Whitfield Lovell was born in 1959 in New York City. He received a BFA from Cooper Union in 1981. History and memory have inspired Lovell’s work for a number of years. During the 1980s and early 1990s, he created large-scale oil stick and charcoal drawings that allegorically examined issues of family, identity, gender, love, death, loss, and the passage of time. Lovell was working mostly from old family photographs, juxtaposed with symbols and found images.
Lovell’s most recent work is comprised of tableaux constructed from charcoal drawings on vintage wood combined with found objects. In creating his tableaux, Lovell draws upon a personal archive of hundreds of studio photographs of anonymous African-Americans, most dating from the early years of the twentieth century. It is by looking through these tintypes, cabinet cards, bubble-glass portraits, and postcards that Lovell begins the process of developing the idea for each individual work. Once an image has captured his attention, it is drawn freehand in charcoal on old wood. Careful thought is given to the grain and texture of the wood as well as to any remnants of color from paint or wallpaper, making the background for each drawing as unique as the fingerprint of the person depicted. Found objects are then added in an intuitive process that varies from piece to piece to create three dimensional tableaux.
The free-standing tableaux developed out of a series of installations that Lovell has created over the past decade. Lovell’s first installations, in a 19th century slave-trader’s mansion in Italy, in an abandoned 1930s row house in Houston, Texas, and in the former barracks of a 16th century Spanish fort in Havana, Cuba, recognized and utilized the ambiance of the existing historical spaces. Lovell began by making marks on the walls and progressively worked his way out into three-dimensional, theatrical space.
Whispers From the Walls, Lovell’s fourth installation created during a residency at the University of North Texas Art Gallery in Denton during spring of 1999, was different. Here, in a nondescript modern gallery space, Lovell created a small rectangular house built of salvaged boards with various colors of peeling paint. The floor of the gallery is covered with soil and old clothing, over which viewers walk to get to the house. Inside is a single room complete with furniture, clothing, personal and household objects, and sound. Life-size charcoal drawings have been made directly on the walls, suggesting past residents who might have inhabited similar spaces. The exhibition has received extensive critical acclaim and has toured nationally since its inception, appearing at venues including the Seattle Art Museum and New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem.
Lovell’s most recent installations include: Visitation: The Richmond Project, which has been seen at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and the Columbus Museum Uptown, Georgia and will travel in 2004 to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia; SANCTUARY: The Great Dismal Swamp at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach, VA and Grace: A Project by Whitfield Lovell at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City.
Portrayals, an exhibition of tableaux which originated at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, New York, traveled to the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, the Tubman African-American Museum in Macon, Georgia, and the Evansville Museum of Art in Indiana. Lovell’s work has also been seen in recent solo exhibitions at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in Florida, Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan, Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Boston University Art Gallery, the Black History Museum & Cultural Center in Richmond, Virginia, and Thomasville Cultural Center, in Georgia.
The Art of Whitfield Lovell: Whispers from the Walls, a 128 page monograph on Lovell’s work with essays by Lucy Lippard, Jennifer Way, Carla Hanzel and an interview between the artist and Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, was published in spring, 2003 by Pomegranate Communications. Lovell has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a 2007 Fellowship Award from the MacArthur Foundation, sometimes referred to as the "genius grant."
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