Class clown

Beverly McIver, detail from “Stand,” oil on canvas, 1998.

Beverly McIver, detail from “Stand,” oil on canvas, 1998.

First, let’s get to the point and state that The Many Faces of Beverly McIver, on display through November 14 at the 40 Acres Art Gallery, is a fantastic show. The space itself, at 35th Street and Broadway in Oak Park, is great—spacious, well-lit, clean and everything a quality gallery should be. But the 30 or so paintings by nationally recognized McIver are simply arresting.

McIver grew up in poverty in North Carolina and, as a child, became fascinated with clowns. Applying white makeup allowed McIver an escape from her black skin and the struggles around her. Armed with an education in art, she began to explore and make sense of her identity and life.

In a world in which so many artists put countless amounts of time and energy into the task of self-exploration, with much of this work ending up cloudy and a little too self-indulgent, McIver makes it work. McIver is a good painter—excellent color relationships, compositions, form, etc.—and the specifics of her craft are clear and masterful. But seeing images of a black woman in blackface cutting a watermelon hits at the core of cultural issues that affect not only the artist, but viewers as well. Those images transcend the skills McIver has acquired that allow her to articulate her message clearly.

It’s next to impossible to not be stirred, and being shaken by these images forces us to make sense of them for ourselves. Paintings of McIver in blackface dancing with a white man, an image of the artist with the paint smudged where her face is—as if to erase her identity—appear honest; they don’t feel as though she’s pressing the obvious shock buttons that so many artists seem to push. The scale of her paintings places the figures slightly larger than life, backgrounds are bright colors, and brush strokes are apparent. These paintings, although they depict insecurities and vulnerabilities, have a force that indicates confidence and strength gained from exploration.