The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
Art In Conversation

AMY SHERALD with Osman Can Yerebakan

“Stillness and posture are about resilience, but also fragility.”

Portrait of Amy Sherald, pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Based on a photograph by Jordan Geiger.
Portrait of Amy Sherald, pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Based on a photograph by Jordan Geiger.
On View
Hauser & Wirth
the heart of the matter
September 10 – October 26, 2019
New York City

Where does a masterful painter, a portraitist, go after painting the portrait of a First Lady? The answer is in Amy Sherald’s grasping, intimate, and serene paintings of subjects she pulls from the crux of life, grasping the heart of the matter in each model. Borrowed from the first chapter of bell hooks’s book Salvation: Black People and Love: bell hooks, Hauser & Wirth’s the heart of the matter includes 8 paintings in which figures are demure and dazzling at the same time. They are empowered by their attire, their gaze, and the colors that surround them. Sherald and I met amidst her paintings, which accompanied us through a conversation that meandered around love, success, loneliness, race, empowerment, and America.

Osman Yerebakan (Rail): Let’s start with your move to New Jersey. As a painter who is heavily influenced by her community, have you been observing the change in people you see everyday from Baltimore to New Jersey?

Amy Sherald: I’m really happy that Baltimore is where I landed, because that city is deeply ingrained in my work and my models. I don't think it's going to change, because I still have a connection there and I still plan on going back and look for people as often as I can. There’s only one model in this show that's not from Baltimore. No, there’s actually two… But I met him on the subway.

Amy Sherald, The girl next door, 2019. Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Rail: The Path?

Sherald: No, before, this is when my boyfriend Kevin still lived in Brooklyn. On the A train.

Rail: New York is in the show?

Sherald: Yes, the guy with the long hair, a twenty-something construction worker. Immediately, I looked at him and said, “I want to paint him,” but felt really awkward because I'm on the train with lots of people, and I didn't want to have that conversation with people overhearing me. I’m self-conscious and shy, so I got my partner to walk up to him, then I said “I want to paint you.”

Rail: Did he Google you?

Sherald: I don't think he did, honestly. I think he thought it was a fashion modeling gig. I don't think he quite understood what was going on. But I'm thinking about it now and I've worked with more than one person in New York City. And they've been great. There's a huge variety here, but I still want to keep my connection to Baltimore. It's easier here because we're walking. You can go out in New York City and pass 300 people in two hours.

Rail: And flocks of styles and faces.

Sherald: Right.

Rail: But everyone else in the show is from Baltimore?

Sherald: Yes.

Rail: It’d be fair to say you moved here for love, which is romantic. I remember reading about your idea of giving up on love for a long time.

Sherald: [Laughing] Ta-da! Everything came together.

Rail: When you least expect it. When you're in love you see things differently—mellow, compassionate. So, how has that changed your way of seeing people, your subjects?

Sherald: The funny thing about my partner and I is that I'm already a very sensitive and compassionate person. I grew up in the South, so our ways of being in the world are very different. He’s from Bed-Stuy. In the South, you can be talking on your cell phone and watering your grass, and if somebody walks down the street, you put your phone down and say, “Hello there, how ya doin'? Good to see ya.” That idea of staying in your zone is not a concept for me.

Rail: You're always conscious about yourself.

Sherald: I always make eye contact with people and care about what's going on around me. In the beginning, Kevin kept saying, “You can’t talk to everybody. You can’t help every homeless guy. You have to mind your own business here.”

Rail: That also goes for looking for models. I don't think you’re out there looking for models everyday, but approaching that guy would be different probably.

Sherald: I guess you could say it's risky but it's normally in daylight around lots of people, so it doesn't really feel that way. It's a big deal to move to another city for somebody, but I definitely knew that he was my person. And it's been great having him because he really grounds me. When things are crazy, I don't feel so alone. It's different when you're going through stuff and you have somebody there—even for exciting things. I used to go home and it’d be just me and my dog, August, in my bed watching a movie on my phone.

Rail: You probably just wanted to stay at your studio.

