by Faron Manuel
In painting I work to convey not only my outward perspectives but also the internal struggle between myself, the creator, versus my choice of medium and technique. Wanting to make beautiful paintings also brings rise to the question, ‘what exactly is a beautiful painting?’…I find it important to convey things with a certain degree of realism. To do this, I observe ‘as is’. As the documenter, I am careful not to subject the subjects to fictitious narratives.
Born in 1992 in Chicago, IL, to Puerto Rican, and African American parents—Gerald Lovell, an emerging artist uses his artistic practice as a means to self-discovery, and self-articulation. Lovell began his career as an artist after dropping out of the graphic design program at the University of West Georgia as an undergraduate, realizing his need to embrace a new creative path. This epiphany Lovell had in 2014 was his point of departure from a more formal to informal and unorthodox mode of artistic production . . . as he later emerged as a self-taught artist, showing his work on the Atlanta art scene and beyond. Lovell has since developed a unique style and approach to painting, as he posits a dialogue between interspersed impasto and flat surrealist styles on canvas, to create imaginative portraits—using heavy paint application to highlight the human form. His development as a portrait painter has led to works of a very quotidian and common nature—while reifying the lived experiences of black Americans.
Exploring paint as a medium as a self-taught artist, Lovell has had to develop a unique program to hone his craft. Moving in with his friend, roommate, and now studio mate Jurell Cayetano in 2014, Lovell began to use Cayetano “as a resource to learn painting techniques” (Jones). He has also relied on YouTube videos and internet forums to answer questions, and demystify painting as a medium (Robinson). As well, his approach to figuration is the upshot of painstaking visual study of artists like Egon Schiele, Jordan Casteel, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Kerry James Marshall, and Oskar Kokoschka among others. Referencing this diverse cadre of artist, Lovell has essentially been able to derive an aesthetic expression of his own. Creating portraits of acquaintances and occasionally strangers, he “captures their likeness with photography and then paints using the pictures” (Robinson). Over the last four years, Lovell’s portraits have become increasingly complex, as he has embodied meaning into his usage of altering painting styles, noting how “painting in three dimensions best conveys my narrative. The thicker the paint, the more emphasis on the object.” As of late, his use of the impasto painting technique is used to emphasize the body of his subjects, shifting the gaze of the viewer to the sitters’ physical form, posturing, and facial expression.
As an outsider artist, he has embraced an unconventional approach, altering many of the formal painting techniques he has been exposed to, and has observed in the art world at large. For instance, while many artists negate the white of the eyes for emphasis on the coloration of the pupal, Lovell emphasizes this white area around the pupal, creating thick raised boarders of white paint for contrast—establishing the firm, reciprocal gaze of the sitter found in his recent works. These well-defined eyes are a unique feature of Lovell’s portraits, as the eyes are typically lost with the use of the impasto technique. The eyes are also a particularly important aspect of Lovell’s portraits, as he works from the deep emotional impressions known and unknown figures make on him.
Inspired by subtle observations made during basic human interactions—the look in someone’s eyes, the contrasting effect of cool and warm colors made by a person’s attire against the backdrop of a simple room, or even a companion’s air of self-satisfaction, these are all noticeable aspects that bring aesthetic appeal to the simple moments he captures in portrait form. Lovell’s depictions of his peers and contemporaries also establish a unique archive of the urban millennial experience—an archive with a great degree of intrigue. As he simply asks his subjects “can I take your picture?” . . . abruptly using his iPhone to capture the natural likeness of individuals throughout their various encounters. These simple, semi-candid photographs are referenced to develop the portraits he uses to convey a personal narrative that also serves as an intimate view into the lived experiences of his counterparts. Also as a skilled artist exploring portraiture in his mid-twenties, Lovell is allowed a greater approximation to his sitters in their truth, as many aspects of their lives mirror his own: young, twenty-somethings, navigating the daily vicissitudes of life.
