Whitfield Lovell is as much a conjurer as he is an artist.
He operates on an almost subconscious level of artistic alchemy, combining images and objects that give his work a certain kind of subtle power that connects with viewers in unexpected ways. In the exhibition "Deep River," which opens at the Jepson this week, you can almost feel that energy wash over you as you enter the central installation gallery.
"I feel like I'm sort of a medium in a way," Lovell says. "I've had dreams that let me know that what I'm dealing with is more powerful than what I acknowledge when I'm doing it. But while I'm doing it, I just have to be mustering the strength and courage to be as powerful with it as I can."
Lovell has exhibited his work all over the world and is best known for his detailed portraits of ordinary African-Americans from the early 20th century, done with ContÃ© crayons (graphite or charcoal-based sticks) on paper or reclaimed wood.
The naturalistic images are drawn from various IDs, passports and mug shots Lovell has accumulated over the years and are paired with objects such as old radios, antique boxing gloves and other cultural artifacts (Lovell is a consummate collector of things). These pairings create a distinctive context for the portraits and provide a wealth of possible metaphors and interpretations.
The exhibition at the Jepson includes a number of these works, the most dramatic of which include full-sized, full-body portraits of men and women from various walks of life (officers, brides) on reclaimed planks of wood that reach almost to the ceiling. The objects they're paired with (aged globes, axes) evoke something much more than the portraits would on their own, though Lovell is happy to leave it to the viewer to decipher their multi-layered meanings.
"I like it when art can be an experience that transforms place and time," Lovell says. "I always find it really exciting and interesting that people relate to the work in ways that are not obvious, and that's the beauty of it."
The most compelling example of this idea is the central installation.
"Deep River" was born out of a site-specific work for the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, where Lovell wanted to create an immersive experience that transported the viewer to a place outside the gallery setting.
The work was inspired by Lovell learning of Camp Contraband, a Union encampment along the Tennessee River that became a safe haven for escaped slaves during the Civil War.
It was the idea of crossing that river and risking everything for personal emancipation that intrigued Lovell the most.
"Wherever I go and whatever project I work on, there's a moment where something clicks and I can't get it out of my head," he explains. "I wanted to evoke something in the realm of art that was inspired by that history."
For the Savannah exhibit, he recreated the experience.
Upon entering, the viewer walks down a darkened hallway and emerges (or perhaps is submerged) in a room filled with projections of water covering the walls.
As the walls glisten and ripple, one's attention is drawn to a heap of earth surrounded by "tondos," or circular portraits, in concentric circles around the dirt pile.
The tondos are portraits of African-Americans looking inward to the mound, which upon closer inspection, contains artifacts strewn throughout the soil that suggest objects left behind (used boots, a trumpet, a rifle).
Lovell says that though there are distinct connotations of slavery within the installation, he's equally concerned with arousing more abstract ideas of freedom, hope, the strength of the human spirit and what those concepts mean to each individual who views the work.
"This is more about tapping into a psychological or emotional place where you can feel something," he says. "A lot of us are really trapped and imprisoned mentally, if not by our circumstances ... and there's something about hope that's so intoxicating, that keeps us all going."