Whitfield Lovell’s exhibition “Deep River” at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center is meant to be an immersive experience. Originally created for the Hunter Museum of American Art in 2013, the installation that gives the exhibition its name is tucked into a back corner of the gallery space, through tall, somewhat foreboding black curtains, past a wall that prevents visitors from seeing any artwork. It’s as if the trek to the installation begins the Deep River experience. Upon entering the dimly lit space, the viewer is surrounded by wooden tondos bearing semblances of black Americans dressed in 19th- and early 20th-century attire, scattered around the space; the projection of a river shimmers blue on the walls; mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran groans a song from hidden speakers; and at the center of it all is a mound of dirt with such items as a rope, an axe, a lantern, a chain, and a skillet. At first, it feels spiritual. Because the work is in a museum located in the historic district of Savannah—a coastal city with a history marked by slavery, commerce, racial divides, and military operations—it’s not surprising that the exhibition feels at once familiar and anachronistic.
The room feels haunted, as many eyes peer out from their wooden confines, like guards of the glistening river behind them. The tondos are perfect in a profound way. They’re circles. They teeter precariously on the gallery floor. They display men and women in period garb with realistic, emotive expressions, a defining feature of Lovell’s conté portraits. The portraits, like their sitters would have been, are linked to their environments. The sheer number of tondos—56—makes their presence imposing and inescapable. They command attention. They have stories to tell.
I wish this kind of connection existed between the tondos, the river, the dirt, and me. But these elements feel discrete, connected only by their shared space. The river is an iteration of others that have come before it in art history—a symbol of movement, of struggles and obstacles, of boundaries, of renewal, of the passage of time. The carefully chosen assemblage of items on the mound of dirt makes the central element of the installation feel like the byproduct of a reenactment. A lonely tondo and chair hung on the wall in the projected river seems intended to acknowledge a disconnect between elements, but they just feel misplaced.
Deep River: Flight, a separate installation, has the intimacy that the rest of the central one lacks: It tells a story of transition with suitcases and sheet music, one that has specificity of character but universality of tale. Herein lies Lovell’s strength.
The rest of the works on view date from 2008 to 2011, including a number from Lovell’s “Kin” series. Objects such as a shooting gallery target, fire alarm bell, sterling silver canteen, and small doll are paired with portraits sourced from mug shots, passport photos, photo booth images, and picture IDs. In Kin XLVI (Follie), for example, a woman’s head, in profile, has a solemn but indecipherable expression. The wisps of hair that escape the rest of her coiffed layers are delicate and true. The placement of the portrait, floating n the middle of the large sheet of paper, is striking. Below the drawing sits a rusty shooting gallery target, like a continuation of her body. A narrative is present that neither I nor the artist knows—a narrative that’s untold in textbooks.
The “Kin” series does what Deep River wants to do: show the tip of the iceberg and leave the rest submerged but discoverable. Kin XLVI (Follie) doesn’t rely on the object-image association to carry the work. The simplicity of the piece helps create the story and the emotion behind it. Works such as Bleck and (My) Precarious Life also have this effect. Their supplementary components—boxing gloves and a wheel, respectively—introduce the conceptual and physical elements of weight and balance. History and narrative intertwine to add another chapter to the story Lovell has already created with his intricate portraits. In contrast, Deep River’s overload of sensory stimuli complicates the viewing experience and, in turn, diminishes the complexity of the narrative.
In Pago Pago, a World War II soldier leans back confidently in his chair with his legs crossed and stares directly at the viewer as a soundtrack plays Billie Holiday’s “I Cover the Waterfront,” a song about waiting and yearning for a loved one to return from war. Beneath the portrait, vintage radios are stacked atop one another. In this work, Lovell seamlessly balances sound, image, object, and historical fact. “Whitfield Lovell: Deep River” is a moving display of Lovell’s works when moments are like this—evocative, consuming, and real. Most of them are.
Whitfield Lovell’s “Deep River” was organized by the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, where it appeared May 18-October 13, 2013, before traveling to the Jepson Art Center in Savannah, August 15, 2014-February 1, 2015, and the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, May 20-September 13, 2015.
Yves Jeffcoat is an Atlanta-based writer and was a participant in the inaugural session of the BURNAWAY Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.