August 25, 2003

Beverly McIver: An Unbecoming Portrait

by Catherine King

Beverly McIver describes herself: “I am known as a portrait painter. All of my portraits are self-portraits. That is, I use the faces of others who reflect my most inner being.” This statement itself reveals much about this voraciously narcissistic artist of deceit. Its premise is megalomaniacal: everyone is her to her. Who among us, except a complete egoist -- a Nefertiti or a Napoleon -- could feel that the faces of others are there to mirror our own?

McIver uses people -- their faces, their work, and their souls -- exclusively to amplify herself, a being who can never get enough attention. In most of her paintings the backgrounds are flat, empty, or both, because the context is always negligible; the sole focus is the overwhelming presence and persistent infantilism of just one person -- Beverly McIver. When we do see other people in her self-portraits, she is demeaning them -- sister behind her clamoring to be noticed, grown woman sitting on her lap, white man merely indicated for placement. Her body of work is not about race, nor gender, nor white/blackface, nor "identity"-- but merely about her Adult-Baby need to be the center of everything. And all her mock drama ends up on the canvases. “The good news and the bad news is that what issues I have, they come up and come out in the paintings.” This is wonderfully circular for a self-absorbed child. And to get attention for it! What a dream!

For at least a decade now, this fortysomething-year-old has been raking in the grants to fund a peurile journey of self-discovery, always exploring issues surrounding this journey, which is never to be completed. Because all the while, and long before, I suspect, Beverly McIver has known exactly who she is and what she’s doing. Over the course of many years of working the System, she has developed her own system, perverse as it is. And with an appalling lack of judgment, her unquestioning benefactors have been complicit in passing her shameful body of work along.

She has staked out her playpen at the top of the educational system, where she has found an embracing home. Here she uses whatever it takes as a psychological weapon, tool or crutch (even clowns!), facilitated by the academic structure with its impressive-sounding jargon (image recommodification, empowerment through appropriating African-American stereotypes, transforming impersonal imagery into personal vocabulary). She flashes her issues like so many masks -- race, family, disguise, gender, and body type, but each one reveals only her, her, her, her, her.

Her aggressive agenda clashes glaringly with the anguished victim she portrays. She has made up her public persona the same way she has made up her face. Somehow the artist's "sad" biography is supposed to cast a weak body of work in a more impressive light. She wants us to feel sorry for her: conveniently, besides being black, she also grew up poor, her mother was a maid, and she has a sister whose condition Beverly McIver, tenured university professor, chooses to call “mentally retarded.” (She never seems to respect her own flesh and blood enough to treat them with gentle political correctness.) McIver has both exploited and distorted every one of those conditions.

Let’s begin with her latest and most egregious manipulation, the 2002 Radcliffe Fellowship, an extension of an earlier Creative Capital grant. It represents a new low in McIver's treatment of human images. With this one she disgraces her mom and her mom’s friends and contemporaries in order to extend her preteen-like quest still further. What does Beverly McIver do in exchange for the money ("up to $50,000") this project put in her big fat clown purse?

Radcliffe described the project:

While at Radcliffe, her plan is to make paintings inspired by her mother's occupation. For fifty years, McIver's mother has worked as a maid, cleaning houses and raising white children. "I've always had ambivalent feelings about my mother's commitment and dedication to these white families," McIver says. "I often felt that she cared more for the white children she raised than she did for me."

(That's one way of looking at two generations of stability, security, and food on the table. Questions for readers: do you know what it's like when a family's bread-winner loses their job? The extreme trauma and desperation? The McIvers have been spared this all-too-common nightmare for over five decades. Sure beats involuntary unemployment.) Her buzzword-driven, cliché-ridden, pity-studded proposal, Inventing Ourselves, persuaded Radcliffe to fund her to take her mother, and the fellowship's student assistant, around to other domestics’ workplaces. Once there, the setup was for the student to record the woman’s “stories” while Ms. McIver's mother sat and watched her daughter, sitting at her easel wearing white gloves, as she interpreted the woman’s tales by painting herself (in blackface, of course!), not the ostensible subject seated before her.

