Amy Sherald plumbs the multitudes of Black leisure in The Great American Fact, a series of arresting portraits that are currently on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles. From a woman resting on a bicycle to two surfers readying for the water, the oil-based paintings observe moments of respite and pleasure at a monumental scale, sometimes spanning nearly nine feet across.
Although she surrounds her subjects with vivid patches of color and portrays them wearing bright garments, Sherald (previously) continues to render her subjects’ skin in her signature grayscale, which she’s described in recent years as a way to have the figures read “in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative.” This new series also features elements synonymous with American culture, including a white picket fence, Barbie T-shirt, and retro convertible.
The collection’s title draws on the work of Anna Julia Cooper, an educator who in 1892 wrote A Voice From the South by a Black Woman of the South. In the classic Black feminist text, Cooper described Black people as “‘the great American fact’; the one objective reality on which scholars sharpened their wits, and at which orators and statesmen fired their eloquence.” This understanding structures Sherald’s work and provides guideposts for considering “public Blackness,” particularly as the Georgia-born artist portrays figures with rich personal lives full of ease, relaxation, and joy. When much of Black life historically has centered around grappling with injustice and social issues, Sherald’s turn inward provides a nuanced view of her subjects.
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From a single sheet of white paper, Kanako Abe (previously) carves exquisite silhouettes of children and young adults who are awash in seas of fish or occupied by quiet campouts. She utilizes the traditional Japanese art form called Kirie—which translates to cut picture—a technique that Abe begins with a sketch before slicing the delicate material with a variety of knives. “I don’t have a chance to change the design once I start cutting, so I find it challenging,” the Seattle-based artist says. “I have to think of the right patterns, controlling negative space, and make sure all the lines are connected so the art won’t fall apart once it’s finished.” A single piece can take anywhere from six to 60 hours to complete.
Abe shifted to full-time in 2020 and now balances her practice between commissions and ongoing personal projects, a few of which she’ll be sharing soon on Instagram. No matter the context, each artwork reflects a broader connection to nature and its ability to provide an escape from the complications and heartbreak of the current moment. “I find the process of art-making is a way for me to meditate on everyday thoughts and emotions, and it’s much easier for me to express complex feelings or emotions visually than verbally,” she tells Colossal. “The cycle of nature teaches us about the power of letting go or accept things as they are and that there’s a silver lining in everything.”
If you’re in San Francisco, you can see Abe’s intricate portraits at her September solo show at Rare Device. She’ll also be included in a group exhibition at Today’s Gallery in Ehime, Japan, which opens in December.
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Malmö, Sweden-based artist Miles Johnston portrays subjects whose figures are in states of flux, whether through fragmented bodies, multiplied faces, or limbs contorted into impossible positions. Often depicting Johnston (previously) or his partner, the graphite portraits distort typical anatomy in a way that balances the familiar with the unknown and visualizes the thoughts and emotions otherwise hidden inside the mind.
Whether set against a trippy backdrop or quiet beach, each piece portrays the experience of the body “through a kind of internal metaphorical language,” the artist says. He explains further:
We don’t directly experience the actual biochemical facts of what is happening in our bodies, hormones secreting, weird little proteins and neurons doing whatever it is they do. Instead, we have a whole language of expressions like stomach tied up in knots, feeling empty, torn in two, burning with anger, etc… I’m aiming for this sort of naive direct representation of what things feel like instead of a literal representation of how they look from the outside.
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Nearly a decade before masks became a ubiquitous part of our lives, artist Volker Hermes was fashioning lavish face coverings made of flowers, lace, and ornate baubles. In his ongoing series, Hidden Portraits, Hermes digs into the art historical archive and selects classical paintings that he then reinterprets. Elaborate accessories derived from elements in the original works become tools for obscuring the subjects’ faces, which subsequently draws attention to their garments, gestures, and surroundings.
Since he began the prescient series, Hermes has based his practice in painting even though he realizes each portrait digitally. Time has given him ample opportunities to delve into the original painters’ backgrounds, periods, and the symbolism of various fashions, an experience bolstered by his costuming work for opera productions.
