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‘As an empath, portrayal works for me’: Amy Sherald explains how she embraces black stories in her first UK show

Two black men on dirt bikes soar through the air in the gigantic diptych Issuance (2022), one of the highlights of “The World We Make”, Amy Sherald’s new solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London. Behind this powerful ascent one could imagine the roar of the engines or the cries of camaraderie but, frozen in motion, the scene is rather of a serene majesty.

When Sherald discovered the off-road bike culture after moving to Baltimore in his twenties for his MFA, it left a lasting impression. When she asked her models what they liked about riding, they explained that it gave them a sense of freedom. “I read this as a release from oppression,” she said when I caught up with her shortly after the show was set up, just in time for Frieze Week.

Although Sherald’s work eloquently captures individual experience, particularly black experience, its resonances always seem multiple and profound. And so, with our minds trained on long-standing art historical grounds, Issuance almost inevitably recalls the classic equestrian portraits of aristocrats or imperial rulers, made by old masters like Rubens, Van Dyck and Jacques-Louis David.

Installation view of Amy Sherald, Issuance (2022) at Hauser & Wirth London. Photo: Alex Delfanne. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Amy Sherald.

So it seems fitting that, for his first exhibition outside the United States, Sherald’s work returns to where so many of those worn portraiture tropes of power and glory were born.

“When you look at art history and see how it’s been from the caveman era to now, and then you see how African American art history has recently started, that makes you feel a sense of urgency to take up space,” Sherald said.

“You can count the number of black female figurative painters between Europe and the United States probably on two hands,” she added. “We’re basically building a foundation to start this conversation that’s been going on without us for so long.”

Sherald’s art historical references are served with a refreshing twist. For one thing, bejeweled portraits of the past often feel weighed down by elaborate symbolism. Sherald’s characters, in their elegant contemporary dress, appear against monochromatic or minimally rendered backgrounds.

The effect is to give each subject a singular clarity of voice, as we focus on pose, gesture, and other more idiosyncratic cues of identity.

“I don’t want the characters to be placed in a context where something can be read into their story,” Sherald explained. “Living as a black person or a person of color, you automatically have that. There is a context that is placed around you that you have nothing to do with. I think that’s why I want there to be a deeper understanding of the figure.

Installation view of Amy Sherald, A land blessed by God (Empire of Dirt) (2022) at Hauser & Wirth London. Photo: Alex Delfanne. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Amy Sherald.

Instead, Sherald offers her models the space to communicate their own new narratives. In A land blessed by God (Empire of Dirt), a farmer looks at us from the top of his tractor. The composition immediately recalls a long history of predominantly white land ownership honored and recorded in painting and photography.

In this case, the man, a friend of Sherald, hopes to buy the land he has rented all his life. “It’s something he really wants to give to his kids,” she said. “Stories disappear as the land disappears. The process, how the seeds were planted and why, what animals were grazed on the land – all of this is family history as well as agricultural history.

“It’s recognizing that African American history is not separate from American history, it is central,” she added. “Farming was a birthright, and food and farming have long been a form of resistance and ritual.”

Sherald, who recently turned 49, casually told me that his lifelong interest in portraiture is “just because of what I was exposed to as a child. I didn’t know who Jackson Pollock was. Instead, she remembers searching through encyclopedias from which she gleaned a fairly ancient understanding of the art.

“As an empath, [portraiture] works for me,” she later admitted. “Although part of me can’t wait to be 70 and start doing crazy paintings.”

Her horizons were broadened at art school, where she recalls the excitement of discovering the work of contemporary artists like Jenny Saville, Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Fischl and Odd Nerdrum – “He was my guy at graduate school, I wanted to be like him!”

Even more impactful was his research on photography and cinematography. “These are the images where I could see people who looked like me,” she recalls. The Black Woman’s Body: A Photographic History by Deborah Willis “has always lingered in the back of my mind when doing work,” Sherald said.

She also opened herself to a wide range of everyday influences during a time she recalled as “watching, just watching. I would sit in the library and leaf through books on anything and everything from jazz to cooking.

Amy Sherald, For love and for country (2022). Photo:
Joseph Hyde. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Amy Sherald.

It was this broad interest in popular culture that prompted Sherald to reinvent Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic VJ Day in Times Square photograph from 1945. As Sherald points out, there are countless kisses in the history of art, but the moment of passion shared between two black men in For love and for country always manages to show us something fascinating and new.

His latest body of work features many close character studies, such as that of Michelle Obama, which have become Sherald’s trademark and have seen his work compared to that of Barkley L. Hendricks. The power of these seemingly simple images spoke for itself when her portrayal of the former first lady went viral in 2018. The effect was to give the carefully honed practice of Sherald, who had performed well on the circuit of private galleries, its own pop-cultural weight. . “I was able to speak to a wider audience, which is very special.”

More recently, Sherald has chosen role models among friends and family, and He was meant for all things to come together features a 16-year-old nephew in his lacrosse uniform. He is the first black student president at her high school, she proudly noted.

“I was looking for people who are and have the kind of life that offers present and future hope,” she said, explaining why some topics “call it” more than others.

Installation view of Amy Sherald, He was meant for all things to come together (2022) and To tell his story, you have to put yourself in his shoes (2022) at Hauser & Wirth London. Photo: Alex Delfanne. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Amy Sherald.

“I really believe that there is a transfer of energy from a model to the painter, from the brush to the canvas,” she explained. “There are people I’ve photographed who didn’t feel like they had enough clout or there wasn’t enough…no life, but maybe an altered soul.” He is a young man who takes life seriously and I felt compelled to paint him. It’s an intuitive thing.

Sherald considers exhibiting outside the United States to be her greatest achievement since her portrayal of Obama triumphed, describing it as a lifelong dream. However, I feel like she already has her eyes set on the next prize.

“Being here is exciting,” she said, “but because I’ve already been here in my head for 35 years, it feels like I’m ticking. It is done.”

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