Sunday, September 13, 2015

Willie Birch, Bruce Davenport, Whitfield Lovell & Gordon Parks at the Arthur Roger Gallery

Black lives matter. All lives matter. Both statements are true, but it is astounding that we are still debating the meaning of those words. We accept equal rights in principle, but things don't always play out that way on the streets. The past still lingers paradoxically in the present, and in Whitfield Lovell's haunting charcoal drawings on wood, images of African Americans from old photographs appear to pose silent questions. In You're My Thrill, a midcentury war veteran clutches a pistol as he sits in a reverie amid a cluster of shell casings. Did he fight for America, or for the promise of America? In Servilis, a group of black Victorian-era maids pose stiffly in dark uniforms behind some  taxidermed crows posed stiffly on pedestals. In America, a stoic black man in a suit seems to recede into the dark woodwork of a fence festooned with American flags. In these and other works, Lovell eloquently explores how America's understanding of black identity remains a work in progress.

Willie Birch's large scale drawings explore the ephemera of daily life in his 7th Ward neighborhood via views of weathered facades like Morning Light on Urquhart Street, left, rusty door hinges, sneakers hanging from telephone wires and other prosaic details. Some seem bleak, but by rendering them in a respectful, evocative manner, Birch transforms long neglected places and things into objects of contemplation that enable more lucid access to their deeper meaning. Nearby, Gordon Parks' photographs of Muhammad Ali working out in the ring, hanging with friends--or behind the wheel of a Caddy in Miami, 1966--take us to an earlier, perhaps more hopeful time, while reminding us of the dynamism his persona so inexorably conveyed. On the opposite wall, Bruce Davenport's curiously hieroglyphic-like drawings feature whimsical views of Ali's exploits in the ring rendered with the contrapuntal whimsy that characterize his well known depictions of local high school marching bands. ~Bookhardt

Seen and Unseen: Coupling: Drawings by Willie Birch; Draw Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee: Drawings by Bruce Davenport; First Impressions: Mixed Media by Whitfield Lovell; Ali: Photographs by Gordon Parks, Through Sept. 19, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.