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WASHINGTON, DC — For decades, the Bronx-born artist Whitfield Lovell has focused on painstakingly recreating, through drawing, found photo portraits of African Americans. Since 2008, he has been building on a series of Conté crayon drawings on paper, each dedicated to a single individual’s face. Titled Kin, the collection reinterprets photographs originally taken for passports, ID cards, or mugshots, and pairs each sketch with a found object, from a stuffed crow to a floral wreath. Through these unexpected, mixed media juxtapositions, Lovell presents the foundations for us to construct new histories for these strangers, inviting us to consider what informs our understanding of others.
Eighteen drawings from Kin are the centerpiece of a survey of Lovell’s career at the Phillips Collection, which is an exhibition that exercises the mind more than it entrances the eye. Lovell is a clear master of his tools, capturing his subjects with exquisite detail, shading, and expression, but what keeps you moving from one drawing to the next, similarly styled one is that each offers a new puzzle of identity to decipher.
Lovell’s pairings are very deliberate: he may wait years before he finds an object he considers just right for a finished portrait. He shows rather than tells, and the meanings of many of these matches are not immediately clear: the crow in “Kin XLI (Fauna)” (2011), for instance, for me casts an ominous mood over the work as I grapple with what the bird signifies about the man above it, and vice versa. Other pieces have more overt connections, like “Kin XX (Be My Knife)” (2010), where a rusty dagger hints at a young girl’s harrowing history. Lovell’s riddles make us address how we may impose judgment on a group of people who have long battled stereotypes, how textbook histories may diminish their individual humanity. Does the gold chain that hangs below an elegant woman’s profile suggest glamor and affluence, or do we immediately think of enslavement? Displacing his sitters entirely from their original contexts, Lovell revisits history and beckons us, too, to look closely at what colors our perceptions of the past.
Kin represents Lovell’s most recent works in the Phillips’ exhibition and reveals a turn toward open-ended narratives that demand thoughtful viewing. More evocative are his earlier creations that suggest scenes. They are life-size, often full-bodied, charcoal drawings of African Americans on found, wooden surfaces like doors, around which he places furniture and other objects that immediately inform the settings. Despite the wear of the wood — which anchors the images to the past, like relics, more so than the works in Kin — the figures feel more familiar than the recent crayon drawings. Hovering between sculpture and drawing, the earlier works integrate with our physical space, inviting us to enter private settings likes kitchens, living spaces, and a yard.
Lovell’s careful creation of intimate viewing experiences provides the groundwork to viewing Kin, making us recognize that these people represent lives lived beyond narratives of oppression and struggle. “Bringer” (1999), the first work we encounter, depicts a matronly woman standing by a chair, with real oil lamps and a small table surrounding her. The scene draws us in, and her expression and stance are surprisingly familiar: she recalls a mother waiting up for her child to return from an outing, or a woman waiting for her working partner — but she’s clearly ready to welcome whoever is coming home late with a firm telling-off that many of us know well.
Equally inviting is “Rising River Blues” (1999), which features clothing strewn on the gallery’s floor beneath a portrait of a man who is simply standing. A phonograph plays the eponymous tune, with the crackling sound transporting visitors to the early 20th century. The abandoned garb evokes now-absent lives, but the man’s strong presence trumps any melancholic past. His confident expression bestows his life-size figure with perceivable liveliness, invigorated by the evocative music. Lovell’s consuming yet enigmatic scene freezes us in time to confront his anonymous subject, compelling us to wonder who he is, and what his circumstances are.
As “Rising River Blues” illustrates, Lovell often quotes music, film, and poetry in his titles to allude to feelings like sadness and alienation in the works he references. The exhibition’s wall panels provides this guiding context, often through generous explanation — but reading them, though enlightening, is not necessary: the works alone carry their emotional force. Together, they assert the humanity of black lives (in a sense, Lovell reminds of Kerry James Marshall, making visible the black body in art history), but although Lovell’s work is about the African American experience, it moves beyond racial boundaries. As the title Kin so tidily summarizes, it is the human experience he wants us to consider through his constructed narratives, and how past circumstances shape — or trap — our understanding of others who are just like us.
Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works continues at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC) through January 8, 2017.
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