Reflecting in the haunted histories and hopes of historic African American life, Le Rouge et Le Noir (The Red and the Black) is an evocative exhibition of Whitfield Lovell’s recent mixed media portraits at DC Moore Gallery. Lovell’s large-scale drawings on wood and paper sprawl across the spacious gallery. The deeply expressive works depict Black people in period dress, often accompanied by found objects affixed to the surface. The drawings are rendered in black on red backdrops and white on deep black. Immersed in this atmosphere, Lovell’s poised figures exude a serene confidence. Each portrait is a lens through which to consider the complex humanity of Black subjectivity in American history. Antique domestic items, pottery, paper fans, and a beaded, fringed dress are among the varied things incorporated into the works that date the people to the 19th and early 20th century. The ghostly figures are hypnotic, and encourage viewers to meditate on each prop as it symbolizes labor exploitation, glamour, or Black cultural expression.
A sense of stillness or quietude imbues the anonymous figures in Lovell’s portraits, as if they are frozen in the past. With their period clothing and collaged objects, in combination with their gazes, the artist invites us to further contemplate his subjects. The works include loaded symbols, such as American flags and rope, but also everyday items like a decorative fan, musical instrument, or toy car. The exhibition is inspired in part by Stendhal’s 19th-century novel of the same title, in which he writes: “A novel is a mirror walking along a main road.” That art can reflect and elevate everyday life is a motif throughout Whitfield’s portraits — an affirmation of the significance of the quotidian.
Accompanying the portraits are three installations that include a vintage chair and vintage telephone, which visitors can pick up to hear music and voices. Two play the hymnal “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sung by Kim Weston at the 1972 Watts Stax Benefit Concert in Los Angeles. Another, beneath a floating bookshelf filled several copies of Le Rouge et Le Noir, plays excerpts from Stendhal’s novel and lyrics from Jacques Brel’s 1959 song “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”), which was recorded and popularized by Nina Simone in 1965. Alva Rogers and Joyce Bukuru recite the prose and lyrics, inflecting the original writing with their own unique voices.
The sonic components enhance the poignancy of the portraits, while a moving sculptural installation is a lively balance to the stillness. Located in the gallery space furthest from the entrance, “Cardinalis” (2021) is a round, rotating table covered with a drove of bright red cardinal figurines; “Lift Every Voice and Sing” plays out loud as part of it. As it spins, it appears as if this cluster of fake birds is an outlier in an exhibition of vivid drawings that are astounding for their expressionistic depth. Yet the moving birds also express freedom and collectivity: each one is set in place but together they move as a whole — mirroring the way Lovell’s figures seem to be simultaneously still and moving.
Lovell’s works visualize the poetry of Black daily life, portraying anonymous historical figures and ordinary but associative objects with breathtaking care and detail. The cardinal becomes a metaphor for freedom, as well as a key to Lovell’s portraits — revealing the beauty and depth of anonymous people, individually and as a collective.
LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 18.