Though some works feature the sitter abstracted before the backdrop of a simple cool colored wall, others include elements in the room that serve as symbols when featured, mundane objects that embody contextual meaning for both the subject and the viewer. For instance, Aidid and his childhood friends, 2019 features an acquaintance of Lovell’s, casually sprawled across an array of stuffed pop culture and cartoon figures, which collected over the years reflect the era in which the sitter, Aidid came of age. In the work, Aidid is featured with a reciprocal gaze, as if his concentration on his cellphone was just interrupted—his body stretched over top of stuffed doll versions of Spiderman, Bugs Bunny, and Izzy the official mascot of the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics, all elements that hold nostalgic and contextual value. These same nostalgic symbols are also seen in the seemingly mundane environmental aspects of the work. For instance, in Jemel (in the neighborhood), 2018, the sitter is using a green electrical transformer box as a makeshift seat—rarely documented, such spaces are typically made into gathering spots for youths living in urban apartment communities across the country. In this portrait, Jemel is featured momentarily glancing up from his phone, returning an unassuming gaze. Casually dressed, Jemel’s pink shirt, and light blue jeans are complimented by the different shades of green surrounding him in the image, from his dark green makeshift stoop, to the various shades of green in the slightly wooded area about him. The sitter’s ripped jeans exposing the ample paint of his medium brown kneecap, framing a part of the interspersed impasto technique used by the artist as a variation in style, meant to distinguish between the human subject, and the material objects in the work.
The naturalistic quality of Lovell’s work is the upshot of his ability to empathize with the sitter, and comprehend contextualizing aspects of their shared environments, documenting as he experiences. As his art centers primarily black youths, and millennials, the work also bears witness to aspects within the lives of individuals that are not typically portrayed in the mainstream. Though operating outside of the realm of realist documentary portraiture, there is importance in Lovell’s usage of such an appealing composite style to portray the individuals he does in a reifying light. Enacting a painterly approach that emphasizes the black body, Lovell in a tacit yet contemporary sense, is well within the tradition of artist of African descent that are “thoroughly concerned with the human image. Even when other artists are concerned with exploration and exploitation of form, for its own sake, the black artist over and over again brings us to earth by centering his composition on his person.” (Driskell, 13). Confronted with many of the same existential crises, and racial politics as his historical counterparts, Lovell also realizes a present struggle for images of black folks beyond the gaze of the dominant society—visibly encapsulating fleeting moments of self-satisfaction. Images such as these have a way of disrupting notions of who and what should be presented in art, by providing highly skilled renderings of common people doing ordinary things, thereby affirming and validating the experiences of these individuals (West, 448).
With his first solo exhibition Sylvia, Sylvia at The Gallery | Wish in March of 2019, Lovell has reached an important milestone as a visual artist. Precipitating this defining moment, in recent years he has contributed works to several museum and gallery shows, being featured in group exhibitions at the Hammonds House Museum (2015), Mason Fine Art (2017), and The Gallery | Wish (2018) in Atlanta, Georgia, and as far West as Swim Gallery (2017) in Los Angeles, California. Given the modality, and the creative path he has embraced, Lovell is a rare figure amongst his contemporaries. As he has derived his style of portraiture by applying non-conventional methods to articulate daily life in his community, given time, his work could provide a noteworthy contribution to American image culture. Also, considering the dissimilar nature of these works when compared with other forms of portraiture, the raised, undulated skins of the figures pictured tend to engender a broad range of reactions from viewers—from an infatuation and perception of beauty—to notions of a peculiar defacement. Both contrasting views of the work that will continue to inspire discourse of aesthetics, and the presentation of the black body in art.
Cover image: Jemel (in the neighborhood), Gerald Lovell, 2018, oil on wood, 32x49
West, Cornel. “Horace Pippin’s Challenge to Art Criticism”, The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 448.
Driskell, David C. Amistad II: Afro-American Art (New York: United Church Board for Homeland Ministers, 1975), 13.
Johns, Mike. Atlanta Artists Offer A Look Into Their Everyday Lives With New Show. WAEB.org
https://www.wabe.org/atlanta-artists-offer-look-everyday-lives-new-show/ (accessed February 1, 2019)
Robinson, Shantay. Gerald Lovell Is Taking Art Into His Own Hands. BlackArtInAmerica.com
https://blackartinamerica.com/index.php/2018/08/15/gerald-lovell-is-taking-art-into-his-own-hands/ (accessed January 21, 2018)
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Faron Manuel is the coordinator of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship and the Mellon Graduate Fellowship in Object-Centered Curatorial Research at the High Museum of Art. Prior to joining the High Museum, he was the Special Projects Curatorial Assistant to the Director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, where he received his B.A in History in 2015. While at the Clark Atlanta University Museum he curated the exhibition Négritude (2014), that explored a French literary and philosophical movement within the African diaspora.
Faron also served as the Assistant Editor at Black Art In America, and currently contributes as an independent art writer and scholar.
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