Photo: JJ Geiger
Artist Amy Sherald and Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director of the New Museum, will explore what it means for contemporary artists engaged with portraiture to be a witness.
Born in 1973 in Columbus, GA, and now based in Baltimore MD, Amy Sherald documents contemporary African American experience in the United States through arresting, otherworldly portraits. Sherald uses portraiture to reveal unexpected narratives, to invite viewers to question accepted notions of race and representation, and to situate black heritage centrally in the story of American art. While her subjects are always African American, Sherald renders their skin-tones exclusively in grisaille—an absence of color that directly challenges perceptions of black identity—and offsets them against a vibrant palette. The depth created by these pastel backgrounds frees her subjects from a confined time or space and instead places them in a realm beyond the facts of recorded history and national borders. The individuals in her paintings are deliberately posed, dramatically staged, and assertive in gaze. Their expressiveness and the variations in their gestures, clothing, and emotional auras reinforce the diversity of African American existence. The sense of mystery maintained in Sherald’s work requires viewers to consider the thoughts and dreams of the black men and women she presents. Sherald was the first woman and first African American to receive first prize in the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.; in February 2018, the museum unveiled her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Sherald has also received the 2018 David C. Driskell Prize from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA. Alongside her painterly practice, Sherald has worked for almost two decades alongside socially committed creative initiatives, including projects with teenagers and teaching art in prisons.