A Sense of a Human Connection: The Work of Amy Sherald

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On a January morning heavy with the threat of rain, Amy Sherald‘s portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama hung on her North Avenue studio’s wall, nearly finished and ready for its journey to the National Portrait Gallery. At work on a few finishing touches, Sherald spoke about her light blue background color choice, noting that it echoed the sitter’s nail polish, and about the difficulty of rendering, convincingly, the subtle asymmetries of Obama’s face. Paint tubes and a sizable digital photograph of Obama lay on surfaces nearby.

A few weeks later, Sherald’s painting was unveiled in a formal ceremony, sparking a wave of impassioned reactions and impromptu critiques. For now, the painting was simply a painting: a portrait of a seated, self-possessed woman who steadily meets our gaze, her bold dress falling in a loose pyramid of patterned cloth that contrasts with the generic, unrealized environment. Obama’s arms are arranged in a complex manner that feels both relaxed and studied, and she sits at a slight angle to us, turning to take us in. Notably, her skin is built of shades of gray, and there is a pronounced flatness to her limbs—and none of this diminishes the raw sense of presence apparent in the image.

“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama”

“A portrait,” the celebrated portraitist John Singer Sargent once wryly remarked, “is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” The genre has always seemed damned from the start. To somehow communicate, in paint or marble, the spirit of a person; to try to distill an unguarded and unselfconscious sense of self from a series of formal, posed sittings: it’s a fool’s errand, an impossible dream. Small surprise that by the middle of the 1900s that portraiture, threatened by photography and haunted by its own impossible charge, had become a marginal niche specialty—the work of specialists who didn’t mind working in clichéd idioms for corporate board members or doting mothers.

But an exhausted form is also a form ripe for renewal, and the past few decades have proven that portraiture is far from dead. Some of the most exciting recent painting has taken the form of portraiture—and a large fraction of that work has involved black subjects, rendered by black artists. In Barkley Hendricks’s life-sized oil paintings, suave figures style against monochromatic grounds as they cock a hip or coolly appraise us. In Jordan Casteel’s works, men pose in twos or threes in brightly colored environments. Njideka Akunyili Crosby paints herself and her husband in interiors that are complex amalgams of California and Nigeria. And Elizabeth Colombo’s portraits are set in rich, textured tableaux that recall Old Master paintings. Portraiture is no longer moribund. It is ubiquitous and pressingly relevant.

Sherald’s selection as Michelle Obama’s official portraitist, from a field of several dozen candidates, represented a dramatic moment in an already remarkable life story. After earning an MFA from MICA’s Hoffberger School in 2004, Sherald studied with the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum; shortly after, she returned to her native Columbus, Georgia, for several years to care for ill family members. The experience shook her; confronted, again, with the insidious racism of the Deep South, Sherald began to think about ways in which she might transcend those strictures.

She eventually made her way back to Baltimore, unsure about her direction as an artist until she began to think in terms of the circus and its celebration of alterity and role-playing. She began producing a striking series of portraits of individuals she met randomly on the street, whom she photographed and painted against restrained grounds. Her work began to attract notice, appearing in New American Paintings in 2010, but in 2012 she was hospitalized with congestive heart failure: an acute condition that required a heart transplant. After a period of recovery, Sherald was back in the studio and, newly energized, committed herself to creating a band of arresting and articulate images.

“Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)”

Such a clarity of vision is especially apparent in the 2014 painting “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” which won the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. A young woman stands in front of a mottled background holding an improbably large teacup. The painting is at once a study in balance and imbalance: a jaunty, florid headband and the pronounced asymmetry of her dress create a jazzy syncopation, even as the saucer hovers, almost floating, at the precise center of the canvas. The woman’s shoulders are not quite in line, as she stands in a subtle contrapposto—and yet she looks directly out at us, her expression a combination of insouciance, reserved curiosity, and cool consideration. Nothing happens, in a narrative sense, but the painting burns with a focused intensity.

Though Sherald’s “Miss Everything” recalls Hendricks’ works in a variety of ways—both artists share an interest in isolating the figure and closely analyzing the way in which visual identity is constructed—she also stresses the relevance of Bo Bartlett, a realist painter whose work tends to focus on white southerners in staged situations. Bartlett is based in Columbus, where Sherald was raised, but his subject matter never quite reflected her experience. “Our contexts are the same, but different,” she told me. “Our lives were in a lot of ways parallel, but mine was on the black side, and he was on the white side. He painted a world that I was familiar with but not a part of.”