Sherald: Yes, I got so much work done. Now, I want to leave my studio by 6 pm. Normally, I would come in at 11 am and leave whenever I wanted to—9 pm, 10. It didn't matter because I wasn't coming home to anybody.

Rail: I know. You drink more, you party more.

Sherald: All that. I sort of miss it too, because once you come into yourself, you find value in there. I couldn't find value in that when I was in my 20s, and maybe midway into my 30s, I found value in just being a single human being in the world living and doing whatever I wanted to do for me and just thinking about myself. Now, in a relationship, you think for two people and everything is “we” which is something you get accustomed to.

Rail: Do you miss being just “me?”

Sherald: I'm in my 40s, so at that point I thought we’re set in our ways too and we’re a little less malleable. I had to make some adjustments, such as, it is “we” now—I can't just make a decision and not tell him about it.

Rail: Even having a dog or pet is too much on your own, especially if you first started that dog with someone.

Sherald: When I was single, I used jokingly to say, “I just need a boyfriend to help me walk my dog.” Especially now, since my career has picked up, when I have deadlines, I send him away with a dog hiker, so he gets to go hiking in the woods everyday for two hours. Because you're so codependent on one another that even if he's in the studio with me and sleeping for two hours, I think he's bored or he hates his life. I need to do something to make my dog happy now. I have a hard time focusing when he's around because he's so cute and I want him to be living his best life. I work to make him happy, that's what I say.

Rail: [Laughing] The idea of commissioning portraits is one of the oldest traditions in art, and you were the first Black woman commissioned for the National Gallery for the first Black First Lady. What do you think about this political essence of taking on this tradition that has been very white and Eurocentric from a social-political aspect?

Sherald: I recognize what it means for me to be me in the art world, for me to be a female painter, a female figurative painter, a Black female figurative painter—

Rail: Of Black figures.

Sherald: Of Black figures. And I feel the weight of that responsibility, not as a burden, but I recognize that in a lot of ways I'm reclaiming time in art history, because if you know art history then you know the first exhibitions for Black artists—in spaces that weren't the lobby of the YMCA—was I think in the 1940s, or the ’30s. If you think about how long art history is, and how many years artists have been showing, and just coming into that opportunity for me, just being able to add into the American art canon, is somewhat crazy. I always said as a figurative painter, I didn't get into this life not to have my work hanging on the walls or just to be relegated to a corner. I needed the work to be mainstream and I needed it to be employed in many different ways, and essentially be an important part of the conversation.

I don't normally do commissions. And I joke around to say that the only two others I would do is Meghan Markle and Serena Williams. That's also why as a figurative painter I loosely tie myself to American realists. I am a figurative painter and I paint everyday American people. It was artists like Bo Bartlett who really helped me create that vision. At that age and at that time when I was younger, I thought that making art meant being able to render the figure and make these big paintings of people, so I really didn't understand what it was that they were doing, or that it had a name, but once I did, I thought, “this is who I am and I feel like I'm kind of doing the same thing that they're doing.” I should be able to sit in that pantheon and I shouldn’t be relegated to the outside of it, because my experience shouldn't be marginalized. We built America. There wouldn't be an America if there were no Black people here. And it’s about really taking ownership of that and being empowered by that, and not being victimized by that. And putting images out there that, painting things that I want to see. I once heard Kerry James Marshall say, and this is not verbatim, the figure holds more weight with the American art narrative—rather than abstraction—because the body politic is there.

There's just not that many of us. I was an anomaly to my family when I wanted to be an artist, to my mother who was born in the 1930s, not going to museums growing up. She's 85 and it wasn’t part of her zeitgeist or world—it was not something that you did on a Sunday. There weren’t many of us growing up saying they wanted to be artists. If you think about how many Black female figurative painters there are in the world, I think you could probably count them on two hands, maybe one. It's me, Jordan, and Lynnette. There’s just not that many.

Rail: Speaking of portraiture, also with this show, clothing is almost as important as faces. It's another conveyor of the figures’ characters, personalities, and souls, similar to Michelle Obama’s portrait and her dress. How do you use clothing and fabric patterns to convey character?

