Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Art Review: Boca Museum’s “Passages” an Urgent, Immersive Experience

Last night’s gala opening of Whitfield Lovell’s “Passages” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art proved to be a bustling scene rife with people and chatter and potential distractions—not to mention good food and great music in the outdoor sculpture garden. In short, it wasn’t the most optimal environment for deep engagement with art, and yet the effect of Lovell’s works, both in their individual distinction and collective power, landed with a sobering, even shattering impact, at once intellectual and immediate. It is art for the head, and the heart, and the gut—and it’s among the museum’s best and most urgent exhibitions in years.

A celebrated artist from the Bronx who has been accruing major awards for his work since at least 1982, Lovell was nonetheless new to my eyes last night, and likely to many of the spectators of “Passages,” which is, after all, the first museum-wide retrospective of Lovell’s work. Organized by the American Federation of the Arts, it opens to the public today in Boca Raton, where it will run through May, and then tour in six other American states.

In his practice as a historian and salvager, Lovell’s work reckons with America’s original sin, the ripples of slavery across generations, and the ability of African-Americans to forge community and identity in spite of institutional racism. The centerpiece of “Passages,” consuming an entire gallery space, is the site-specific “Deep River.” As water rushes on projected screens on three sides of the room, and the sound of a running stream and seabirds places us in the scene, visitors step around and among wooden discs, on which Lovell has drawn portraits of Black people whose identities have been lost to history. (The artist has amassed more than 3,000 historical government ID pictures and photo-booth images, which he painstaking re-creates in charcoal throughout his oeuvre.)

The effect is immediate, and twofold. In some ways, “Deep River” suggests a graveyard in a ghost town, a space still trafficked by these anonymous souls. From our 21st century vantage, we are to consider each as the flesh-and-blood person they were—to accept that, to borrow a phrase, their Black lives mattered.

“Deep River” (all photos by Yafi Yair)

But the piece is also so immersive that we feel a part of their journey to the other side, as it’s happening. We, too, seem to be adrift in the deep river, each disc representing a body bobbing on the surface of the ocean; there’s even a chair suspended in midair in front of one of the screens, magnifying the effect of not just people but residences—communities—being swallowed up in the tide.

Roughly in the middle of the space is a mound of soil littered with antique wares the artist found or purchased from flea markets: a padlock, a flask, a teakettle, a shotgun, a banjo, a lantern. Typical of Lovell’s approach, the symbolism is layered and resonant. These are the remnants of lives lived, left over from floods both centuries past and more recent: I couldn’t help but think of the aftermath of Katrina, and the household detritus that piled up in its wake. The Holocaust, and the concentration camps, come to mind, too, underlining the historical connections between African-Americans and Jews. No less haunting is the uneven row of suitcases and steamer trunks we follow like breadcrumbs into an adjoining gallery—scarred, weathered, well traveled but now abandoned, as if forever marooned at some neglected depot.

Other works in “Passages” are a testament to what has emerged as one of the artist’s signature motifs: linking his carefully drawn renderings of vintage portraits with three-dimensional elements, engaging the spectator in both subtle and loud ways. For one portrait, part of Lovell’s “Kin” series, which opens the show, a woman is paired with a clipper ship; in another, the subject is coupled with a chain, an object carrying ominous associations.

In the museum’s back gallery, the exhibition continues with Lovell works whose 3D elements practically leap off their wooden canvases, like Rauschenberg combines with more righteous and sorrowful subtexts. In “Cut,” a proud Black woman stares determinedly at a pair of sharp axes, potential weapons to be used by or against her; in “Wreath,” its subject is encircled by the title object, which is not festive but violent, taking on the effect of a crown of thorns.

boca museum

In one piece, whose title escaped me, the subject brandishes a gun, transforming him into a gangster, a feeling intensified by the bullet holes in the wood canvas. Notice the way the lines in the wood suggest tears running down the sitter’s face; as a personification of resistance in the face of terror, it’s beautiful and tragic.

boca museum
“America”

I found “America” to be a rare instance of satirical, if mordant, humor in this exhibition. In it, a series of American flags jut out from a man’s abdomen like so many arrows shot from a jingoist’s quiver—a potent metaphor for the blood shed by purveyors of fraudulent patriotism. More lyrical is “The Company You Keep,” in which Lovell’s recurring charcoal portraits on wooden discs are placed above and around an empty chair. The piece feels participatory: The “You” is each viewer in the gallery; we are invited to sit among, and commune with, the dead.

While Lovell’s work can serve as a bleak and mortifying reminder of our past brutalities, the artist finds hope in the development of community. Comprising its own gallery space, “Visitation: The Richmond Project” is an immersive tribute to Jackson Ward, Virginia, America’s first entrepreneurial Black community, anchored by the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, started in 1903. As a kind of business district deconstructed into its constituent parts, this installation contains some of Lovell’s warmest evocations of successful and pioneering Black life, including receptacles full of pennies—symbolizing the bank as well as the Great Emancipator featured on each unit of currency—and a shelf of medicines under a portrait of a figure whom we can take to be a pharmacist.

From “Visitation: The Richmond Project”

But even in this cloistered idyll, Lovell has placed a trunk full of chains and ropes, those bloody symbols of bondage and lynching. “Never forget” may be a pithy hashtag, but it’s also an essential reminder of where we came from. In this spirit, I’ll let Lovell’s words, from the press release about this exhibition, close this review: “I don’t think it really was very long ago that these things happened; it wasn’t that long ago that my grandmother’s grandmother was a slave. The ancient Native American principles say it takes seven generations to overcome a tragedy, so in this context of generations we can begin to grasp why we are at this point we are living in now.”

“Whitfield Lovell: Passages” runs through May 21 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Museum admission is $12 seniors, $16 adults. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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