Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver
North Carolina Museum of Art
Through June 24

Fixed images, because they do not change, persist outside of time. Nonetheless, images pierce, resist and bookmark time. Think of the emotional disorientation upon seeing a photograph of a family member who has passed away, or of yourself as a much younger person.

Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver, in the East Building of the North Carolina Museum of Art through June 24, catalogs the natures of the interference between image and time through the painter’s last decade of work. And the mere activity of McIver’s cataloging becomes a proxy for the narratives we make to bring meaning to our lives.

McIver’s biography is well known. The award-winning documentary Raising Renee, which screened last April at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, introduced many people to the three principals in the portraits on display in Raleigh: McIver, who was raised in Greensboro but lives and works in Durham and is on the faculty at North Carolina Central University; her mother, Ethel, who passed away in 2004; and her mentally disabled sister, Renee, who’s in her early 50s now but functions at about a third-grade level.

The film records how McIver, as her artistic career was taking off, had to move back home to care for Renee after their mother died. As the sisters adjusted to each other, McIver’s paintings captured her emotional turbulence amid the upheaval: mourning, love, resentment, determination, humor. We learn McIver’s process as she projects photographs onto canvas and roughs in the images, fleshing out detail later. The film concludes with Renee moving into her own apartment a few years ago.

The earliest painting in Reflections2002’s “Dora’s Dance”locates the show’s starting point at the same moment as the film, although the show is not arranged chronologically. It’s the only painting in the exhibition with McIver’s blackface Dora character, but her red wig persists in later work. There’s a carefree blur to the painting as Dora lifts her homemade dress in one hand, in mid-twirl.

But McIver’s work quickly becomes starker upon her mother’s death, in the 2004 works “Family Praying” and “Mom Died.” The first painting shows family members standing around Ethel’s hospital bed, holding hands, heads bowed in prayer. But the faces and hands of everyone in the image are left as blank white canvas. It’s an ambiguous comment on how grief both brings people together and isolates them. The erasure of their features puts the image at a cold distance, as if McIver leaned toward isolation, not wanting to feel the grief.

“Mom Died” is an unnervingly flat image of Ethel in death. Her face is as white as the pillows and hospital sheets, but mask-like facial features convey that there’s no emotional avoidance here. Death is, in this way, one of the few facts of life. One must deal with it.

Hanging next to each other, these hard images share a corner with three portraits of Renee that bring a religious presence to the room, albeit with a humorous release valve. Sandwiching a doubled image of a proud Renee in a terrific purple floral-print dress, she’s also seen as an angel and a nun. Any symbolic reading of the images, however, is tempered by a gallery note that Renee likes to play dress up and to wear Halloween costumes. Renee’s matter-of-fact poses in the religious garb, compared to her animation in the purple dress, take the holiness out of the images. Renee could almost as easily have chosen a witch hat and a broom.

The most interesting portraits of Renee are the ones in which her image has undergone some kind of temporal disruption. McIver has moved from raising Renee to editing and remixing her. In “Double Renee” (2011), duplicate eyes, nose and chin give the images selective simultaneity.

“Renee Under an Umbrella” (2008) looks straightforward at first, but there are odd horizontal dotted lines across the umbrella’s underside. One has to get close to the canvas to see it, but McIver has cut the months out of a paper calendar and painted them onto the canvas. The dotted lines are the month names that she’s left unpainted. It’s the only collage element in the exhibition, but it recontextualizes the rectangles of the canvases into the rectangles of the days and months of a calendar.

The calendar also serves as an organizing principle in the exhibition’s largest work, a grid of nine captioned self-portraits collectively titled “Dear God” (2007–2010). McIver adopts the same pose in all nine imageseyes closed, red wig, head tilted back, expressionlessbut each has a paragraph of text above it like a thought bubble, addressed to God. The captions range from the mundane (“I must be depressed, as I found myself ordering a pair of shoes from” [sic]) to the personal (“Tonight I am sad. My cousin Howard died of cancer. It was the same cancer that killed Mom, pancreatic”) to the historic (“Today Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States”).

The range of feelings and thoughts in the nine texts implicates the gap between McIver’s unchanging image and mutable, day-to-day events. At a glance, one can’t know if she’s thinking about shoes or whether she should correspond with a prisoner who sent her a portrait he painted from a newspaper photograph of her. The calendar-like arrangement visually resolves this. Throughout a decade in which her mother’s death and sister’s needs turned her life completely upside down, it was important to maintain herself through the unpredictable, yet ruthlessly consecutive, days.

Knowing that McIver’s process originates with the tracing of a photograph, one might be inclined to see her repetition of her and Renee’s faces as some kind of low-level commercial production. But as the dates of the paintings advance toward the present, McIver’s style and brushstroke become more complex. It’s apparent that making these portraits has become a means toward another end. McIver is searching for something through the repetition.

Remembering is one mode of her investigation. She plays detective back through experiences, painting her way through old photographs. Imagination or fantasy is another investigative mode. She dons a lime-green knit hat and yellow scarf in the double self-portrait “I Look Like My Mother” (2008), making an expressionless death face on the left but flashing a self-deprecating, endearing smile on the right.

The portraits of herself with closed eyes and the altered Renees show McIver tinkering with visual and psychic variables in the images to see what happens on the canvas, but also to see her own reaction. They’re emotionally charged thought experiments about her own identity, but she doesn’t know the emotions they’re charged with until after she finishes.

“Renee” (2009) is rightfully given a prominent location in the show. In this image, McIver is at the height of her craft as well as her investigative powers. At a stroll-past distance, it appears to be a slightly grinning version of several other nearby images of Renee. But when you pause and lean in, the variety of colors on the canvas is astounding. It’s amazing to see how they all blend into vibrant features through McIver’s flashing, spontaneous brushstrokes. The closer you get, the more expressionistic the image becomes. But the white glints in Renee’s eyesunpainted canvasanchor the image at all levels in her humanity. McIver needed to make this Renee.

The search for narrative sense through image is cataloged in Reflections. McIver moves from a mere painter to a thinker throughout this period of work. And what can be learned from a deep viewing is invaluable: how to weave images into time in the hope that something like fabric might form. One’s existence is a garment made from that fabric.