Now fluent in historical significance, Hermes continues to parse questions of representation in the works and their current-day implications. “Each era has its own symbols,” he says. “I always like to mention the Chanel costume as a metaphor for today’s upper-class affiliation. There are of course more current, more specific ones, but this garment has something of a general visualization of an established elite.”
Other emblems—like the big, black hats made from beaver fur that many men don in works from the Dutch Golden Age to signify their rank—are more difficult to recognize today. Hermes says:
Whoever had such a hat, had himself painted with it. But today we don’t know that anymore. We simply see men with black hats, which no longer trigger anything in us. We look the sitters in the face as our natural approach. If I now exaggerate such a hat in my interventions, blocking the access via the face, the focus changes, the viewer is forced, so to speak, to look at the painting under new aspects, taking into account the meanings that determined the painting at that time.
From his studio in Düsseldorf, Hermes is preparing new pieces for a group show centered around a theme of clerical representation and pilgrimage, which you can keep up with on Instagram.
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Sublime Renderings of Women and Girls Explore Notions of Beauty in Portraits by Rosso Emerald Crimson
In her exquisite portraiture, London-based artist Rosso Emerald Crimson renders female subjects who emerge through a haze of pastels and muted tones. She infuses the dreamy oil paintings with responses to current affairs and questions about the future, which often serve as a catalyst for her projects. “I don’t ‘think’ specifically about political or ethical issues when I paint although my creative flow is undoubtedly fuelled by the impressions and emotions many global events leave subconsciously,” she tells Colossal. Issues of racial justice and the unrealistic portrayal of beauty have both played a role in her recent works, including the compelling portrait of a young Black girl titled “What Are We Waiting For.”
Generally, the subjects are people Rosso has a relationship with or someone who’s caught her eye, although she’s expanded her purview to models she’s never met as a way to adapt to pandemic restrictions. The artist often depicts the women and girls staring forward with unsmiling expressions. “I am enchanted by the diversity of human beings which is what truly makes us beautiful,” she says.
If you’re in London, you can see Rosso’s paintings that are part of an exhibition celebrating Women’s History Month at Zebra One Gallery until March 31. She’ll also have pieces on view at Southbank Centre this summer and a solo show at Chrom Art Gallery in November. Prints and originals are available in her shop, and you can see works-in-progress on Instagram.
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“To create in blue, one must first understand its powerful nature,” says Shawn Theodore in reference to Night Stars, an extensive new series of photographs that radiate the primary hue.
Shot using a variety of filters and lights, Theodore’s ethereal works are multivalent in aesthetic and affect. They evoke a range of references, spanning the color symbolizing an antidote to evil to the practices surrounding the 19th Century cyanotype, a medium with an archive that notably includes few Black subjects. Slavery in the United States also foregrounded the production of indigo, a cash crop that rice and cotton eventually supplanted. “There has to be a world that exists inside of the color. A spiritual process is happening that is begging us to look inside of it, and somewhere within it are answers,” the photographer says.
In an interview about the elegantly subversive series, Theodore shares that the original idea for the series emerged in 2016 and was inspired, in part, by the aesthetics of nature photography. Whether a portrait or more expansive shot, many of the works feature the sky, stars, and water elements that have deep and storied roots in African and African American traditions.
Along with his larger body of work, Night Stars is based on what Theodore terms “Afromythology,” a non-linear blend of histories and speculative futures derived from both real and imagined scenarios. This theme, in addition to the perpetual infusion of blue light, binds the individual works that otherwise encompass a breadth of Black experiences decontextualized from time and space. Theodore says about the intentionally broad series:
Featured in this collection are portraits made of bejeweled deities in the indigo-hued ether, the fervor of fête revelers, the quiet stillness amongst the dense foliage and haints of Low Country of South Carolina, possession in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, and sunrise reverence at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. At the center is the viewer, who stands at the bardos of these seemingly disjointed experiences, their presence unifying the real and unreal.
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Editor's Picks: Art
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.