‘The works reflect a desire to record life as I see it and as I feel it. My eyes search for people who are and who have the kind of light that provides the present and the future with hope.’—Amy Sherald
Amy Sherald, one of the defining contemporary portraitists in the United States, unveils a suite of new paintings in a major exhibition at Hauser & Wirth London, marking the artist’s first solo show in Europe. Featuring a range of small-scale and monumental portraits across both the gallery’s London spaces, this presentation is the artist’s largest to date with Hauser & Wirth.
Sherald is acclaimed for her paintings of Black Americans that have become landmarks in the grand tradition of social portraiture—a tradition that for too long excluded the Black men, women, families and artists whose lives have been inextricable from public and politicized narratives. As Sherald says, ‘Sharing these paintings in Europe is an opportunity for me to reflect on how the tradition of portraiture finds continuity as one of several lineages alive in my work.’
‘My mission as an artist really hasn't changed: to put more complex stories of Black life in the forefront of people's minds.’ Join artist Amy Sherald as she explores her exhibition, ‘Amy Sherald. The World We Make.’
Sherald humanizes the Black experience by depicting her subjects in both historically recognizable and everyday settings, at once immortalising them and reinserting them into the art historical canon. In this new body of work, she continues this practice while confronting the Western canon through allusions to significant historic works or images. This includes the painting ‘For love, and for country’ (2022), a recreation of the iconic photograph ‘V-J Day in Times Square’ (1945) by Alfred Eisenstaedt showing a US Navy sailor kissing a woman in Times Square, New York City as Imperial Japan surrendered in the Second World War.
The photograph prompted Sherald to think of the Black soldiers who returned from the war, still facing persistent inequities, and what it would mean to broach the iconic pose through another understanding of masculinity. Sherald hopes to offer the viewer a reflection of themselves and the complexities of their interior lives, void of the constructs of race, gender, religion and preconceived notions.
For love, and for country 2022 Oil on linen 312.4 x 236.2 x 6.4 cm / 123 x 93 x 2 1/2 in
This approach is also exemplified in the painting ‘As soft as she is…’ (2022), which references Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘Lady in Leopard Coat’ (1940), a painting of his wife, Isobella, who is positioned in a three-quarter pose and looks submissively at the viewer. Instead, Sherald challenges de Chirico’s male gaze by depicting a Black female figure in a frontal and confident stance, wearing a similar animal skin coat and looking just beyond the viewer’s gaze, unwatched.
As soft as she is... 2022 Oil on linen 137.2 x 109.2 x 6.4 cm / 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 in
‘When I make these paintings, I’m asking myself how one can create without feeling bounded by your reality or what your environment allows you to imagine.’—Amy Sherald
‘Barry Jenkins talks to Amy Sherald,’ FT Magazine, 30 September 2022
A monumental work entitled ‘A God Blessed Land (Empire of Dirt)’ (2022) depicts a man proudly atop his tractor and references traditional farm paintings from the 19th Century which reinforced notions of American identity. Here, Sherald reflects on the history of agriculture in art as well as ideas around land ownership and systematic land loss.
A God Blessed Land (Empire of Dirt) 2022 Oil on linen 243.8 x 330.2 x 6.4 cm / 96 x 130 x 2 1/2 in
In this exhibition, Sherald plays with traditional American symbology through the portrayal of vehicles such as motorbikes and tractors to engage with the currents of masculinity that underlie the work. As Sherald says, ‘The tractor and motorbike paintings explore different expressions of self-sovereignty in our communities, and how these expressions might carry into the future. Vehicles become a literal metaphor here for forward momentum, for movement and potential movement’.
In line with this sentiment, Sherald is interested in the idea articulated by artist Alice Neel that ‘art is two things: a search for a road and a search for freedom.’ In a large-scale diptych over 3-metres tall entitled ‘Deliverance’ (2022), inspired by the bike culture that is local to Baltimore in Maryland where Sherald has lived, the artist reflects on the sense of freedom that is part of riding. This work shows two bikers in mid-air, as if suspended in time, in a space free from oppression. For Sherald, the imminent danger of riding and anticipation of death contained in this moment offers a reflection on the ultimate source of temporality.
‘Some portraits are just passive—you’re there, and you’re just looking at the subject, but my subjects are here to meet you. To be present with you in that moment.’—Amy Sherald
‘Amy Sherald in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates,’ in ‘Amy Sherald: The World We Make’
Perfectly encapsulating Sherald’s desire to draw the viewers’ attention to the sitters’ interior life, hopes and dreams, ‘To tell her story, you must walk in her shoes’ (2022) depicts a female figure against a rich purple background with knitted legs in motion. While her subjects are always African-American, Sherald continues to render their skin-tone exclusively in grisaille—an absence of colour that directly challenges perceptions of Black identity.
Sherald foregrounds the idea that Black life and identity are not solely tethered to grappling publicly with social issues and that resistance also lies in an expressive vision of self-sovereignty in the world. Sherald says, ‘The works reflect a desire to record life as I see it and as I feel it. My eyes search for people who are and who have the kind of light that provides the present and the future with hope.’ The painting ‘Kingdom’ (2022), showing a young child at the top of a slide, both asks us to look positively at future generations whilst reminding us of the transient nature of childhood and the vulnerabilities inherent to it.
Kingdom 2022 Oil on linen 297.2 x 233.7 x 6.4 cm / 117 x 92 x 2 1/2 in
The title of the exhibition, ‘The World We Make,’ is a meditation on, as Sherald says, the fact that ‘as we walk beyond what we have been living through, we have a world to remake,’ a message that is hopeful yet suggests there is work to be done.
Amy Sherald has recently invested $1 million to the University of Louisville to fund the Brandeis Law School’s Breonna Taylor Legacy Fellowship and the Breonna Taylor Legacy Scholarship for undergraduates, a gift made possible by the sale of Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor made in 2020 to the Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation. This donation will allow the trust to run this scholarship programme indefinitely.
The first widely available monograph on Amy Sherald will accompany this exhibition, published by Hauser & Wirth Publishers. Newly commissioned texts include an art historical analysis of Sherald’s work by Jenni Sorkin, a meditation on the poetics of the Black ordinary by cultural scholar Kevin Quashie and a conversation between Sherald and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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 World We Make
On view now through 23 December 2022 at Hauser & Wirth London.