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Remarkable Portraits by Artist Amy Sherald Render Subjects in Grayscale Against Vibrant Backdrops

June 5, 2020

Grace Ebert

“Precious jewels by the sea” (2019), oil on canvas, 120 × 108 × 2 1/2 inches. All images © Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald grew up in Columbus, Georgia, which shaped her conceptions of identity and fundamentally influenced her artistic practice. “Acknowledging the performative aspects of race and Southernness, I committed myself to exploring the interiority of Black Americans,” the artist told Smithsonian Magazine in December 2019. “I wanted to create unseen narratives.”

Now living and working in Baltimore, Sherald paints distinctive portraits set against bold, vibrant backdrops. She renders each subject, who stares directly at the viewer, in her signature grayscale. “A Black person on a canvas is automatically read as radical,” she said. “My figures needed to be pushed into the world in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative. I knew I didn’t want it to be about identity alone.”

When considering how Sherald titles her works, it’s not surprising that she reads voraciously: “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” is a line from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves” in Maud Martha; and “The lesson of the falling leaves” is a Lucille Clifton poem. Each explores the relationship between interiority and exteriority and the experience of Black Americans.

Notably, too, Michelle Obama chose Sherald to paint her official portrait, which was released in 2018. To see more of the artist’s portraits and follow her upcoming projects, head to Instagram.

 

“She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (2018), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches

Left: “Try on dreams until I find the one that fits me. They all fit me” (2017), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches. Right: “Innocent You. Innocent Me” (2016), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (2019), oil on canvas, 129 15/16 x 108 x 2 1/2 inches

“She always believed the good about those she loved” (2018), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches

Left: “The lesson of the falling leaves” (2017), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches. Right: “She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves” (2017), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches

“What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American)” (2017), oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches

 

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