Gallery  March 22, 2021  Jordan Riefe

Amy Sherald Opens Up About Her Career and New West Coast Show

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

Amy Sherald, A Midsummer Afternoon Dream (Detail), 2020. Oil on canvas. 106 x 101 x 2 1/2 in.

Best known for her portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama and for her August, 2020, Vanity Fair cover featuring murder victim Breonna Taylor, artist Amy Sherald presents The Great American Fact, her first West Coast solo exhibition, at Hauser & Wirth, March 20 through June 6. With five new portraits completed last year occupying the front gallery, the show arrives at the perfect time as the city begins to open up, galleries by appointment only and museums admitting twenty-five percent capacity.

In a zoom presser on March 18, Sherald sat down with Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, to talk about her work. “The great American fact is a statement that we've been here all along,” she says of the show’s title, borrowed from an 1892 book by educator Anna Julia Cooper. “We've been artists all along. We've been curators all along. We've been inventors all along. And there's a lot of people who are just being given their flowers when they've been making work for thirty years. When we think about an American girl, many different kinds of women should come into our imagination. Not just black women, Asian-American, Mexican-American, we're all a part of this pot. These images are just everyday moments, everyday American moments, everyday Americans.”

 

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

Amy Sherald, As American as apple pie, 2020. Oil on canvas. 123 x 101 x 2 1/2 in.

Some of them, like the couple in As American as apple pie, she stumbled upon while tagging along with her partner to Bed-Stuy to see his parents. In the painting, they lean against a classic 1970’s car, yellow house in the background, picket fence in the midground. He wears a denim jacket, t-shirt, and khakis. She’s in pink, a knee-length skirt, and a Barbie t-shirt to match. 

After a brief chat, Sherald asked if she might photograph them. The Barbie shirt was added later, as were the house and picket fence, and the colors were changed. “This house, it's just the perfect little house. The white picket fence, I think we all know what we think of when we see something like that, the meaning behind it.”
 

woman in a red dress stands, looking directly at viewer
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, Hope is the thing with feathers (The little bird), 2020. Oil on linen. 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 in.

Two surfers pose, one stands with her board, looking at viewer while the other sits on his, looking out at the sea.
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, An Ocean Away, 2020. Oil on canvas. 130 x 108 x 2 1/2 in.

Man in white shirt and green pants stands, looking at viewer similar to Sherlad's hope is the thing with feathers portrait
© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, A bucket full of treasures (Papa gave me sunshine to put in my pockets...), 2020. Oil on linen. 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 in.

In Hope is the thing with feathers (The little bird) a young woman stands against a celadon background and wears a patterned dress of a dove in flight against a dark saffron shade. 

An Ocean Away makes two surfers its subject, a pair she caught up within Rockaway, Queens. He’s an instructor, and she’s a model again sourced from Instagram. “It's like they're contemplating how they got to where they are,” offers the artist. “When I'm at the ocean, I have a profound respect for it. But the figure in the blue is gazing off into the distance because, you know, we got here. We started an ocean away. Now we're here, so…”

Looking like he might be on summer vacation, the subject of A bucket full of treasures (Papa gave me sunshine to put in my pockets...) is a serene-looking man in a stylish zipper-collared shirt with a lobster printed in the lower corner balanced by a sun on the shoulder. 

“He's just a happy black man,” she says of the likeness, hung like the rest of the show at eye level so viewers can meet her subjects one to one. “The shirt just really spoke to me, and his face. He has such a kind face, and it was a little bit asymmetrical. It's very endearing.”

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

Amy Sherald, A Midsummer Afternoon Dream, 2020. Oil on canvas. 106 x 101 x 2 1/2 in.

In A Midsummer Afternoon Dream a woman rests against her lemon-yellow bicycle, her blue dress draped as on a classical figure. A picket fence, sunflowers, and cloudy sky with patches of blue compose the background. 

“When I was photographing her, it was a little bit windy. But it just really reminded me of a Renaissance painting, the way that her hand is relaxed and that foot, the way it kind of comes out to the left. I started to see a marble sculpture when I was working on that one.” 

The colors and the woman are reminiscent of another portrait by Sherald, the one she did of Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair. Wary at first of the establishment’s rush to embrace African-American figures in the wake of last summer's BLM demonstrations, Sherald hesitated until she learned that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be the magazine’s guest editor. In the painting, Taylor looks calm and confident in a flowing blue dress set against a lighter shade of the same color. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Vanity Fair (@vanityfair)


Sherald began work on the portrait by collecting as many images as she could of the young woman who was murdered in her St. Louis home by police who mistakenly thought her boyfriend was a drug dealer. Partnering with an Atlanta designer, the artist commissioned a dress and shot photos of a model approximating Taylor’s size. 

“When you're watching something on the news, I never thought that my life would kind of collide with her in this way. But I feel very fortunate to have been able to create this painting in her memory,” says the artist. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what colors should be a part of this piece and what colors would represent her and allow us to focus our attention on her. I finally settled on this, just the two tones. But when you see it in person, you realize it's not just turquoise. That there's an air of depth and quality to it that I thought was really beautiful and ethereal and proud and heroic.”

Earlier this month, it was announced that the portrait will be jointly acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Sherald’s other famous portrait, that of First Lady Michelle Obama, will be touring with Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the President starting in June. 

“I liked the way that the dress has kind of flattened out. I love this dress and this particular blue. I spent a lot of time mixing to get it the right color,” she says, admiring the quilted garment and background that dominate the frame. “This is like Michelle Obama blue, like that's just the name of this color.”
 

While the portrait was widely acclaimed, praise was not universal. Some felt the figure looked too much like actor Kerry Washington, star of T.V.’s Scandal. Others wondered about the First Lady’s gray en grisaille skin tone, a common motif in Sherald’s work.

“It's like there's a history of portraiture. But I'm not in it when it comes to painting. Photography was the only place that I saw images that I could really connect to myself. So, when the camera was invented, there was a way for us to begin to tell our own stories. So my work has really become a meditation on photography in that way. It wasn't the reason why I rendered the skin tone en grisaille, but there is definitely a connection there. In the beginning, it was aesthetic, but as I've progressed in the work, I realized that it was because I didn't want the work to be marginalized. I wanted the figures to exist in a more universal way.”

A Baltimore gal, Sherald received her MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Her career began to take flight with The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, a group show at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in which she won the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait prize. She is the first woman to do so. 

“I didn't grow up around the arts. I didn't go to a museum until I was in the fifth grade. And then I didn't go to another museum after that ‘till I was in college. So, this work is what really lives inside of me. And I feel like it chose me. I really didn't choose it. But if nobody likes what I make, then I would still have to make this because this is my story.”
 

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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