“I want to be my own connection to America,” Amy Sherald tells the rapt audience, at her spectacular inaugural show at Hauser & Wirth. The compelling portrait show depicts youngish people who pop from their monochromatic backgrounds.
I have the power to create these archetypes that can critique art historical narratives – AS
Sherald, born in Georgia in 1973, capitulated to art stardom for her 2018 Michelle Obama official portrait, for the National Portrait Gallery. Fashionably attired in billowing couture, the American icon is painted in the artist’s trademark grisaille skin tone. Of the greyish neutral skin tone she has created, Sherald explains it as “a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I am excluding the viewer.” Sherald says, “Me and every other black American felt ownership from the Obama administration.” She acknowledges, as a result of the portrait, “I’m taught in schools now, which is so cool.”
Cool defines Sherald’s work itself, which the artist describes as “people I find at airports, or the subway, or just travelling.” Working from carefully composed photographs, Sherald says, “I search for the painting in the photograph.” Like the work of the great London artist, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, who also creates her subjects, Sherald’s self-invented black characters reflect reality and inspiration, as her subjects make self-assured eye contact with the viewer.
Sherald’s carefully self created costumes, quirky, colorful, vaguely nostalgic, are the antithesis of consumer fashion dictates. ‘The Girl Next Door” wears what could be vintage chic, a charmingly polka-dotted dress. She is full-figured, fierce and free. Of her brilliant palette, Sherald explains, “I do use colours to activate space and motion. And I change colours in the middle of a painting.” The self-possessed young man in “Handsome” is quietly poised with understated swagger.
Two ambitious and affirmative large paintings share backgrounds of perfect cloudless azure skies. “Precious jewels by the sea” depicts two modestly costumed young couples, dressed for seaside pleasures, girls perched atop boys broad shoulders. Props include a striped umbrella, picnic basket, sailboat in the distance. Sherald captures both recreation and repose, subtle power radiating from the vacationing quartet. The monumental “If you surrendered to the air you could ride it” places a casual though fashionable man atop a steel girder. His vermilion skullcap is echoed by his insouciant fabric belt, the dapper outfit reminiscent of Barkley Hendrick’s work. “If you surrendered…” is a modern homage to the 1932 Charles Ebbets photo of workers atop a Rockefeller Center construction beam.
The flat colour field, seamlessly layered, reveals meticulous brushwork. “I use a lot of dry brushing,” Sherald explains. Sherald’s signature style and stellar technique fulfil the artist’s comment: “I realize as a figurative painter, I have the power to create these archetypes that can critique art historical narratives and offer people a reflection of themselves.”
Words: Ilka Scobie © Artlyst 2019 Photos courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Amy Sherald The Heart of the Matter – Hauser & Wirth until Oct. 26 2019