Gallery  September 25, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Bigger and Bolder: Michelle Obama’s Portraitist Comes Into her Own

© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, Precious jewels by the sea, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Before being chosen to paint First Lady Michelle Obama’s presidential portrait in 2017, artist Amy Sherald had a relatively low-profile. Having recently received a few awards, her star was on the rise. Then, along with Kehinde Wiley, President Barack Obama’s portraitist, she became one of the first black artists to paint an official presidential portrait. Since booking one of the most prestigious commissions an artist can get, Sherald has emerged as one of the most important voices in American contemporary art.

COURTESY NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following lead donors for their support ofthe Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia.

This month, Sherald opened her first solo exhibition since the debut of the presidential portrait made her famous. Amy Sherald: the heart of the matter... at Hauser & Wirth in New York shows the artist coming fully into her powers. Two of these new paintings are larger than she has previously worked, and expand the scope and dialogue of her previous work.

Known for working in her version of the American Realist tradition, Sherald creates stylized images that bring us into an intimate conversation with her subjects. Known for portraits where melanated skin is rendered in grayscale and clothing and background pop with bright colors, Sherald seeks to broaden the art historical canon by adding her intimate images of African Americans. In translating brown skin into grisaille, she simultaneously draws attention to skin tone while denying that it is the only thing that defines her subjects.

© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Sherald (b. 1973), who lives and works in Baltimore, wants the historical record and the art historical canon to more accurately reflect the lived experiences of people who look like her. For her two new large-scale paintings, If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it and Precious jewels by the sea (both 2019), which measure nine feet tall, the artist referred to vintage photographs. By depicting African Americans at work and at play, Sherald shows that though the visual record may not always reflect it, African Americans are an integral part of these iconic American moments.

The more typical Sherald portraits in the heart of the matter… are iconic in their own right. Reminiscent of Byzantine icons, her subjects stand out from brightly colored backgrounds. Both familiar and superhuman, their carefully rendered flesh set against flattened backgrounds and clothing draws us into an intimate moment with the subject. In all of her works, Sherald seeks to connect us with the humanity of her subjects, to remind us that black people have complex inner and public lives that stereotypes try to negate.

Amy Sherald, When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas), 2018
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas), 2018. Oil on canvas.

Amy Sherald, There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart, 2019
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Amy Sherald, Handsome, 2019
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, Handsome, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Amy Sherald, Sometimes the king is a woman, 2019
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, Sometimes the king is a woman, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Amy SHerald, A single man in possession of a good fortune, 2019.
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy SHerald, A single man in possession of a good fortune, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Amy Sherald, The girl next door, 2019.
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, The girl next door, 2019. Oil on canvas.

Sherald has described her subjects as “Americans doing everyday American things.” In these new works, her subjects are relatable and otherworldy. By making the ordinary feel exceptional, Sherald's voice and talents are clear and powerful.

Amy Sherald: the heart of the matter… is on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York through October 26.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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