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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Being Beverly McIver

Posted by on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 3:23 PM

I wonder if Beverly McIver ever feels like she's chasing herself. Or perhaps passing herself in the airspace between North Carolina and New York. Her new paintings, currently on view in New York Stories at Durham's Craven Allen Gallery, were painted during a residency in New York last year. But it wasn't your run-of-the-mill residency. It was a duplicate of her residency during 2004 that was interrupted by her mother's death—the exact same apartment and studio she left to return to North Carolina to care for her mentally disabled sister Renee.

Street Sounds, Beverly McIver, oil on canvas, 2012
The story of McIver's interrupted career is told in moving detail in the acclaimed 2012 HBO documentary "Raising Renee.” The artist is seen first struggling with frustration and resentment about setting a burgeoning career aside to become a caregiver, before she and her sister both worked through it all into mutual autonomy. Renee gets her own apartment in Greensboro, where they grew up, while Beverly settles into a house in Durham and a North Carolina Central University teaching position that accommodates her painting well.

In a way, last year's time in New York was a way to finish what McIver started before all that sorrow and tumult. Her self-portraits in this show open a widening emotional range, revealing parts of herself that have been guarded in previous work.

Hurricane Sandy also hit the New York area during McIver’s residency. The devastating storm doesn’t directly appear in the paintings, but it seems to have provided a clarifying backdrop for the artist as a survivor of huge forces beyond her control.

In "Turning 50," she's smiling with her eyes closed, wearing a silly party hat. The title is scrawled at the top of the canvas in pencil so it looks faded, understated. She's happy but it's a wan smile too, flattened, tired, an acknowledgement of both the joy of a birthday and the landmark year-count. A sense of raw realism comes through as well—the anticipation of the next day after the hat comes off and life resumes on the other side of 50. It's an image of temporal perspective, both self-deprecating and absolutely present.

My New Breasts, Beverly McIver, oil on canvas, 2012.
Other pieces are even less complicatedly unguarded. A nude self-portrait called "My New Breasts" documents her body and her psyche after a breast reduction procedure. She explains her expression of liberation in the wall text: "It felt great to finally have a body that was in proportion. For the first time in many years, I could wear a dress that would fit both my top and bottom." She's grinning big, her open eyes looking straight out of the canvas, flashing. Brash colors comprise her breasts, blues and greens and oranges laid down in heavily worked paint.

Contrast this detail to that of another nude, "Annah Pregnant," a knees-to-chin portrait of a friend touching her round belly. McIver’s frank take on the pregnant female body and celebration of the coming baby come through warm and blended brushstrokes with no incongruent colors whatsoever. This is a living and three-dimensional image, the brushwork reading like touching the rich curves of this body. McIver reserves more discrete and sharply defined brushstrokes for her own breasts because they’re a portrayal of that part of the body as an area of struggle, as part of and not part of herself.

But McIver’s eyes provide the real range in the show. Compare her eyes in "My New Breasts" to the flat, unshining eyes of "Self-Portrait." Her head resting on a pillow, her eyes are open but closed to expression. She's present, defiantly so, against her own image-making—a little Taxi Driver moment. She's not defensive, though, as she might be in closed-eye pieces "Dear God Friends" and "Dear God Obama," familiar as part of a captioned “Polaroid” category of her work.

Detail of My New Breasts, Beverly McIver, oil on canvas, 2012.
The contemplative self-portraits are balanced by "Happy in N.Y.," which shows a feeling of worldliness and accomplishment, and "Dorothy P's Red Sunglasses," which conveys the joy of friends and memories made. McIver’s eyes take on a roundness here, transmitting emotion, reaching out, even offering to share. After processing a backlog of emotions in earlier paintings and especially in smaller collage work shown at Craven Allen last year, the artist is ready to inhabit the present moment.

In that vein, the three subway paintings on display are a wonderful foray for McIver. Admitting a childhood association between public transportation and poverty, she revels in that association being dashed to pieces in New York, where every walk of life uses the subway together.

She particularly admires performers on the platforms. One work is of a lone violinist, another of three men singing. Both capture the passion and transcendence of the performers in abstracted, mask-like faces and express her wonder at their ascension in such a public venue. She aspires to their openness in her self-portraits, despite the intimacy and privacy of that image transaction. She's jealous of their anonymity and freedom, even while acquiring some of it.

The third subway image is a couple on a train, slumped into seats waiting for their stop. She's collaged a subway map onto the canvas behind one figure, catching their postures in that moment of rest and resignation to the movement of the train, in which everyone is joined in a shared passive experience. McIver finds this connection beautiful.

Interestingly the first image you see, hung in the stairwell, is the concluding image in the show—a portrait made once home, of Renee and a cat named Snowball. This is a sigh of a piece, an end parenthesis, a return to the familiar and all the comfort and tedium that comes with that. It’s a return that McIver feels less conflict in, now.

Renee has come to represent, in McIver's imagery, both the burden of real-world (as opposed to art-world) responsibility and the deep sense of love and belonging that can only be found with family and in one's home place. In this gentle portrait of her sister and her cat, one can see McIver's balance shifting toward cherishing familial comfort.

These generous paintings offer McIver’s emotions to us, through eyes, posture and especially the artist’s attention. You might be tempted to leave a thank-you note before you leave.

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