Last weekend, my husband and I visited the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Over the past few years the museum has undergone major renovations, as the main East Building was reorganized and expanded with an education wing was built, and a new, state of the art exhibition building was erected. This 127,000-square-foot West Building, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, allows for natural light to enhance the color and detail of the works in the space and enhance the ambiance of the environment for the museum viewer. Most of the museum’s permanent collection resides in the West Building, including the museum’s vast collection of Rodin sculptures, many of were acquired after renovations were completed. The building contains both the Rodin court and the Rodin garden, where the expressive, early modern figurative sculptures embrace, stretch, and coil in moments of intense thought or meditation. I have explored all the rooms and collections in the Museum’s new spaces, but for this visit, we concentrated on two exhibits in the East Building, Presence/Absence, a collection of photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, and Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver.
The idea that “presence” and “absence” are important characteristics in the essence of photography has long, theoretic and poetic origins, yet here the exhibit chose to focus on landscapes and domestic spaces in which the human body was physically absent, yet where life forces were profuse. Dimly lit houses glow in the moonlight of a rural vista, spilled milk expands on the floor in front of densely stacked convenience store goods, and stains on the wallpaper in front of an antique headboard hint of ghostly inhabitation. I was drawn to the works by photographers whom I know; Jeff Whetstone is a professor at UNC at Chapel Hill and Pamela Pecchio, who is now a professor at the University of Virginia, also taught at UNC-CH when I was in graduate school there (I graduated in 2005). The exhibition was small, but very intriguing for me. I write about photography in my work and teach an online class about the diverse contexts in which photography is found, as well as some of the theories surrounding the role of the photograph as evidence and as illusion: BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.
The museum also featured an exhibition of the portraits and self-portraits of North Carolina artist Beverly McIver. Many examples of her work can be viewed here. McIver was born in Greensboro and now lives with her developmentally disabled sister in Durham, where she is currently the Suntrust Endowed Chair Professor of Art at North Carolina Central University. Many of McIver’s works are about roles for African-American women according to racial, gender, social and occupational identities, and they therefore directly to relate to my class Representing Women, in which we study roles for women in society and representations of women in diverse forms of visual culture.
This collection on view currently at the NCMA focuses on McIver’s portraits of her family, especially her mother and sister. Captions on the museum walls present bits on McIver’s biography, including how her mother was such a strong role model, who lovingly cared for McIver’s sister, Rene, who had developmental impairments that, according to the text, caused her to behave as a child. From my background in Disability Studies, I was at first critical of the museum’s texts that described Rene as “mentally disabled,” but was fascinated by McIver’s numerous portraits of Rene. McIver’s characteristic, expressionist use of color and bold, thick paint strokes highlight Rene’s colorful and multi-dimensional personality. Portraits of Rene show a range of intense facial expressions, as well as Rene’s love of expressive costumes. McIver’s self-portraits also exhibit ranges of emotion and identity. For example, Reminiscing, 2005, shows McIver’s vibrant and dramatic face in three different facial expressions, created with bold brush strokes of reds, oranges, yellows, and, with smaller flashes of blue and green. Reminiscing suggests that the artist is musing over her personal and professional history, as an African-American woman and artist, yet the title also signifies a long history of the works’ form. The selection of three canvases is reminiscent of a triptych, an artistic form that originated in Greek art, consisting of three panels that could be closed. Later Christian altarpieces adopted this triptych form for depicting saints and Biblical stories. It is in these sacred traditions that McIver paints her ranges of identities.
McIver’s work is included in the permanent collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the NCCU Museum of Art, the Asheville Museum of Art, The Crocker Art Museum, the Nelson Fine Arts Museum on the campus of Arizona State University, the in Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of UNCG. I would recommend anyone to see for themselves.