes and mouth were so expressive, as if he were about to cry. I felt compelled to try and capture that emotional quality.”

For this series, Lovell’s photographic sources differ from his vintage studio shots. Instead, he uses mug shots, passport photos, and photobooth images. Lovell has described the difference in using these photographs as sources: “Once the Kin Series got going, I noticed a major difference in the drawings. The difference was the people were more harshly lit, not made up, and the photos were untouched and there was often a reluctance in their expressions. I saw those qualities as more honest and raw (if I may), whereas in the studio portrait photos that I have worked from, the sitters appear very elegant and posed. Those people were very invested in how they presented themselves. They chose the day, the clothes, the photographer, etc.”

Lovell and collecting

Lovell’s Tableaux and Kin Series include an abundance of antique objects that are symptomatic of Lovell’s love of collecting. Lovell has said: “I began collecting hands after I had already been using hands in my work. The more I learned about the iconography of hands, the more excited I was to continue with the theme. Also, my interest in collecting crayon portraits came simultaneously with the images in the Hand Series, thought I didn’t consciously think about it at the time … There has always been a reason for my wanting to own certain objects more than others. I’ve tried to be a focused collector, so that I was spending my money on things that fed the work.”

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