The Great American Fact
Hauser and Wirth, Los Angeles
through June 6
We live in between the lines; in between the cracks of black and white. That’s where the bonds are formed.Amy Sherald
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Amy Sherald’s much anticipated exhibition entitled The Great American Fact at Hauser and Wirth does not disappoint. In the vast space of the gallery are five bold, ambitious, meticulously crafted paintings whose scale and narrative are visually compelling. Completed during the pandemic year of 2020, these works are paradoxically part of this politically charged moment but also seek to transcend it. These five paintings are an oasis of calm, serenity and quietude, portraying Black Americans in bucolic and fictionalized landscapes.
Sherald’s works engages in conversation with American myths — the dream of home ownership complete with the white picket fence — and with art history, which systematically excludes the black body. In interviews, Sherald has said that she paints what she would like to see. And what she wants to see is “everyday people doing everyday things,” as a counter-narrative to the troubling and poisonous images of struggle often portrayed when it comes to black bodies.
Amy Sherald’s now iconic portrait of First Lady Michele Obama catapulted her to art rock star status. Her use, in that image, of the neutral grisaille skin tone, the flattened hard edge pastel background, the dress fabric’s bold and linear lines (akin to nineteenth century Japanese ukiyo-e prints) are all hallmarks of her style also seen here in “A Bucket full of treasures (Papa gave me sunshine in my pockets…) 2020, oil on linen, 54 x 43 x 2 ½ inches. One of my favorites, this is a buoyant portrait of a handsome young man with a natural, in a fabulous, collared shirt and snazzy green pants. He is looking genially down at the viewer from a height. His body is embedded in the flat and un-modulated bright yellowish background almost like an insect caught in amber. The tactile surface of the shirt rewards the viewer with visible almost three -dimensional stitchery and a beautifully textured zipper. Subtle color shifts in the collar indicate some wear, although the outfit is very crisp. The face is beautifully and subtly modeled with exquisite paint handling, proving that Sherald is indeed a spectacular portrait painter.
“Hope is the thing with feathers (The little bird) 2020, oil on linen, 54 x 43 x 2 ½ inches, follows the same structure with a frontal figure, in this case a lithe and lovely young woman also with a natural hairdo, in a three-quarter pose, garbed in a dark red mini dress with a hard edged graphic of a bird. The figure is held in place by the rich grayed pastel background. Sherald’s masterful manipulation of color, line and value give both of these portraits their sizzle and pop.
Usually Sherald finds her models in her daily life, on the bus, subway or streets of her neighborhood. She is almost like a casting agent, searching for the right “actor” with the right look for a particular narrative vehicle. But during the pandemic she had to resort to images posted on Instagram (she googled “black surfers”) which is where she found the models for the captivating large-scale ”An Ocean Away” 2020, 130 x 108 X 2 ½ inches. While the athletic looking woman is looking directly at the viewer, the man is staring pensively out across the very same ocean that his ancestors crossed against their will. The background here looks like Far Rockaway or any generic East Coast beach, with its rickety fence, scraggly foliage, and crunchy sand. Though the figures are in the same space, they are not interacting as each is locked in place by their hard edges, giving the picture an odd calmness. Vibrant primary colors, and the bold graphics on the surfboard animate this unusual image of black surfers at the beach.
“As American as apple pie,” 2020, Oil on canvas, 123 x 101 x 2 ½ inches, is the first painting one sees upon entering the large, well-lit gallery space. What could be more “American” than a couple proudly posing in front of their beautiful shining automobile? Everything is perfect. Not a cloud in the pale blue sky. The man is clad in a crisp denim jacket, khakis and sparkling white sneakers. The woman’s bright rose-colored shirt sports the word ‘Barbie”- the razor thin doll whose body is in direct contrast to the solid and confident buxom woman wearing the shirt. In her hands she has a pink flamingo cup, reminiscent of all those pink flamingos on lawns – a kitsch symbol of home ownership and pride. The house could be anywhere U.S.A., which is the point, although the preternatural stillness is almost unsettling. This is a real couple photographed by Sherald in her own neighborhood but transported to a fictional place.
The author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston described African-American investigations into coiffure, fashion and cosmetics as the “will to adorn,” and hair, clothes, and make up are important markers for Sherald. The natural hairstyle worn by the man in “As American as apple pie” was popularized in the late nineteen–sixties by the photographer Kwame Brathwaite who coined the historical phrase “Black Is Beautiful.” This hairstyle was taught to the African-American community in 1962 as a way to discourage the Harlem community from using European hair techniques that involved straightening.
Sherald says “I synthesize my own archetypes, and icons: playful yet sober portraits of black Americans within an imaginative history where I do black my way, in the European tradition of oil painted portraiture…” The last painting in the show, “A Midsummer Afternoon Dream” 2020, Oil on canvas 106 x 101 x 2 ½ inches is the one painting most connected to art and film history. The central stolid female figure conjures up images both of marble Greek Goddesses with their flowing togas, and the Ingres portrait of the Contesse de Haussonville (1844). The bicycle that the figure is leaning on and dog in the basket reminds us of the movie The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s dog Toto. The quaint little house in the background is right out of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”. And then there are Van Gogh sunflowers everywhere. It’s a veritable and delightful cornucopia of references. The mood here is sunny, relaxed and speaks to leisure activity on a beautiful summer day. One can even feel the breeze.
These timeless paintings are intended to be a balm for our souls – like a bridge over troubled waters, and at that they succeed handily. These images are the culmination of over ten years of portraits where Sherald has explored black identity and refined her ability to construct counter narratives correcting historical negative stereotypes of black people and black lives. Powerful, engaging, and masterfully painted, these paintings reward the viewer visually, while posing important questions about what it is to American in today’s America.
Hauser and Wirth
901 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, 90013