Beverly McIver: Raising Renee and Other Themes
NCCU Art Museum, Durham
Through April 20
Beverly McIver: Recent Paintings
Tyndall Galleries, Chapel Hill
Through March 31
Info: firstname.lastname@example.org, 942-2290
African-American Woman Artists: A to Z
Works by Beverly McIver & Beverly Buchanan
Through April 15
Hayti Heritage Center, Durham
Info: 683-1709, www.hayti.org
Looking at the Beverly McIver paintings on display at the NCCU Art Museum and Tyndall Galleries, it's possible to perceive the artist's maturation since she began an earnest exploration of her medium, oil paint, while studying at NCCU in the late 1980s.
Two distinct painting styles are discernable: One, predominantly seen in the mid '90s, is characterized by the sharp frenzied application of thick pigment, leaving areas of exposed gesso to become essential components in the composition; the other, a more recent development, is the rich velveteen application of color that saturates the canvas to luxurious effect. The shift in style seems to signal the emergence of an artist more comfortable in her skin, or at least one mellowed in temperament and ready to allow the entrance of smooth sensuality.
Central to McIver's work is the depiction of herself and her immediate family. Her clown and blackface self-portraits draw the viewer's immediate attention. Traveling the distance from the clown's seemingly innocuous greasepaint "whiteface" to an ironic minstrel show, McIver finds liberation in skewering racist American archetypes—as is evidenced in the transformative series of self-portraits in which she portrays herself as a watermelon-hacking Bozo cum Sambo.
While dealing with themes universal to those who have suffered stigmatization, McIver's work is also intensely personal—and singular. Explaining her early participation in her high school's clowning club, on "White Girl" (1996) is scrawled: "As a clown I wasn't black, I wasn't poor, I wasn't a woman, and I wasn't from the projects. It was what I was, a white girl." Consideration of this statement serves to dispel initial suspicions that her provocative canvases might be simple sensationalist devices. McIver's use of clown and blackface imagery appears to have evolved organically in her search for self-identity.
Despite the self-portraits' audacious political moxie, even more compelling are McIver's portraits of her developmentally disabled older sister, Renee, which are frank in their exploration of the artist's complex relationship with her sibling. "Can You Hear My Silent Scream?" (1994), an extreme overblown close-up of Renee rendered in a manner akin to a photographic multi-exposure, might be McIver's masterwork from the period. Mouth agape, Renee struggles to communicate her pain as the text of the work's title scratches its way through the center of the canvas. The painting encapsulates the frustration often experienced by the mentally retarded and their relatives. In a culture where the nuclear family is frequently ill-equipped to provide the extraordinary support demanded by those with development disabilities, moments of outrage are inevitable, and must be horrendous for those unable to immediately articulate their experience.
Renee appears again as the subject of one of McIver's most successful recent paintings, "If You Believe" (2006). Here, in the painter's current mode of silky expression, we see her sister and charge decked out in an angelic Halloween costume. Renee's down-turned gaze and slightly drooping posture provide a poignant counterpoint to the costume's downy white wings. Smiling sincerely, Renee finally materializes as a stoic and even majestic personality. Even if the work's title is perhaps a little too saccharine for some palettes, Renee's fortitude is inspiring and worthy of McIver's darkly lush tones.