McIver: “I hope to convey my mother’s pride as a maid and mammy [!]. I embrace these sterotypes, owning them and finding a resting place for them. I'm painting their stories. I paint myself in blackface, doing whatever domestic task each woman enjoys doing most.”

Picture this embarrassing scenario: there's Beverly McIver “making peace” -- and a mocking travesty of honest working women -- while three women, captive to Ms. McIver's university-sanctioned vision, endure differing degrees of degradation. A passive-aggressive’s dream come true. She gets to ridicule her mother, punish her for being a domestic, and disguise it as an honor. Why, in fifteen years of painting, is there not a single portrait of her mother, all dressed up and standing proud? (When artist [?] Robert Melee pimped his mother out for $6,000 an hour, at least he was honest about what he was doing.) Why did Ms. McIver's mother consent? Was she bullied? Ms. McIver says her mother is proud of the project, but she has also said that "as a child I thought she could be more, better, something." Like Beverly? Was this torment what she meant? Why did the other domestics go along with this demeaning provocateur? It's a mystery to me, but they all did.

The series title is The Liberation of Mammy, an oxymoron. Anybody besides her use the term "mammy" these days? I didn't think so. McIver twists other words, as we'll see, including taboo, stereotype, and even clown, in the creepiest twist of all.

As for her sister, Ms. McIver has a lot to reveal. In Me and Renee #2 we see the sisters in tight close frame, with Beverly’s face obscuring her sister's by various degrees. Not obscuring -- eclipsing -- she is pushing her sister out of the way. When shown side by side -- well, you decide the true subject of the painting.

“In real life, I was the shadow because she requires so much attention. Now [in the paintings] the roles have reversed. She is a metaphor for me -- we are both outsiders. . . Ironically, even when I hung the paintings in a gallery [when mother and sister were visiting], they paid more attention to her." Ironically? That last statement was made about a year ago. Isn't it about time for her to grow out of her jealousy of an older sister who cannot help being who she is? We adults do expect even children to have tolerance and patience for the mentally challenged, don't we? Sounds like Beverly is still resenting Renee, over forty years down the road. This complete lack of empathy is narcissism, and its implications are chilling.

She also wants us to know that her mother wishes for her to care for her sister one day, but she uses the word “inherit,” as one would refer to property, not a sovereign human being. I'm getting another chill . . . Beverly McIver certainly doesn’t sound mature or committed enough for either charge, being perennially "ambivalent" about her sister. No, not committed but curious, in a detached way: "I am curious about our relationship as sister [sic] and in the future as child and parent [?] . . . I am curious to know if this is possible for me . . . "

Contrast this cool detachment about a crucial, sensitive life change with her stunned exhilaration the moment she realized she could not only wear whiteface, but blackface too!

In her late twenties McIver actively pursued the role of clown by attending clown school, where she was not allowed any alternative but to deny her racial identity, and dress in white clown face, white hands and blond wig. For many reasons [hmmm . . .] McIver’s pursuit of life as a clown fell short and she found herself returning to school for a Masters in Fine Art . . .

She had gone to the annual summer modern dance festival in Durham, and was stunned to see a French dance troupe perform in blackface. Blackface, of course, is all but anathema in the United States, besmirched by its history in the notorious minstrel shows of the 19th century.

For McIver, seeing blackface in use had the force of revelation. "I thought: 'I could be black!' The next day I went out and bought blackface." (Patrick Burns)

If this is her idea of maturity -- “the white clown image has grown up. I learned that I could have a black clown face” -- she's serious here -- then how can she possibly be a responsible caretaker for her sister or role model for her students? If most women in the real world of adults don’t know who they are by forty, nobody is going to take them very seriously. Things are apparently very different in academia.

It seems that the smearing of goo on her face is practically orgasmic for Beverly McIver. Once her face is covered with greasepaint, she feels empowered to behave in ways for which she will claim no responsibility. She can demand attention, bully people, pretend to be stupid, passive-aggressive-style, and insult others. She huffs and puffs as if there’s some big mystique about white/blackface paint. It’s just an excuse to slop around with the squishy stuff, as Paul McCarthy does, getting all up on himself about his use of ketchup and mayonaisse.

