If you live within a hundred miles of Chattanooga, go see the Whitfield Lovell exhibit, Deep River, at the Hunter Museum. The show stays up until October 13, 2013. Deep River is a wonderfully rich, spiritual experience. The first gallery is an exhibit of highly representational conte' crayon portraits on paper (and a few on plywood panel), of African-American faces. Each portrait is paired with a found object. The pairings tell a story, though that story is left for the viewer to interpret. Here, a pair of small, weathered iron roosters are contrasted with a woman's face in silhouette: perhaps the roosters are reminiscent of her haircut; perhaps, of her spunk; or maybe, of her hard-bitten rural roots. A soldier looks out soulfully from a wartime office, above a stack of old vintage radios. Billie Holiday music plays faintly. The natural wood grain of the panel provides a tapestry of texture for the dark charcoal portrait. Another portrait of a man is paired with a leather doctor's kit. The faces themselves have great dignity, and that, too, is part of the experience. Then, enter the second gallery, and here begins a journey that takes you deep into the river of human experience. The lighting is dim ~ it's almost as though you were in an underground passage. Conte' portraits on round wooden boxes are arrayed in a circular tableau that form a path. The tableaux surrounds an island of rich, black river dirt, scattered with artifacts. On the walls, video images of the river lap in waves that become part of you, and you of them. Stop long enough, and eventually the voice of a female vocalist rises from the depths of the river. The music plays about every five or six minutes, seeming to wash up out of nowhere. The waves, the river sound, the tableaux of portraits, the opera, all combine to create a haunting, poignant, deeply spiritual journey. Don't miss it.
Lovell, a New York artist, is a MacArthur Fellowship winner (2007). The Hunter Museum, by the way, is home to an exceptional permanent collection of American art, so include time for a full tour of all three buildings, especially if this is your first visit.