BEVERLY MCIVER GREW up a black kid in the projects in Greensboro, North Carolina. But this being the age of integration, she was regularly bused to pristine white schools set among single-family homes.
The life of a lone black among whites was strange, and eventually McIver discovered the joys of clowning. She could put on a white face.
"I was in clown club in high school," the painter said by telephone from her current home in Chandler. "It was very liberating. I had a white face and blonde hair, and no one would know I was poor, from the projects."
It wasn't until years later that the aspiring clown--who was rejected for a paying clown job at Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus--ever thought about using blackface. 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."
The once-reviled racist practice became an important part of McIver's artistic practice. Right now she has a show of some 21 paintings at Joseph Gross Gallery at the UA, Life Is Good, and on every single canvas a painted image of McIver is front and center. Her face, clown black, is startling.
An art professor at ASU, McIver is a wonderful painter, a master of thick, sensuous strokes of color lavished on flat backdrops. Her oil self-portraits mostly inhabit an odd modernist space. There's no there there in the thin plains of her backgrounds, but they're nevertheless deft colorations, mustards turning gold or blues fading to green. But what's in the foreground is there for sure: a cataloguing of stereotypes about African-Americans. Like the photographer Cindy Sherman, the artist uses her own body to try on the assorted characterizations.
A blackfaced McIver is dressed as a weary black housekeeper in "Maid," 1998, and she's a nanny drooped over in fatigue in "Molly with Her Favorite Nanny," 1998. Elsewhere she enjoys a big old slice of ripe watermelon, even donning the white gloves black characters used to wear in 1930s cartoons. "Watermelon Ritual" is one of the most visually charming works here, what with its bowl of lusciously painted fruit, blue dress and swathe of brown-gold table. In it, McIver contentedly slices the sweet red fruit.
McIver is aware that other black artists have also begun to investigate blackface. It's satirized by Spike Lee in his new movie, Bamboozled, which the painter hasn't yet seen. A fellow black painter, Michael Ray Charles, who had a faculty appointment at ASU last year, has been re-creating old advertising imagery, things like Aunt Jemima and blackface circus characters. He and McIver paired their works for a two-person show that's traveling right now.
Charles' imagery comes from popular culture, she noted, but hers comes from her own life. As a teenager she was humiliated by her mother's work as a domestic for white families, and she avoided cartoon foods like watermelons. Nowadays, she sees her use of blackface as a token of pride, a positive assertion of her blackness.
"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."
After attending white schools in childhood, McIver decided to go to a historically black college, North Carolina Central University in Durham, so she could have "positive black role models." Ironically, her art professor was a white woman, but one who really taught her eager student to paint, in the "traditional European school of painting."
McIver picked up an MFA in painting at Penn State, an isolated school full of a northern-style racism that almost "broke my spirit."
Now in her fifth year of teaching at ASU, McIver is exploring what it means to be black in Arizona, where blacks have not historically lived in great numbers. A large suite of sexually charged paintings in the current exhibition, Loving in Black and White, explore interracial relationships. The explicit works pair the black-faced McIver with a whiter-than-white man. In the most harmonious of the paintings, "Gentle Touch," the pair is lying in bed, and the colors of their flesh, warm brown and delicate peach, are picked up in the walls and doors behind them.
But old habits of thinking die hard. In "#11," the man's so white he's not even painted--the Gesso shines through to create his skin. And in none of the paintings does the female partner ever shed her blackface mask.
The show's final paintings find McIver a woman alone. In "Amazing Grace" she paints herself from above, in a bird's eye perspective, clothed in red and placed against sky blue. Her hair is straggly, flattened out, but she's ready to take flight.
"I'm standing alone and re-inventing myself," McIver says.
Beverly McIver: Life Is Good, an exhibition of paintings, continues through Thursday, November 9, at Joseph Gross Gallery, at the UA, southeast corner of Park Avenue and Speedway Boulevard. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. For information call 626-4215.