When did McIver begin her exhibitionistic acting out? As a child's competitive response to her sister's special needs? Maybe the jeering poses are her immature attempts to mimic her sister’s seizures and tantrums, like a kid who’s pretending to be stupid in order to be irritating, some brat who loves to throw monkeywrench after monkeywrench into her poor, harried mom's life, because nothing in the world matters except Beverly, Beverly, Beverly!

And why would a young woman renounce her femaleness to make herself into an androgynous anomaly? And then depict it on canvas, over and over? Why a Clown and not a Comedienne? A Comedienne can have grace and dignity. Oh, because maybe she doesn't really want to be a funny-type clown, but more a scary Crazy Clown. I don't think they teach you that at Clown School.

Here -- “I thought, I could be black! The next day I went out and bought blackface” -- McIver sounds like an adolescent trying out looks and identities, but this was years after high school Clown Club, after graduation from college. Something way beyond normal psychology seems to have driven her whole, long Quest for Disguise. Most women use makeup to make themselves look more presentable in public. Most women in their twenties are trying to establish serious relationships with others, but Beverly McIver was going to Clown School. Why a clown? It's an insanely bizarre but perfectly covert way to act out the most outrageous desires and directives. “It was a way to be truly myself . . . I could hide behind a white face.”

“I was able to [escape black skin, poverty and the housing project she ‘once called home’]. I was able to accomplish this by covering my face with white grease paint and wearing a blonde wig. As a clown I was transformed and in many ways more acceptable to society. No one cared that I was black or poor [with a BA?!], I was embraced. Clowning was my disguise, my liberation.”

If a person’s liberation is a disguise, it means they’re trying to fool you.

Again she uses the concepts of liberation and honesty as if they were clip art: "I struggled to find my images to be more honest and liberated." She will not admit responsibility for making her own images -- she "finds" them.

It must be impossible to communicate honestly with this woman. From the various versions of I Ain’t No Stereotype to her sloppy explanations of her work, Beverly McIver uses words and images as if they could cover up her self-aggrandizing agenda.

Stereotypes are dangerous in the hands of a dishonest artist.

“I myself thought [blackface] was negative. All of these experiences [in the paintings] come from the personal. My mother was a Mammy figure. I used to be embarrassed with eating watermelon. But in these paintings I take ownership of blackface. It’s finding a resting place for negative stereotypes.” Oh, I see -- and she’s not embarrased to smear her face and present herself as a gross caricature? McIver's talking and writing about her artistic practice is such obvious nonsense -- but they love this highly ambiguous language in higher education, where she runs her game.

Fast talk with all the golden buzzwords, as well as plenty of outright lying, have been very effective for Beverly McIver. Glomming onto Renee again, she says, “...we are both outsiders” -- but not really; only Renee. Beverly is very much an academic and institutional insider, which she carefully cultivates, while claiming outsider status. But she wants it both ways -- and she gets it both ways. (In this, she isn't alone; check out the ascendance of people like the cruel, salacious Kara Walker, and William Pope.L, the Friendliest Most Passive-Aggressive Black Artist in America.©)

School has been the setting where Beverly McIver can act out her aggressive, exhibitionistic tendencies, and get paid good money for it too. (Except, ironically, Clown School, in which she seems to have been a failure, perhaps because for her it’s not about entertaining people so much as manipulating them.) It’s not such a handicap being a black woman in academia. There is no problem with backing the identity quest of this forty-plus woman all the way up to Harvard. She can land her prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship even with six spelling/punctuation and five grammatical errors in her rambling, gut-spilling application. Pride? What's that?