Sherald thus set out to represent her own experience, though she didn’t create a mere record of black life. Instead, her works began to challenge and deconstruct the tired social codes that had characterized her upbringing. As Sherald notes, race is a construct and a narrative, and in that sense resembles the religious fundamentalism that once swirled around her in Columbus. Consequently, as she questioned a literal interpretation of Genesis, Sherald also sought alternatives to simplistic and binary notions of skin color. In her portraits, she began to paint the skin of her subjects in greyscale, a combination of Mars black and Naples yellow. “I asked myself,” she says, “who would I be and how would I view myself if all the information that I was inculcated with about being black was given to me without the negative connotations so inextricably entwined within the history of our nation.”

That radical premise soon drew the attention of interested observers—including Dorothy Moss, an associate curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery and the director of the Boochever Competition. “Inherent in Amy’s larger project is a critical view of the history of portraiture,” Moss told me. “Her subjects are bold and undeniably present. When she won first prize for ‘Miss Everything, Unsuppressed Deliverance,’ the jurors recognized that we were looking at the work of an artist who is making absence visible in a dynamic, thought-provoking, hopeful way.”

“Listen, You a Wonder. You a City of a Woman. You Got a Geography of Your Own”

Sherald had figured out a means of transcending gulfs and lacunae that had characterized both her childhood and the very genre in which she had chosen to specialize. Such a project may seem daunting, but the rewards can be considerable. Take, for instance, Sherald’s 2016 painting “Listen, You a Wonder. You a City of a Woman. You Got a Geography of Your Own.” Standing before a heather blue background, a middle-aged woman wears a boldly patterned dress. She is, you might say, composed: note the precise and almost liturgical delicacy with which she holds her purse, and the bold silhouette of her floppy hat. But, as often, in Sherald’s work, there’s more. The painting’s airy title is drawn from a Lucille Clifton poem in which the speaker is addressed, in an affirming, earthy black vernacular, by the mirror in front of her. We might wonder: is this roughly life-sized painting a reflection of ourselves? Are we the you? Is this an image, ultimately, of conflation?

Perhaps. But notice, too, the self-conscious aspect at play here, as a woman ponders her reflection in a mirror. More than a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois contended that African Americans inevitably possess a double consciousness, a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Sherald knows Du Bois’ work well; she reminded me that he exhibited a collection of photographs of black subjects at a 1900 exhibition in Paris. She’s also personally familiar with the phenomenon that Du Bois describes.

“I think I was working through figuring out who I was,” she remembers, “based on where I grew up in the South and what that meant for my own identity, and how performance to me became part of it, because it was part of my assimilation into these environments where there was one or none people of color.”

Strikingly, then, Sherald seems to acknowledge racial difference even as she deconstructs it. “Listen, You a Wonder” is built around a central contrast between white and black, but we see before us an individual, presented in a very particular way. The painting suggests an awareness of Du Bois’ ideas, but also revises his central claim, as the pity and contempt of the internalized white onlooker yield to compliment and confidence. And then, too, there’s her use of grey scale, which complicates any simple racial dichotomy or logic. As the art critic Chiquita Paschal has pointed out, “Sherald is asking our brains to do something it has been conditioned against: to relearn how to see blackness and individuality, without its most obvious visual cue.”

Again, though: to whom does our refer? When I asked Sherald if she thought about her audience as she painted, she emphasized her interest in the reactions of diverse viewers. “I’m always excited to hear that there are different people from all walks of life who can look at these black people and see themselves,” she says. “I think [that identification is] necessary, because it’s an expression of our humanity, and it’s also an internalization of the image from the other side.” Trite racial distinctions and social distances temporarily give way, here, to a complex and affecting immediacy.

Portrait of Amy Sherald (Cover Image) by Kelvin Bulluck

That sort of relatability is facilitated, in turn, by the simple beauty of some of her work. “Beauty for me in art is important,” Sherald says. “I don’t think I think about it as I approach it, but while I’m in the process of it, I think my goal is to have an end product that is beautiful, and I think art should be beautiful.” Still, what exactly might that mean to her, in an era when traditional standards of beauty have been under serious ideological pressure? “I think,” she continues, “when it has an autobiographical context to it, so there’s a sense of a human connection: for me, that’s what makes it beautiful.”

When Sherald’s painting of Michelle Obama was unveiled in February, the former president directed a few words to the artist. “I want to thank you,” he said to Sherald, “for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.” Beauty, hotness, a city of a woman: such terms are playful but they’re also dead serious. And they point to one of the primary reasons for portraiture’s rejuvenation. What can a portrait do, in 2018? Sherald, along with a cohort of other talented painters, has answered the question in powerful, provocative ways that acknowledge the genre’s long history while also pressuring some of its blind spots. The result is a potent band of imagery through which we—whoever and wherever we may be—learn to see anew: to value the people we already know, and to begin to relate to those whom we may not.

Photos of the artist by Kelvin Bulluck

Images of artwork courtesy of the artist and the National Portrait Gallery

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas Issue 05: Beauty. We are releasing it with additional images for an online audience and looking forward to her first show at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in NY, which opens next September.

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