Beverly McIver's solo exhibition at the Mint Museum invites the audience to share visual recollections of her life experiences.
Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver uses portraits to tell the inspiring story of her life's most recent decade. McIver, who is famous for her naturalistic self portraits and depictions of loved ones, succeeds in examining the social issues of our time through her own colorful lens.
The North Carolina native grew up in the housing projects of Greensboro with her mother and two older sisters. Ethel, McIver's mother, worked as a domestic housekeeper and raised her girls — including her eldest, the mentally handicapped Renee — as a single parent. However, the real challenges in McIver's life have spanned the past decade, in a remarkable story that began when McIver's sister Renee came into her care after Ethel suddenly passed away. At the edge of a bright, promising future for her career, life was momentarily halted for the artist, who chose to fulfill a promise to her mother much earlier than she expected. Renee gave the unmarried and childless McIver a crash course in parenthood.
Months before McIver's mother died, a crew from HBO had approached her about filming a documentary centered around her life as an artist. The cameras continued to follow McIver for years while filming the unexpected turns in her life, finally closing the lens when Renee moved into an apartment of her own. During this time, McIver experienced true love and admiration from someone ("No one loves me like Renee loves me") and, after, fully appreciated the delayed grieving process of the loss of her mother.
The exhibition contains a series of artworks encapsulated in one small room and covers the emotions of sorrow, surprise, reverence, grief and the joy within it all. McIver has an ability to create meaningful art that taps into our collective struggles, tackling both the profound and banal. A truly joyful individual, she communicates the themes of her work with surprising honesty. The exhibition serves as an artistic tribute to the most beloved people in McIver's life as well as the creative act of portraying them.
McIver has become a part of the tradition of modern, authentic American portraiture, finding her own niche among the likes of Alice Neel, Eric Fischl and Alex Katz. She portrays her subjects with loyalty to her media, using swirling paint and rigid swipes of color to compose faces and bodies. These brushstrokes showcase the artist's presence and highlight the inconsistencies of light and shadow on imperfect human skin and hair. Flat, monochromatic backdrops push her subjects into the foreground and the irregular cropping in her portraits is just as potent as when audiences first saw it among the French Impressionists.
In the exhibition space, a triptych painting titled "Reminiscing" stands as a snapshot of a transitional phase in the artist's life. She portrays herself three times in blackface and a red wig, though her natural dreadlocked hair hangs down below. The masks and wigs in McIver's portraits suggest she is trying to hide her true self, though the great fault in this logic lies in the blaring authenticity of her work. In the three poses of this painting, McIver appears pensive, prayerful and petitioning while she reflects on the past and faces the juggernaut of the future.
The 2003 painting "Momma Holding Renee" portrays the two other stars of the show and the artist's life, McIver's mother and sister. The casualness in attire, pose and expression suggests these two often held this loving posture. They look entranced in an event outside the canvas, implying the two had a connection apart from the audience and possibly the artist. This painting was created the same year that McIver's mother Ethel died from cancer and McIver began her supervision of her sister. Ethel, looking stoic and upright, sits beneath the enveloping c-curve posture of Renee.
The exhibition is an excellent display of the status of American portraiture. McIver's presentation maintains lightheartedness while addressing several social themes. For instance, where many artists will portray race as a struggle, Ms. McIver offers the perspective that race can be a difference but not a disadvantage. More importantly, the exhibition as a whole illustrates the typical hardships of the human experience. We leave this show knowing that it is OK to grieve, to laugh, to cry, to become angry and, in the end, to accept the cards we are all dealt.
(The exhibit Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver will be on display through Jan. 6, 2013, at the Mint Museum Uptown, 500 S. Tryon St. Details: www.mintmuseum.org.)