A long list of institutions has been insuring that McIver has been getting paid well, on top of her university teaching salary. Here are the grants along with some of the award amounts she has received over the past ten years:

Research and Creative Activity Award, ASU
Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation studio space in Tribeca for a year (priceless)
Radcliffe Fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard (up to $50,000)
John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship ($37,000)
Creative Capital Grant ($5,000)
Anonymous Was a Woman Grant ($25,000)
Arizona Arts Commission Visual Arts Fellowship
College of Fine Arts Research Grant, ASU
Artist Grant Contemporary Form Phoenix Art Museum
Project Grant Arizona Art Commission
FIGA Grant Reasearch and Creative Activities, ASU
College of Fine Arts Research Grant, ASU
Scholarship Headlands Center for the Arts, NC Arts Council
NC Arts Council Visual Arts Fellowship
Emerging Artist Grant, Durham Arts Council, Inc.
Travel Grant in Support of the Atlantic Center for the Arts

With all this professional recognition, then, maybe the quality of her painting is outstanding, even though her subject matter has been, by her own admission, less than "honest and liberated"? Take a look. Yes, folks -- she has a Masters in Fine Art. There is plenty of this carousel stuff, and a lot better, too, at each and every state fair.

What exactly is it that so distinguishes Beverly McIver's art? Aside from the "race thing," the answer is -- there is nothing distinguished about it at all. Yes, her body of work presents a bizarre psychological profile of a really creepy individual, but it's not good art, and her sadistic, possibly unethical, artistic practice should not be encouraged, much less bankrolled.

McIver can set the ambiguous language way far off to the side, "ironically," when expressing her precise requirements for the all-important student aide. Why do the requirements so emphasize a state of psychological malleability in the person under her supervision? "I would like a student who is interested in doing everything . . . It is important that the student be interested in issues surrounding identity. . . My project will benefit greatly from the participation of a student . . . It is important to me to have a dialogue with the student about the research I uncover. . . a student stands to learn much about themselves [sic] as well as others by talking this journey of self discovery with me." A student stands to learn much? Then why is she, the teacher, still going around in baby-circles after being indulged by higher education for years?

And I hope that's not one of her student aides sitting in her lap in Holding Baby -- that should set up red flags all over the place. Even more alarming is Praise the Lord, which depicts the young woman with her head in the awful clown mammy's lap!

“Today," McIver (in 1999) reveals without self-consciousness, "I explore another taboo . . . Loving in Black and White (click on "Invisible Me") explores intimacy between black women and white men." Well, news-flash, this is no longer taboo -- we're all living in a multi-culti nation these days, and a huge chunk of us are even multi-racial. (One real taboo, though, even these days, would be "intimacy" between teacher and student.)

The serious committed adult relationship has been an absent theme in the middle-aged McIver's body of work. Her recent shows and series, Loving in Black and White, proves rather than disputes this fact. Apparently the series represents McIver's attempt to "work through" her issues surrounding interracial, heterosexual dating. As if it were such a distasteful practice that she had to desensitize herself to the trauma of it all.

This shows how skin can be painted. Chuck Close. This treatment implies a deeper, more respectful view of the human race. The color wells up from the inside and is intrinsic, not applied. Everybody is all colors. The colors bloom from within -- they are not smeared from without, as are skin and makeup by Beverly McIver. Hence, a real human is revealed, and not a grotesque disguise.

You gotta face your face when the race fad fades.

Now, I don’t see makeup, but her true ugly nature revealed, Dorian Gray-like, when I look at a self-portrait by Beverly McIver.

Posted by Jerome at August 25, 2003 02:32 AM | TrackBack

You are ranting---do not. It is very difficult to paint and she does a good job.


Posted by: duker bower at November 5, 2003 05:40 AM

"Well, news-flash, this is no longer taboo -- we're all living in a multi-culti nation these days, and a huge chunk of us are even multi-racial".
I ask you- what world are you living in? As if multi-racial couples are exempt from from prejudice and racism. pahlease. Your views on race is too general and niave. To to have the audacity to argue that the issue of multi-ethnic couples arent relevent anough to be explored in art, is just plain narrow minded.

Posted by: chanel at November 12, 2003 11:50 PM

To say that relationships between black women and white men are no longer taboo is a laughable statement. If there are any relationships that are socially taboo it would be relationships between those individuals.

Posted by: aum1lbc at November 25, 2003 02:40 PM