Amy Sherald, one of America’s defining contemporary portraitists, unveils new paintings in her first West Coast solo exhibition.
Amy Sherald is acclaimed for paintings of Black Americans at leisure that achieve the authority of landmarks in the grand tradition of social portraiture—a tradition that for too long excluded the Black men, women, and families whose lives have been inextricable from the narrative of the American experience. Subverting the genre of portraiture and challenging accepted notions of American identity, Sherald attempts to restore a broader, fuller picture of humanity.
Sherald’s work thus foregrounds the idea that Black life and identity are not solely tethered to grappling publicly with social issues, and that resistance lies equally in a full interior life and an expansive vision of selfhood in the world.
The exhibition includes portraits of single subjects such as ‘A Midsummer Afternoon Dream’ (2020) which centers a woman resting on a bicycle in front of a white picket fence and a plot of sunflowers. By contrast, other single subjects in the exhibition are surrounded by monochrome swaths of vibrant color. Among these are ‘A bucket full of treasures (Papa gave me sunshine to put in my pockets...)’ (2020), depicting a man in a zippered pullover emblazoned with its own printed micro-scene, conjuring the memory of a recent beach vacation with its shining sun and lobster tucked within the pocket.
Sherald routinely draws upon literary references in her exhibition and the titles for her paintings. With ‘The Great American Fact’ she is referencing an 1892 essay by educator Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, who wrote that Black people are ‘‘the great American fact’; the one objective reality on which scholars sharpened their wits, and at which orators and statesmen fired their eloquence.’ Sherald here employs Haywood Cooper’s statement as a framework for considering ‘public Blackness’ – the way Black American identity is shaped in the public realm.
Employing techniques long central to the art of portraiture, Sherald underscores the identity of her subjects through visual cues and objects familiar from contemporary Americana—the Barbie logo, fashion denim, surfboards, a picket fence, a convertible—to reinforce their inseparable connection to the nation’s historical and cultural fabric, and to reconstruct conceived notions and reinforce the multiplicities of Black American life.
Three works in the exhibition build upon her technical advancements through the use of monumental scale, figure groupings, and iconographic imagery to hint at unseen narratives. ‘As American as apple pie’ (2020) depicts a couple standing in front of a yellow house in a composition that conjures Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ (1930). But instead of a pitchfork, a cameo, and a wary expression, Sherald’s couple is depicted with the accoutrement of contemporary pleasure.
All Images: Installation view, 'The Great American Fact', Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2021. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio; Amy Sherald, A bucket full of treasures (Papa gave me sunshine to put in my pockets...), 2020 © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joseph Hyde; Amy Sherald, Hope is the thing with feathers (The little bird), 2020 © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joseph Hyde; Amy Sherald, An Ocean Away, 2020 (detail) © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joseph Hyde; Amy Sherald, An Ocean Away, 2020 © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joseph Hyde; Amy Sherald in her studio; Amy Sherald, As American as apple pie, 2020 © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joseph Hyde; Amy Sherald, A Midsummer Afternoon Dream, 2020 © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joseph Hyde; Portrait of Amy Sherald, 2021 © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio
Born in Columbus, Georgia, and now based in the New York City area, Amy Sherald documents contemporary African American experience in the United States through arresting, intimate portraits. Sherald engages with the history of photography and portraiture, inviting viewers to participate in a more complex debate about accepted notions of race and representation, and to situate Black life in American art.
Amy SheraldThe Great American Fact
‘The Great American Fact’ follows Sherald’s 2019 New York exhibition, ‘the heart of the matter…’ and her 2020 portrait of Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair. Sherald was the first woman and first African-American ever to receive first prize in the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.; in February 2018, the museum unveiled her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Her first solo museum presentation, ‘Amy Sherald,’ was shown at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2018, and opened at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in January 2019.
‘Amy Sherald. The Great American Fact’ is on view now through 6 June 2021 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles.