Amy Sherald’s Shining Second Act

What a difference a presidential portrait makes. Two years ago, Amy Sherald’s painting career was slowly if belatedly picking up steam. She was 44 and after a four-year hiatus from art — for family illness and her own heart transplant — had had a handful of solo shows, including a four-day pop-up affair on New York City’s Lower East Side in March 2017.

A few months later, in October, Ms. Sherald’s profile began to rise when the National Portrait Gallery commissioned her to paint a portrait of the former first lady Michelle Obama, setting the artist on the fast track to prominence. And so here we are: Ms. Sherald is having her first full-fledged New York solo in the Chelsea space of the voracious mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. “Amy Sherald: The Heart of the Matter…” is a magnificent, stirring show.

Startlingly spare, in an enormous space, it shows off to good effect Ms. Sherald’s smoldering yet self-contained brand of portraiture, paintings of confident, black people whose stylish clothes and backdrops contrast with their faces, which are uniformly grisaille.

The neutral grayish tones give Ms. Sherald’s subjects a timelessness — we have always been here, deep in history, they seem to say — and reflects her attraction to old photographs. She also uses grisaille, she has said, because she wants to take race out of her paintings. In addition it conjures the early photographs by which black people, having been largely excluded from painting, joined American visual culture.

Ms. Sherald’s portrait of the former first lady and its complement, Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama, were groundbreaking images. The artists were the first African-Americans to be commissioned for presidential portraits, in this case, of the country’s first black president and his wife.

Unlike most presidential portraits, the Obama paintings are also part of what is happening right now in contemporary art. Their makers belong to a varied group of youngish painters — most under 50 — who have broken with, absorbed or simply ignored modernist abstraction. Instead, they work with the figure as a way of reaching broader audiences; dealing with issues of identity, gender and sexuality; and exploring new uses of painting’s rich, mostly figurative history. The many African-American artists working in this vein are also dismantling Western painting’s racial homogeneity, populating it as never before with images of black people.

The new Sherald portraits at Hauser & Wirth all present anonymous young people, each of whom is a composite of Ms. Sherald’s photographs of someone she usually encountered in public, and her imagination. Five of the eight canvases in the show adhere for the most part to Ms. Sherald’s standard approach: modest-size three-quarter length portraits of women or men facing forward, motionless as Egyptian statues before backgrounds of monochrome color.

In reproduction the portraits can seem bland and thinly painted. But in person you see the solidity of Ms. Sherald’s smooth yet subtly built-up paint surfaces, and the particularity of her near life-size scale. It’s also important that the pictures are hung low, so that their eye level is usually close to your own. This creates the impression of meeting face to face, in an experience of mutual evaluation. With the paintings given plenty of room, they invite close, exclusive looking, a kind of communion.

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