The Bronx Celebrates:
oil stick and charcoal on paper, 38 x 64"
The Bronx Celebrates: Whitfield Lovell
Because of a series of dramatic events, my outlook on life and my goals as an artist changed. Many of my personal issues began to surface in my artI was dealing with formal issues prior to that time. Suddenly, i found myself less interested in various approaches to color, picture plane, structure, etc. because I was leaning toward an art form which was more integrated with my life experience. I had traveled quite a bit and spent days and days wandering the great museums of Europe, Africa, and Mexico. I had silent dialogues with the masters who managed to communicate their visions across the barriers of time and culture in so many different ways. When i encountered Edvard Munch and much later, Frida Kahlo at the Grey Art Gallery in 1984, it was a real fuming point for me. I would say they became mentors in that they gave me the license to work autobiographically and explore personal and psychological visions.
The images in Lovell's drawings seem to be sculpted in lightcarved
out of the darkness and placed on a ground of textural marks. Lovell works
on large sheets of paper with oil stick and charcoal. Successive layers
are built in alternating strata. The oil stick is thinned with turpentine.
Lovell sometimes adds a gesso layer on top of the rabbit's skin glue sizing
when there is a heavy background of oil stick and charcoal. The technique
developed after Lovell worked with printmaking and the layering process
which is a part of that medium. A subdued, monochromatic pallet developed
in the mid-1980'sin contrast to the saturated color of Lovell's
earlier workto produce a more somber feeling.
I think it is important for the viewer to bring some of his or her own associations to the work. I try not to be so blatant that these images are limited to one issue or statement I want it to be open enough so that people can interpret and relate the images to their own experiences.Many of the works in the exhibition deal with loss. The work Pop/Pistol (1990) tells the story of Lovell's grandfather's death. The large drawing includes a man's portrait, a gun and the text of a newspaper account of the incident Unoccupied clothingan empty dress or suitis a metaphor for spiritual, emotional or physical absence. House/Dress (1990), the first work in this series, represents his sister's dressthere is a house shown as an emblem on her chest In Boston Road (1991), a 1 960's shirtwaist dress contains a street map of the South Bronx. The Boston Road, a historic highway connecting Boston and New York, was a main artery around the corner from 174th Street where the artist and his sister grew up. The clothing in this series of drawings is often life size. These works are, in a sense, memorialsconcretizing loss and remembering the dead.
Head with Flowers (1992) is a continuation of Lovell's Muerte Florida series, which refers to the Mexican burial tradition of covering the bodies of those who die at a young age with flowers. The series also refers to Lovell's sister's death. In this work a head rests on its side, as if asleep atop a blanket of tropical flowers. A purple light glows in the darkness surrounding the figure.
Earlene (1988) is a portrait of the artist's late aunt. In the drawing a likeness of an African-American woman is surrounded by images which suggest narratives about her life and personality. The vignette in the centera little girl eating chocolates with her motheris an allegory which alludes to the fiction of normalcy we all construct to protect ourselves against the harsher reality in which we live.
Now I realize that while growing up I had a sort of fantasy about the suburban home with a lawn and picket fence. We actually lived on Crotona Park North in a huge apartment with a terrace. There was a beautiful, exquisite view of the park So we could go out onto that terrace and look out and for as far as you could see there were grass, hills, and trees. By the time I finished in high school almost the entire neighborhood had fallen down around us. But we lived in that apartment; and we sat on that terrace and we enjoyed the view of the park.
The hand as a symbol for power, control, and action is a recurring image in Lovell's work. Left hand, right hand (1988), one of the first works using this symbol, shows realistic renderings of Lovell's father in one palm and his mother in the otheracknowledging their role in his identity and actions. In Marks (1988) Lovell contemplates the power of the artist to communicate through the authority of his hand. This work refers to the cave paintings of prehistory and a time when the actual print of the artist's hand was often a part of the image. In this work the drawings in the background, behind the hands, suggest the stick like figures of early childhood and a large totemic creature. Bird (1988) also includes an image of the hand. In this drawing the hands release a bird, Lovell's symbol for freedom and the spirit This bird is not flying but hovers in midair immobilized by the options.
The hand also figures into the work, Playing Dead (1992), which deals with the irony of death as a child's game. In this work the hand acts to shelter and protect as the game is played in the cradling support of a large, partially closed hand. It is based on an old photo of three young girls playing a game about something far beyond their understanding or comprehensiona game about death.
Lovell's work is often inspired by the complexities of human relationships. The work, Big Heart ( 1991 ) was sparked by a verbal description. The visual image occurred to Lovell, in response to hearing of a visualization technique in which one meditates on someone and "shrinks them so they may be placed into the heart." In the drawing Lovell's parents are shown as a loving couple filling the entire chamber of the heart. Through the layered surface, on the sleeve of his father's shirt are the partially visible words, "with love."
Lovell's work also contains humor. Untitled Suit (1992) is a recent work which refers to the issues of gender and identity. The work also deals with the sometimes striking contrast of outer facade and inner persona. Unoccupied clothing are once again used as a symbol but this time in a more generalized way. Lovell describes this work as a portrayal of the counterbalancing female element in every male (or the male element in every female). In the drawing the outer self is subdued, in the form of a conservative suit,arms at the sides, rigidly facing forward. The inner self is exuberant, free-spirited, and kicking up her heels.
As Lovell's work evolves, the themes become broader and more universal. Visual symbols and metaphors continue to be employed as tools with which to observe and comment on human nature. Storytelling takes a new form, based less on family history and more on human interactions. Lovell's newer work is still firmly based in the personal, the specific, and the familiarbut these elements are reconfigured in pursuit of revelationin an effort to make sense of life.
Untitled Suit, 1992