December 11, 2019, 5:58

The Amy Sherald Effect

The Amy Sherald Effect

The subjects of Amy Sherald’s eight strong oil portraits at Hauser & Wirth impress with their looks, in both senses: striking elegance, riveting gazes. In six of the pictures, the subjects stand singly against bright monochrome grounds. (The other two works are more complicated.) They are young or youngish, attractive, stylishly dressed, and likely well-to-do—presentable people, presented. All are African-American. Should this matter? It does in light of the artist’s drive to, in her words, seek “versions of myself in art history and in the world.” Sherald, who is forty-six and lives in New Jersey, revitalizes a long-languishing genre in painting by giving portraits worldly work to do and distinctive pleasures to impart. Her style is a simplified realism, worked from photographs that she stages and takes of individuals who interest her, an approach much like that of the late, belatedly celebrated painter Barkley Hendricks. Peculiar to Sherald is a consistent nuance, in her subjects’ expressions, which can take time to fully register—it’s so subtle. There is no palpable challenge. But there’s drama, starting with that of the show’s existence.

“Precious jewels by the sea,” from 2019.

© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Three years ago, Sherald was plucked from low-profile but substantial status as an artist when Michelle Obama chose her to paint her official portrait. The result was unveiled, last year, along with the official portrait of Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley: the ex-President seated and leaning forward, as if in intimate conversation. Barack’s characteristic pose (I beg indulgence to use the couple’s first names, for convenience) rather undercut Wiley’s signature manner of investing contemporary subjects with neo-early-nineteenth-century, Napoleonic grandeur. (Wiley compensated by surrounding Barack with glorious flowers.) In Sherald’s painting, Michelle sits sideways and turns outward, with her arms bare and her chin resting lightly on the back of one hand. She wears an immense cotton gown—by the designer Michelle Smith—patterned with fragments of eccentric abstract shapes adrift on white, which fills most of the canvas that isn’t taken up by a light-blue ground. Like some other commenters, I was bemused, when I saw the work in reproduction, by what seemed an overwhelming of the wearer by the worn. Then I visited the painting at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C.

“Handsome,” from 2019.

© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

You must—and I mean absolutely have to—see Sherald’s work in person, if at all possible. Taking in the painting’s scale (it is six feet high by five feet wide) and the sensitive suavity of its brushwork (a tissue of touches, each a particular decision), I decided that artist and sitter had achieved a mind meld, to buoyant effect. The dress amounts to a symbol of Michelle’s public role—a tall order for anyone—and the éclat with which she performs it. But the gown becomes subsidiary when you meet Michelle’s gaze, which we’ve glimpsed often since 2008, one of disarming but seriously knowing irony, true to her roots even as she rises to her station. Sherald riffs on the extravagance of the spectacle while deferring—as just another beholder, another citizen—to the integrity of the mien. The work is a tour de force within the constraint imposed by a political commission. Even so, it didn’t prepare me for the more intense eloquence of Sherald’s present show: portraits commissioned by herself, all but one painted this year. She activates the double function of portraiture as the recognition of a worldly identity and, in the best instances, the surprise of an evident inner life. Race applies as a condition and a cause for resetting the mainstream of Western art.

The subjects make eye contact with us. They can seem mildly interested in how they are beheld—they wouldn’t have bothered dressing well if they weren’t—but with dispassionate self-possession, attitude-free. Their affects vary from the radiant assurance of “Sometimes the king is a woman,” a young woman in a dress of slashing black-and-white patterns against a pink ground, to the slightly gawky presence of “A single man in possession of a good fortune.” (The whiff of Jane Austen bodes some consequential comedy.) This young man sports a spectacular sweater that displays gridded architectural motifs in blazing colors; the ground is a modulated gold. He impresses as somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, who is embarking on adulthood with resilient confidence but a good deal yet to learn. He made me smile, with wonder. The tacit narratives of both pictures are compelling in a way that recalls the long-lapsed convention of painted portraiture as courtly ceremony, exalting kings and courtiers—this was the forte of Velázquez, whose duties to Philip IV happened to occasion some of the greatest paintings ever made. (The Spaniard’s royal tots, for instance, had everything to learn, but their existence was important to everyone.)

Race anchors Sherald’s project in history. She represents it strategically, by modifying a policy of today’s leading painter of subjects from black society and culture, Kerry James Marshall. Marshall renders the skin of all of his people coal black. Sherald opts for grisaille. Both thereby apostrophize America’s original sin and permanent crisis: the otherizing of the not white, regardless of gradations. The standardized hues put race both to the fore and to the side of what’s really going on—an address to Western pictorial precedence, freezing a debate in the present to thaw a conversation with the past and future. To explain the startling authority of Sherald’s art, you must think back to periods when portraiture was a vital function of painting and then, returning forward, incorporate as mainstream the apposite contributions of honored but too often patronized black American artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White. When art changes in the present, it changes in the past, too. I had a dizzy sensation at the Sherald show—which was so much better than I had expected—of ground shifting under my feet.

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it,” from 2019.

© Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

As is natural in a time of transition, Sherald, too, is still learning. Marking a hugely ambitious departure for her, “Precious jewels by the sea”—a beach scene, ten feet high by nine feet wide, in which two young men carry two young women on their shoulders, all in chic swimwear, next to a tipped reddish-orange-and-white beach umbrella—should be a masterpiece, and it almost is. The frankly observing, untroubled intelligence of the four subjects stuns with what I want to call the Sherald Effect: an experience of looking that entails being looked at, to ambiguous but inescapably gripping ends. However, there’s a lurch in her switch from flat to spatial backgrounds. Aqua waters flipping to dark blue at the horizon fail to convince, and I could very well do without a tiny sailboat in the supposed distance. The perfunctory depth doesn’t detract from the terrific aplomb of the figures, but it sabotages the unitary power to which the picture aspires.

I love “The girl next door,” a less insistent departure for Sherald. The young woman portrayed is personable and anything but svelte. She fills out a baggy dress that is patterned with red, yellow, blue, green, and purple polka dots, cinched by a thin belt. Her look is rather guileless—far from the cool savoir of the beach people—but equal, you somehow know, to whatever daily life she is leading. She is praised by Sherald’s brush for the insouciance of her garb: the bouncy dots a tonic exception to the refinement of the abstract designs that the other subjects’ clothes provide for this painter’s aesthetic use. What’s the neighbor’s name? I’d like to know. I almost feel that I do—on the tip of my tongue, about to come to me. Now let’s define great portraiture. It makes companionable for you a person who is identified or unknown, perhaps remote from you in geography or time (even dead, no matter), different from you in ways big or small, a lot or only the littlest bit like you in other ways, and, all in all, another exceedingly specific inhabitant of a certain planet, amid everything that cannot help but be. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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