After climbing the stairs of Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea gallery, I encountered Amy Sherald’s gripping portrait of a young Black man whose eyes convey a sense of quiet introspection that persists throughout her solo exhibition ‘the heart of the matter…’ His subtle expression is rendered in shades of grey that contrast with the soft orange and yellow flower pinned to his lapel. A monochrome pink background removes him from any specific place and time; his outfit could have been worn today or fifty years ago. For the oil painting’s title, Sherald chose the well-known saying: “When I let go of what I am I become what I might be,” suggesting that by turning away from external constraints — such as prejudices or stereotypes — and looking inward, we can connect with a truer version of ourselves.
Sherald’s approach to portraiture draws from aspects of American Realism, while focusing on Black subjects who have been sidelined — or omitted entirely — from depictions of US society. Figures like the aforementioned young man are based on strangers the artist meets and later asks to photograph in New York, Baltimore, and other cities she frequents. These images become source material for the preliminary drawings of her final compositions. In an interview with Marc Payot of Hauser & Wirth, Sherald describes photography as the first artistic medium she came across “that made what was absent, visible.” She points out that historically, photography has provided people with the ability to take control of their own image. One artist that comes to mind is the iconic Black photographer James Van Der Zee who captured members of his community as they preferred to be seen — elegant and self-assured — during a period when society denied them basic human rights. Sherald continues this tradition by creating composite figures with grisaille skin tones that broaden definitions of Blackness beyond archetypal representations.
More often than not, Sherald’s models are dressed in clothes she purchased from second-hand stores. Having potentially belonged to multiple generations, outfits like the polka-dot dress with a red belt worn by the woman in “The girl next door” blur the distinction between past and present. Seven years ago, Sherald featured another woman wearing a polka-dotted dress in “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance).” The painting won the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and positioned Sherald to obtain the commission to paint First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait, which was revealed at the National Portrait Gallery last year. In all three compositions Black women gaze forward without reservation. This confident energy permeates ‘the heart of the matter…’ in works such as “There is no charm equal to the tenderness of heart.” Here, another woman calmly poses with one arm tucked behind her back. The subject’s demeanor, accompanied by the title (a quote from Jane Austen’s novel Emma), encourages us to not only consider her outward appearance, but her underlying character as well.
In addition to six portraits centering on individuals, the exhibition also debuts “Precious jewels by the sea,” a painting of four figures amid a simple beach landscape. The two men casually balance each woman on their shoulders, and Sherald highlights the intimacy of their distinct relationships with details like the gentle brushing of fingertips of the couple on the left. Measuring nine by ten feet, the canvas demonstrates the artist’s interest in monumentality and its ability to positively influence our perceptions of those represented.
At a similarly grand scale, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” depicts a lone man perched on an industrial beam high above the viewer. Handsomely dressed in pinstriped pants and a turtleneck, he appears almost weightless against a blue backdrop. The scene recalls Charles C. Ebbet’s photographs of workers building New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza in the 1930s. The title quotes Toni Morrison’s impactful book Song of Solomon, again implying that by letting go, we can experience new forms of freedom. Sherald’s literary references throughout ‘the heart of the matter…’ add another layer to the sense of interiority conveyed in each figure’s expression. In fact, the title of the exhibition itself comes from the first chapter of bell hooks’s Salvation, in which she advocates for a “love ethic” that supports self-compassion in Black communities. Much like hooks, Sherald’s most recent display of work emphasizes the interior self as integral to fully representing Blackness and the Black American experience.
Amy Sherald ‘the heart of the matter…’ continues through October 26 at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd St New York, NY 10011).