Whitfield Lovell’s work is not about the African American experience; it is about his own. This, at least, is what the artist, 57, says in the exhibition catalogue for “Kin,” a series of 60 works on paper, 18 of which form the centerpiece of a retrospective at the Phillips Collection that opened Oct. 8.
But the impetus behind Lovell’s work is a desire to reanimate lost generations, to surround himself with a cloud of imaginary ancestors to replace those who have been forgotten. With his portraits — executed on paper, in photographic detail, in the “Kin” series, and more roughly, in charcoal on wood in the earlier works — he is making the gesture of creating a place for himself, both in human history with an imaginary family, and in Western art history by creating the illusion of a past in which it’s black people, rather than European aristocrats, who are depicted in life-size wall portraits. However personal this goal, it cannot avoid becoming a larger statement about the way that an entire group of people, a whole history, have been systemically forgotten.
The show also illustrates an artistic evolution: The “Kin” pieces are like taut distillations of the more discursive presentation of Lovell’s earlier work. In “Kin,” faces, copied from old passport photos and mug shots, are drawn in conte crayon with every pore and hair painstakingly detailed, and then juxtaposed with a single found object — a mirror, a gun, a piece of chain. A woman’s face is surrounded by the circling tracks of a vintage toy train, its three metal cars placed around her, in “Kin LVI (Revolution)”: Does the train symbolize movement, a route to new beginnings, or the constraint of children representing a domestic sphere from which she wants to, but perhaps cannot, break free? In “Kin IV (One Last Thrill),” a red, white and blue bull’s eye echoes the round earring of the woman in the portrait above it: Even she, a middle-aged woman, could be a gunman’s target. The found objects are old and often worn, pushing the frame of reference back in time even as their physicality forces them into the present, into our literal space. Similarly, the drawings convey the impersonal anonymity of all official identification documents: They are timeless, at once historical and now.
Juxtaposition of portraits and objects is not a new theme in Lovell’s work; in earlier pieces, it was often on a much larger scale. His installation pieces take found pieces of wood, large surfaces like segments of wall or door, and add full-length portraits, based on studio portraits, sketched in over and under and around residual scraps of wallpaper and fabric and cloth, their faces scarred by knotholes or rusty nails. There’s an emphasis, in these pieces, on the physicality of the object, the sense of being handmade.
But these portraits are also paired with found items that anchor the subjects’ lives in the physical world. In the panel “Rising River Blues” from the installation “Whispers,” a pile of clothes is heaped on the floor in front of a man’s dashing portrait, surrounding a small vintage phonograph player emitting grainy sound. In “Restoreth,” bottles and jars of powders and liquids on a low shelf form a barrier between us and the figure of an older, dignified woman. In “At Home and Abroad,” soldiers in World War I uniforms are grouped around another bull’s eye: at risk, the message is inferred, in both places.
Throughout the show, Lovell’s work at once displays and challenges stereotypes and our own biases. Are people liberated by, or imprisoned by, the objects of daily life around them? A woman sits behind a spinning wheel, her lower body impossibly torqued and twisted as she looks away from the viewer in “All Things in Time”; in “Fortune,” a woman’s portrait is adorned or defaced with crocheted doilies that also evoke the star-splintering of gunshots on a windowpane.
In the “Kin” series, the juxtapositions take on even more ambiguity and layers of meaning. “Kin VI (Nobody)” pairs a woman’s face with a length of chain, but the chain is carved from wood, with a lightness that echoes the delicate, lyrical beauty of the subject. Both objects have been stripped of their identities (“Nobody”) and aestheticized, until it’s unclear whether the chain is a mark of suppression or an adornment.
Lovell says that he may look for months or years for the perfect object to juxtapose with a given portrait in “Kin.” But a series that immediately preceded “Kin,” combining pencil portraits with individual playing cards, calls even the significance of juxtaposition into question: Is a man’s face linked with the queen of spades for a reason, or is that literally the way the cards fell? (Another “Card” series, with round playing cards, hangs in the collection of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.) “Kin” embraces the ambiguity, with a conceptual spareness and beauty, in which the artist, for all of his controlling involvement, leaves only the lightest trace of his own hand. With perhaps deliberate irony, the individuality of his own touch has been distilled away.
Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works is on display through Jan. 8 at the Phillips Collection.