Sherald: With Michelle, I really thought about it a lot harder. At the end of the day it's a political portrait, but I also didn't want the dress to just be a dress, I wanted it to have meaning as well. The pattern to me was really significant. When I'm working on my paintings, I think about it a little bit less, but sometimes I can really get into it.

Rail: It's fun probably, right?

Amy Sherald, A single man in possession of a good fortune, 2019. Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Sherald: It is! For example, the guy in A single man in possession of a good fortune (2019). I saw that on eBay, and I said, “holy cow this is amazing!” but I didn't know who was going to wear it. It's a women’s sweater actually. But when he came into my studio to visit, he was one of the artists that was on a team of muralists that I worked with for the mural in Philadelphia. I asked him to put the sweater on for a picture. It was just perfect for him, for his personality, and it just worked.

Rail: So you painted him off of a photo?

Sherald: I take a photograph of everyone. If they have on what I wanted them to wear when I met them, then I have them show up in that outfit; and if they don't, then I have different things. I've started just collecting a lot of clothes now. Years ago, I would go out shopping for that particular outfit and then find the model, but I don't have two months to spend working on one painting now, so I collect clothes and I try to piece it together based on their personality. Sometimes you can put somebody in something and if they don't feel comfortable, they don't photograph well. And so I have to work in between how they feel and how I feel, even though at the end of the portrait it has no relation to who they are essentially in the world. They come to represent something bigger, more like an archetype. In order for me to get what I want from them, I have to make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Rail: Also, I was thinking of Kerry James Marshall and Toyin Ojih Odutola, and how they each have a signature black hue, and for you it’s this gray. Gray is about possibilities and being neither nor, in some gray area. It's about being open to the other side, and being able to bend, and being malleable. What does gray mean to you, not just optically?

Sherald: The first time I decided to leave a painting that way—at that point I didn't know who Kerry James Marshall was—it was really an aesthetic decision. I don't know about other artists and their practice but I don't really go into it thinking “this is going to mean this, and this is going to mean that.” I started it in grisaille, and then the third painting into this body of work, I realized that it was a stronger image when the complexion wasn’t brown. It resonated in a different way. I'm not really sure that I knew then what that was; I intuitively just knew that it worked. When I look back in hindsight, I think that because the work that I was making in grad school was so ambiguous—when you looked at it, you didn't know if it was a male, female, Black, White. When I had transitioned into painting the Black figure, I had a fear of the work being marginalized and the conversation being steered towards one way of thinking.

The whole idea behind the work is that I'm creating narratives extricated from the dominant historical narratives, so for me it was about thinking about Blackness and presenting Blackness in a way that you don't normally see in the mainstream. I didn't want it to be specifically about identity because, at that time, I was in heart failure but highly functioning. I thought I had limited time on earth. I was diagnosed at 30, and living with that, living with a heart function that's so low, and knowing how long it takes to wait for organs, I thought, “I probably have a good ten years.” I got my organ at 39. So I was really doing soul searching, and just trying to figure out who I really was without all these constructs that I had been in especially in the conservative environment of the South. Being told who to worship, what to wear, how to act and what people were going to think of you and how to counter that… All of that was conversations I had before kindergarten. I really wanted to deconstruct myself and get down to who Amy really was outside of this person whose identity was formed in the Southern environment, which was a very racialized environment. You think about yourself differently. And being able to travel to different countries and being able to experience myself in different countries, and experience how people experience me differently, was eye opening. That was really why I started to make paintings this way. I felt like it was a necessary conversation at that point, nine years ago, you really didn't see a lot of work that way. It was usually slightly didactic, or about resistance, or I guess you could say like suffering, political.

Rail: Not hopeful maybe?

Sherald: Yes. I make reference in the press release to Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet (2012) because he does speak about, and put into language, what I was feeling—of just an interior experience that doesn't get honored. He says Blackness is consumed in the public. It has a public identity, and then you have your own private identity. The public identity is what makes Blackness a fact, “this is the experience of Black people.” But we are all obviously very different, and we all have our own interiority, that is a private space, that has nothing and everything to do with how the world sees you.

