I’ve long been ambivalent toward New York. The torrent of pop culture references and my friends’ debriefings have collectively hyped the city as some kind of God-given utopia, an infinitely generative wonderland where great things are simply bound to happen, yada yada yada. The praise starts to sound like minor variations on an exhausted cliché. Needless to say, my ambivalence accompanied me to Beverly McIver’s New York Stories, the Durham artist’s latest collection at the Craven Allen Gallery.
It was disorienting to find a gallery space filled with portraits (Where are the skyscrapers, you know?), but it soon made sense as the collection’s theme became apparent. I started to view these paintings like I’d read a memoir. Sure, all art may be at least a little autobiographic, but New York Stories is an explicit portrayal of where McIver was—both physically and emotionally—during her yearlong painting fellowship in Brooklyn, funded by the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation. McIver’s ringtone interrupted our interview a few days after the opening.
"It's Renee, I'm sure,” she said as she silenced her phone. “What’d I tell you? She calls me all the time, man.”
Immediately after her mother died in 2004, McIver began caring for Renee, her mentally challenged sister and the focal point of many paintings. It was a promise McIver made to her mother before her passing, and the reason the artist cut short her first stint in New York.
“Usually my entire show is about Renee, but I only painted her once throughout my time in New York,” she said.
McIver notes in her artist statement that living in New York the second time around was an opportunity to reflect on what had happened since 2004, allowing her to grow and give closure to pivotal moments in her life.
“One of the biggest adjustments for me was riding the subway,” McIver said. “Public transportation isn’t a huge part of my life here in Durham, but whether you’re rich, poor, drunk or homeless, everyone in New York takes the subway, or the taxi on days they’re feeling rich.”
One of the paintings, "NY Subway," features two strangers sitting in a subway car. An upbeat tourist hunches beside a visibly tired woman holding a shopping bag, presumably coming home after a long day’s work. The context sanctions their physical closeness (much closer than two strangers would be in any other scenario) as normal, yet they seem emotionally distant—wary, even. For McIver, the painting depicts the alienating nature of riding the subway, an underground microcosm of the city itself.
“The irony of the subway is that it could be a great way to meet all these people who ride it on a daily basis, but everyone sort of becomes inhuman and refuses to make eye contact,” said McIver. “You try to become invisible, which is strange in such a crowded space.”
McIver paints the same way she teaches her students to at North Carolina Central University: beginning every oil piece by mixing from a primary color palette. She applies coarse strokes thickly onto the canvas and leaves them to dry, creating palpable depth with chunks of raised paint. This technique allows each stroke to stand out on its own. McIver’s signature color technique surely veers into the abstract, but her subjects are still intelligible. Despite all the unconventional reds, yellows and greens used to fill in the subjects' faces, their humanness remains intact.
“One of the things I love about painting with oil is its creamy and luscious consistency,” McIver said. “I like being able to lather paint onto a canvas like that; it’s almost like icing a cake.”
Though abstract in her technique, McIver won’t push you too hard to extract meaning from her work. From the disaffecting subway ride to McIver’s self-portrayed sigh of relief after Obama’s second win, one of the collection’s strengths is that it doesn’t leave much room for divergent interpretations. All the pieces convey compelling messages, and they have McIver’s icing-inspired strokes to show for it.
“I’m interested in painting feeling,” McIver said. “I want people to look at my paintings and feel how I felt in that moment.”
I may have left my ambivalence at the gallery space, because I’m now sensing that New York Stories wasn’t really about New York at all. This collection is about feeling with McIver, from her alienation to her joy throughout a momentous year in her life. It’s no doubt the City served as a medium, but despite the collection’s title, it definitely didn’t steal the show. In New York Stories, empathy takes center stage.
“New York Stories” is on display at the Craven Art Gallery until December 28. For more information, visit http://cravenallengallery.com.