Le Rouge et Le Noir
Pick up the receiver of the glossy red rotary phone set upon a black shelf, and you’ll hear a distant voice, sing-song and well-bred. “What is this self that I am?” she asks. “I know not. One fine day, I awoke to find myself upon this earth; I discovered my fate to be forever linked with a certain body, character, estate.”
This line—one of three receiver sets one can dial into in Whitfield Lovell’s multisensorial exhibition at DC Moore—comes from Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830), a two-volume novel by Stendhal. In that text, red and black represent the clash between the clerical and the secular, respectively; in Lovell’s exhibition of new work, its referents are a bit more ambiguous. Each of Lovell’s portraits depicts a Black subject, and many are painted in red, which seems to represent courage, love and blood. History seen through a blood-tinged lens? Perhaps, but not quite. They are more elegiac than violent, more shifty than damning. In this exhibition, which operates on literary, musical and historical registers, black and red represent more than just the shift to a different binary, embracing ambiguity as a means to generate multiple meanings.
Lovell’s “Spell Suite” series draws its name from “I Put a Spell on You,” by that renowned enchanter Nina Simone. In her 1959 song “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me),” Simone croons, “And when the evening comes / For a sky to blaze / Le Rouge et Le Noir / The Red and the Black / Were they not joined together?” In one work of the series, a graphite drawing of man with an ashen brow and trimmed afro looks intently off the left of the frame. A tangled rope beginning at his heart ends in a knot at the bottom right of the shadowbox. It seems to simultaneously represent bondage, freedom, the confusions of the heart, the loops of intestines of the corporeal body.
Step past the black curtain of the final gallery of the exhibition and sink onto a plush red seat, and you’ll arrive in the velvet-walled heart of the exhibition. While on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Lovell was inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise, or “Winter’s Journey,” a 24-song cycle of a man’s journey to overcome the grief of lost love. A suite of silver conte on black paper portraits are each embedded with a found vintage object that suggests memento mori or keepsake. Here, for instance, is a stone-faced visage who looks out at us with sleepy eyes. They wear a large, ribboned hat, and a blouse with frills; inside the box lies a black violin. Were they a violinist? Or one who enjoyed the music? And if so, what kind did they like? Silent but not mute, they only stare back. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Whitfield Lovell, The Red VI, 2021. Conté on paper with attached found object, 45 3/4 x 34 x 6 5/8 inches.