After reading that, I began to think about the grayness of the skin in a different way. These portraits are very quiet, and they are about the inside. So maybe that's what it's about, the interior and the exterior. It's how people see us if people don't see us this way. And the skin is gray because it's a shift of perspective.

Amy Sherald, If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it, 2019. Oil on canvas, 130 x 108 x 2 1/2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Rail: It's about that duality or malleability, but also variety and backgrounds. With this show, you're getting more experimental with backgrounds and adding actual scenes, but they're somewhat surreal, especially with the beam in If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it (2019). I assume you didn't photograph the model on a construction beam.

Sherald: No, we had one made.

Rail: They're almost theatrical or staged, I would say, but they also complement the figure’s character. I was just told that the model in that painting is actually very tall in real life.

Sherald: Yeah, that worked out perfectly.

Rail: That idea of height and being elevated, looking down on us, or the beach, this happy place—how do backgrounds come to you? Or, if it's just monochrome how do you determine which figure gets what color?

Amy Sherald, Precious jewels by the sea, 2019. Oil on canvas, 120 x 108 x 2 1/2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Sherald: It was a natural progression. “Okay I've painted 25 of these individual paintings of people, I loosely call them portraits. What's the next step?” It's really about challenging myself. And keeping the work interesting and growing. So in the beginning, I always struggled with environment because I thought that it took away from the painting. It almost made them more pedestrian if they were somewhere. If they were standing on 34th street, it almost takes away the kind of special—I don’t want to say that they become less spiritual, because it’s not that, but I guess it’s just the quiet quality. There’s less wonder, so you walk up to them and you just figure them out in a second because they’re placed in this environment, and it localizes them in this way that I don’t like. I knew that I couldn’t make paintings of people and just put them on a flat background. It’s a huge painting you know. I think that’s why I was originally drawn to the beam work and to Charles Ebbets’s photography, which that painting is inspired by, because the structure, to me, broke the painting up into these different planes, and when I first envisioned it, I imagined those planes flat. The blue background is flat, the beam is essentially flat, and then the figure would be there. So I envisioned it a little bit more abstract, then it actually came out. When I started to paint, it told me what it needed to be in the process of working on it. With the beach—I think that I’m realizing now that when I do place these figures in places I like the horizon line to be a little lower so that there still is a huge plane of color that they’re sitting on. That psychologically, to me, feels the same as the smaller paintings. The first painting I did, I kind of just made up the world. I said, “I don’t know where they’re going to be, I’m just going to make a field.” I can’t even remember how I came up with the idea with the rocket taking off—

Rail: Yes, the kid and the mom in Planes, rockets, and the space in between (2018). There’s this hope with the rocket.

Sherald: It’s about this iconic American moment and bearing witness to that. While I was painting that one, I was also thinking about the movie that had come out. Hidden Figures (2017), and that experience of being a part of history and never being called or named. The beach and that painting feel the same to me. It’s a lot of blue sky, I love that ethereal feeling that it brings. You still can’t really place it anywhere and it still feels timeless to me, and that’s what I really like about the way that they’re coming out. I’m still in a kind of test mode about the larger works. I’m really just playing around now and seeing what works for me. So far I like everything about them.

Rail: And the beach is the largest painting?

Sherald: The beach painting has the most people of any I’ve painted before, but the beam painting is larger by a foot.

Rail: Let’s talk about fashion and this idea of creating fashion as a way to claim a territory. Being fashionable, even being chic, is a social commentary on wealth, or the ability to buy clothes, or think about how you look, or claiming a part in society. How do you use fashion and style, such as earrings and headpieces, as a way to enhance the characters presence?

Amy Sherald, Sometimes the king is a woman, 2019. Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Sherald: The paintings are so simple that I’m selective and think about what’s missing and what needs to be here. So the telephone earrings in Sometimes the king is a woman (2019), little fun things like that. I got those earrings and I didn’t know how I was going to use them, and I got the dress but I never bought them to be put together. The dress in real life is blue and red, so the stripe is blue and the dress is red, but as I was putting it together I thought “this worked for this person.” I think a lot of people tie it into fashion, but I don’t really think of it as fashion. I don’t think of them as costumes either. I think in the beginning I maybe have verbalized what I did in that way, but it’s really just about extraordinariness.

Rail: But also, clothing is a way for you to open this portal to abstraction and a way to implement abstract painting into your figurative painting. Is that an idea you think about?

Sherald: No, but I’m going to start saying that now. [Laughs]

Rail: This gives you a breath so that you can experiment.

Sherald: I thought of that with the sweater because of the graphics of the houses.

Rail: Or a dress that could be a painting.

Sherald: That’s funny because when I made my first—what I thought was my first abstract painting, when I was 10 or something—I really didn’t know what abstract painting was, but I had seen some paintings in the encyclopedia, and it looked something similar. It was lightning and an arrow, and some weird shapes on a hot pink background.

Rail: Your own biography is a testimony on perseverance, survival, finding success, and health later in life. So how interested are you in your subjects’ biographies, what they’ve been through, and what they’re going through? Are you interested in those elements being reflected in your paintings, or do you not want to know anything?

Sherald: I always feel mean when I say I don’t care, but it’s not that I don’t care—they don’t bring the meaning to it with their experiences. They’re the vessel for something else that I want to portray. I have gone into conversations—specifically, one that comes to mind is a younger girl who I painted. I saw her at an art fair in Baltimore, and she was dressed kind of goth/punk, she had on a red wig and this dress, and that’s who I was when I was in my 20s, so I totally saw myself in her. I was shaving my head, dying my hair blue. I brought her to the studio and I was talking to her and I asked what she does and I’m just trying to fill in time while I’m getting my stuff ready, and she said she part-timed as a stripper. I suddenly said, “Wait, what? How old are you? I’m not your mom, but we need to talk about this.” In that sense I got a little involved with her, but I guess at the end of the day it’s probably a bit transactional, even though that sounds dirty.

Rail: How has Baltimore influenced you and what do you see in New Jersey and New York?

Amy Sherald, When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas), 2018. Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 x 2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Sherald: I think moving to Baltimore was a huge transition, coming from a city like Atlanta, because there’s a lot of Black wealth in Atlanta. It’s a music industry city so it felt different. Coming from that experience, where I give the example, and it’s not literal, but I say that every Black person in Atlanta has a Range Rover and then, coming to Baltimore, I was almost shocked at the level of disenfranchisement and poverty that I saw in the city. I just wanted to do something about it. I was emotionally distraught for my first 2 years there, and I was constantly seeing women in the street. I was really vulnerable to that because I just never got to experience those things on a daily basis. I think because I paint Black people, and embedding myself in the community there, and working in the communities there with YouthWorks and different organizations, and teaching in the Baltimore City jail, that one summer I had this epiphany that these are the people whose stories I’m telling. This is who needs to be on the walls. They need to see themselves. Baltimore slowly became my inspiration. In the earlier pieces, I really hadn’t connected myself to that American narrative yet. I really didn’t consider my American-ness as a thing, because in the south, anything that had to do with the flag was normally from an overly patriotic white person, who didn’t see you in the same way as they saw themselves.

I think a lot of Black people probably thought about it when Barack Obama became president. Also traveling and being seen as an American first, that had never happened to me before. I really started to reconsider how I felt about myself and my place in this country.

Rail: Or the place of your figures.

Sherald: Yeah, because it didn’t feel like mine. I don’t know why it didn’t feel like mine, but the stories I grew up with—like the reason I don’t have a grandmother is because they let her bleed to death in a whites-only hospital lobby while she hemorrhaged during childbirth and they wouldn’t help her, and that was the closest hospital. My American stories are that I don’t have a grandmother because of racism, and that I didn’t have a grandfather because of racism… They were just murdered. I never really grew up with the warm and fuzzy feelings about the country or the South, which is in America, but it’s like it’s own culture and way of being that is so different from anywhere else in the world. Maybe if I go to California it would all be different, but growing up in the South definitely shapes you.

Rail: Stillness and posture are about resilience, but also fragility. Exposing yourself for an artist, but also to an audience, or for a lens if you take photographs, but it’s also about claiming a spot on the canvas and in a social context. There’s both glory and vulnerableness in daring to pose knowing that you’re being re-created. How does posture go into your work and how do you determine your poser’s posture? Is it something you completely decide?

Sherald: I let them fall into it basically. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time because they’re not comfortable. I know when I get in front of a camera I go blank. I turn into a completely different person. So we go through a series of poses and sooner or later, I think this is why I like it when you’re being photographed and a photographer starts talking to you, you forget what you’re doing and you fall into something. At that moment, I tell them not to move.

There is fragility there but I don’t think I’ve ever called it by that name. The poses are really about this soft confrontation. I think the frontal pose is what I focus on if they’re facing forward, and that they’re looking out at the viewer so that they’re not gazed upon like most portraits, what I call passive portraits, where there are people in the painting that are there to be gazed upon. The people in these paintings know that they’re there, and they’re as present as the painting. They’re there to make eye contact with you. That’s why I hang the painting lower than normal, because I want the viewer to be able to have eye-to-eye contact and not—you know, when you go to museums and you’re looking up at something? They aren’t those people. They’re not there to look down at you, they’re there to be with you in the space when you’re looking at them. They’re present like you’re present.

Rail: But also, dealing with the Black body in social daily life, Black bodies are associated with movement, be that dance, basketball, work, or physical labor. The idea of having them stop, and do nothing, the luxury of doing nothing, or just posing, or daring to look—

Sherald: It’s counterintuitive to the way I guess people see us, because I always say I associate Blackness with being a verb, it’s like an action.

Rail: Moving, doing something.

Sherald: Yes, you’re resisting and doing something, and so, figures are there essentially in meditation. You can walk up to them as Black people and see reflections of yourself or be gazed upon by someone who looks like you and feel loved, present, and seen. A reflective mirror.

Rail: Not running through the hectic life, but calm and dressy…

Sherald: It’s just about Black people being Black. I think that’s what I’m saying. They’re just there, they’re not doing anything, but their presence is doing everything.

Rail: Or their gaze.

Sherald: They’re not performing.

Rail: Also, there’s this boldness in being really colorful with your backgrounds. They’re joyfully pastel monochromes or at the beach, and there are definitely contrasts. They serve as sort of how the figure will come out. You’re not afraid of flashy colors, pinks, blues, and greens. What do you think about that idea of happiness or joy or celebration?

Amy Sherald, There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart, 2019. Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 x 2 1/2 inches. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Sherald: I think those colors exist in the world for a reason. I also see color as a part of the African American experience as well. Just in general, African American, Afro-Carribean—all these places where there’s brown people, there’s always lots of color. You know, if you go to Barbados, the houses are different colors.

I use them because they’re innately a part of who I am. When I studied with Odd Nerdrum in Norway, his palette was the exact opposite of mine. I think they call it a Nordic palette, grays and browns. Even when I would spend my summers in Panama with my godfather, in the village that we would live in, everything was colorful. The houses were all different colors. I go to his home in Atlanta and every single room is a different color, it’s overwhelming. It’s just what I grew up with.

Rail: The monochrome backgrounds adds this dream state to them, because there’s no moment in life where there’s nothing behind us, but in the paintings, figures are devoid of reality in this dream state. Similar to how movies show dreams as hazy moments of fog.

Sherald: Yeah, I guess it’s an alternate reality.

Rail: The title of the show is from bell hooks’s book, Salvation, and portraiture is about grabbing the heart of the matter. What prompted you to use that expression for your biggest gallery show ever?

Sherald: I’ve had that book for a couple of years. It gave me ideas around how I know myself to be and the less public Black experience, or many ideas piled in it. She talks about getting back to a love ethic in the first couple chapters, and it really gets down to humanity and it gets down to who we really are as people existing in this world. I think that’s what the heart of the matter is when it comes to us being us, we are always going to be ourselves. It’s just about getting back to love and about loving ourselves, and letting go of seeing ourselves how other people see us. I grew up with that. You walk into a room and you take on the identity that you assume other people are experiencing you as. It’s just getting down to who we really are and I think it goes back to the time that I spent prior to my heart transplant just trying to get down to the heart of who Amy was and how she would be without all of the noise, without all of the external directives that you have to exist within and still try to figure out who you are inside that.

Rail: How about silence? In your paintings, there’s a calm, tranquil effect just by looking at your figures and the colors you use. How do you achieve that element of silence and subtlety that makes the viewer stop and just look?

Sherald: It could be their eyes, or the fact that their mouths are closed and in a relaxed state, but I really think it’s about the gaze and the stopping of the moment. It’s as if the world has stopped when you look at the piece, the world has stopped revolving. Everything stops at one time. I think it's the gaze that makes everything so quiet. And the placement of things. Visually, you’re not seeing anything noisy.

Rail: Was going larger in scale something you were thinking of lately, or did you want to respond to Hauser & Wirth’s tall ceilings?

Sherald: It’s something I wanted to do for a long time but I couldn’t in Baltimore. I didn’t have the right space and I wanted it to make sense. I didn’t want to make a big painting for the sake of making a big painting. I needed it to be a natural progression, so I waited for years.

I had a large canvas made years before I used it. It was just sitting in my studio and I moved it from one place to another. I still hadn’t wrapped my mind around what it was supposed to be and just working out those different issues with backgrounds. How would it feel, and what it would mean, and what context would it be interpreted in?

Rail: Your titles are really poetic and gentle. How do you select those titles or how do you compose them?

Sherald: A lot of reading. When I’m reading, I sometimes come across sentences that are just perfect. I write them down and maybe a year later I’ll make a painting and go back and look for titles. For example, the guy in the sweater, A single man in possession of a good fortune, that line is in the movie Pride and Prejudice (2005). I recognized that line immediately and then was able to match it with that painting. There are some that are made up, but for the most part—my sister used to help me with them. She’s a writer, but lately she just hadn’t been killing it like she was before. We would put our words together. Even for Miss Everything, she had this other title that I thought was too heavy but I put it in parentheses—Unsuppressed Deliverance. So we would come up with them together because for me it’s really difficult. I think naming is the most difficult part.

Googling poetry, reading, and a couple of them come from Toni Morrison books. I find some of that illustrate these exact moments that women have written in history, from Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks, and different poets.

Rail: You talk about American Realism and I thought about American Gothic (1930) and bringing the invisible into the center, which I guess a realist painter does. What do you think about painting’s role in writing or rewriting histories? Or unlearning what’s been told and taught, but creating your own with corrections?

Sherald: The paintings stand as both a critique to art history and as an additive to art history, and more specifically American art history. Going back to what Kerry James Marshall said about the weight of painting the Black figure and its insertion into art history, that’s essentially all you have to do. Their being in the space is a radical moment, and being in museums is still a radical moment and so, even though the work, for me, is about quietness and a more private way of being, they’re not necessarily so. They’re still employed in the world in a different way. They can have many different jobs in how they sit and what the mean in different spaces to different people.

Rail: What do you think about that idea of leaving something for the future, but also taking cues from the past and present?

Sherald: It’s why I try and focus on the universality of the work, and not placing them in spaces necessarily. I mean this painting could have been 60 years ago or now. Waiting for that right moment, that right time. While I was making the work and waiting, I thought about that book, The Alchemist, a lot. When the kid was working in the crystal glass shop, he thought life was passing him by, but really it was just about the right time, and he was getting where he wanted to be at the right time. For me, now is the right time. If things had happened faster—as fast as I wanted them to happen—maybe there are opportunities that wouldn’t have been there, but maybe the world wouldn’t have been ready. The world is ready now, and essentially there are Black artists, such as Ed Clark, who’ve been working for decades, and they are just now getting recognition. But Black work was always undervalued, so I think it’s great now that we’re producing a lot of powerful work and I think we’re producing a lot of the most interesting work of our time. I think that’s why there’s such a huge interest.

Amy Sherald: the heart of the matter is on view at Hauser & Wirth through October 26, 2019.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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