The VMFA’s special exhibits have taken a turn in recent days towards exhibiting stories of social issues and societal critiques. This summer, in continuation of that desired tradition, passing through the VMFA are two tales of adversity, and the overcoming of it that desperately need to be told. The VMFA presents from now until September 10th, two exhibits for the price of one, Whitfield Lovell: Passages, and Benjamin Wigfall and Communications Village.
Whitfield Lovell, a contemporary artist, stands as a prominent figure in the community of New York while also attaining a broad amount of international acclaim. Passages tells the stories of numerous African American souls and their journey through bondage, while also raising questions about what it means to be an American in the modern age. Benjamin Wigfall’s exhibition tells the story of a Richmond born artist who overcame adversity, and used his position of found freedom to help others in the black community to break into the art world, a space that would otherwise have been closed off to them. Beyond that, he was a brilliant artist in his own right who grew in organic and beautiful ways that can only be seen in the kind of retrospective exhibit the VMFA has collected and put on display this summer.
Benjamin Wigfall (1930 – 2017) was born in Richmond, Virginia, spending his formative years in Church Hill during the depression. His family nurtured his talent which began to show at a young age, even helping him in his last year of high school take classes at the VMFA. After high school he attended Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, partially on a VMFA student fellowship, and graduated in 1953 whereupon he earned a Rockefeller Scholarship to attend graduate school. Shooting for the moon Wigfall attended Yale where he would later earn his master’s in art, in the meantime he taught art back at Hampton Institute until 1963. It was at this time that he got a job teaching at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and where his real legacy began. In the neighborhood of Kingston, Wigfall founded Communications Village, a studio space that served as an art collective where Wigfall would mentor youth and further develop his skill as an artist over the course of many decades.
Wigfalls early work, like many burgeoning artists, began in portraiture. In the 1950s however he started to experiment with an abstract style for which he would later become renowned for. A transition period for him, his sketchbooks would often feature portraits on one page, and abstract experimentations on the next. By 1956 however, he began working exclusively in abstractions often done in oil on canvas or etchings. Later in his career he would focus heavily on printmaking in a more traditional sense and turning everyday objects into etchings. Wigfalls influence can be seen heavily affecting his students and comrades who would often mimic the styles they saw Wigfall exploring. Among the collection of paintings and prints are a series of documents such as Wigfall’s recommendation letter from a trusted teacher, class schedules and rosters from communications village, as well as audio recordings with his father where he incorporated his spoken words into a series of paintings about his family’s past. All of these incredibly unique inclusions make Benjamin Wigfall and Communications Village an immersive experience into the life and times of an artist unlike any I have ever seen before.
Lovell was born in the Bronx and continues to remain based out of New York. Lovell’s main focus throughout his career has been to portray portraits of African Americans coupled with found objects meant to evoke questions and thoughts about the lives of the individuals. Perhaps Lovell’s most arresting work for this installation is Deep River, a “multisensory” experience about the struggle for freedom in the first half of the 19th century. Deep River is meant to portray the crossing of the Tennessee River by freedom seekers through a series of portraits surrounding a mound of found objects in the center of the room while bird sounds play and river waves are projected onto the walls around. To describe the piece does not even hope to do it justice as the installation is so moving that one can only experience it and understand its weight and impact.
Lovell’s work, though more narrow in terms of mediums and subject matter, has a focus to it that can not be ignored. Lovell appears to be striving towards a questioning of identity in the face of those whose identity was taken away from them. His portraits are thoroughly life-like, though with a noticeable choice of leaving stray pencil lines just outside of the well defined barrier between subject and negative space on many of the portraits in his pieces incorporating found objects. His choice to place many of his larger portraits on wood surfaces and done almost entirely in shades of gray evoke hash reality played against death and decay of years past, perhaps hoping to keep something alive that otherwise would have faded into oblivion.
Although the two exhibitions stand as two separate installations, the themes connecting them resonate so well together that it only makes sense to have them displayed at the same time. Comparing a voice of Richmond in Wigfall with a modern voice who continues to reach further and further back into the past with Lovell, a clash of ages erupts and throws the viewer through a time warp of pain and suffering, but also growth and the attaining of deeper love and knowledge amongst fellow humans. It is a moving exhibit that is more than worth your time. Whitfield Lovell: Passages and Benjamin Wigfall and Communications Village will be at the VMFA from June 17th until September 10th 2023. Make your way down there this Summer for a truly moving collection of contemporary American art.