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Revealing Portraits
Beverly McIver: Recent Paintings"
FOREVER RUNG: beverly mciver's "Painter's Trap."

FOREVER RUNG: beverly mciver's "Painter's Trap."

Beverly McIver: Recent Paintings

Beverly McIver exhibits 11 of her prodigious self- and family portraits at C. Grimaldis Gallery this month. They are an extension of a body of work that has been accumulating since the early '90s, dutifully following the same soul-searching track--something contemporary Western art generally challenges but not in this instance. Probably because these great, vivid paintings share an intense and surpassing human quality perhaps best described as operatic.

The works isolate and expose introspective life experiences, removing them from the daily drone where they normally dwell, not just to record but to giganticize them. Laundry day, a pensive moment, a headache, or a hug--things barely worth reporting in reply to a casual sort of inquiry like "How's it going?"--turn into indulgent, pregnant, spellbinding moments. Love and loss, disorientation, uncertainty, powerlessness, and guilt are some of the conditions that activate the gestures expressed in McIver's brash portraits. The scenes are mostly of home, barren but for a small cast of characters--the artist's mother or mentally disabled sister, or an occasional friend. Principal among them is McIver herself. It is the personal honesty in the interpretation, the way small feelings tug at the knowing heart, that enables these narcissistic paintings to succeed. They escape the snapshots that very likely initiated them to flare up into dramatic incidents. The artist adeptly directs her portraits toward an interstice between hypersensitive circumspection and crude caricature, and that too supplies additional force to the operatic impact of these paintings as it provides for their ample symbolism.

McIver's ferocious palette of primary colors yowl from backgrounds of somewhat destroyed complementary color--such as saturated blue supported by grayed-down ochres, reds exacerbated by yellowed greens, orange-highlighted skin inflamed by tainted teal. Her brushstrokes are part of the appetite and ache of the painting. They are free and raucous, sometimes even obnoxious, more concerned with coaxing out fury, pain, and passion than savoring inner beauty (except perhaps in "Lonnie," the only male study in the group). The lavish, unfettered brushwork, and the snarky contrast between opposing colors, is only part of the conflict between opposites. The particular other is the manner in which secrecy or the secret itself is embarrassed by being so brusquely uncovered.

Covering and uncovering appears to be at the core of this work. Revealing the hidden or hiding behind revelation, McIver introduces hyperbole through the painted-on black minstrel mask that she uses to accentuate the identity of her self. Overtly, this visual parody is a remark on the culture of black folk history and the disparaging stereotypes of white vaudeville theater. Certainly it would be important to McIver's place in time to emphasize the ongoing African-American political issues in her work. She speaks of this impact in her personal history and methodology, the fact of her sole-parent mother being a white family's mammy, growing up in a ghetto, experiencing poverty, racism, and oppression, along with her disabled sister's plight in such an environment--but the mask is also a haunting remnant of her own youthful apprenticeship as a white-faced circus clown. All of the belongings of McIver's story might linger, clinging to the patterned fabric of the simple dresses she and her subjects wear, but her black clown mask is the place where it is most woefully expressed.

The staging for her characters in the essentially empty room deepens the paintings' romantic presumption of poverty, something traditionally mitigated by possessions. Never mind: All the life, all the power and sustenance needed is possessed by and exudes from the central figure(s). What the walls do have radiating from their glowing surfaces is recollection. In the glimmering swaths of McIver's subtle laid-in color the small charitable triumphs of love diffuse sweetly, as though they were layers of shared memories binding to the autobiographical walls of the narrative.

"Mourning Elizabeth" is a particularly potent work. McIver's figure, evidently bearing up under an abiding sadness behind her black clown mask, balances a scene that otherwise includes only a black door to her left. The unreality of the infinite, cornerless ochre walls compete with the vanishing perspective of the darkened door. She wears the same blue print cotton shift as her similarly red-wigged figure in "Dora's Dance #3," but a crescent of black undergarment close to the breast and heart is evident in this instance. It looks so perfectly determined, almost as important to the work as the mask and door. Meanwhile, in "Dora's Dance" the same dress flutters in response to the ease and abandon of the dancer. In McIver's work the hardship and joys of life are always in nexus. ★


Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper