Featured Work

image of Freeing Herself

Freeing Herself Was One Thing, Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self Was Another

Amy Sherald (Columbus, Georgia, b. 1973)
Oil on canvas, 2015
54 x 43 inches

Identity as always been at the center of Amy Sherald’s work.

But beginning in the early 2000’s, while living in Baltimore and studying under Grace Hartigan, her attentions shifted away from the autobiographical in favor of the other-directed, sparking a series of powerful African American portraiture that is both socially critical and visually spectacular.

In these paintings Sherald explores representations of African American identity through careful costuming, props, and implied storytelling. Formally, her portraiture holds an undeniable kinship with the work of Barkley Hendricks (1945-2017), the subjects predominantly African American, painted with sharp realism and standing against a flat, non-illusionistic background. But unlike Hendricks, she employs en grisaille or grayscale for her skin tones, a reference to the nostalgia of vintage photographs, but also, “a way of challenging the concept of color-as-race.” And while both artists give much attention to clothing, Sherald’s sitters are playfully dressed up, their attire less about reality and more about fantasy, imagination, and self-invention, “the versions of ourselves that thrive when extricated from the dominant historical narrative.”

In Freeing Herself..., a young woman with thick, straight, bright red hair and charcoal colored skin stands in frontal pose and looks with calm intensity at the viewer. Wearing a large black flower in her wig-like hair and a black motorcycle jacket over a striped smock and short skirt, she appears both street-smart and youthfully vulnerable. Part Commedia dell’arte, part Jailhouse Rock, the trappings mix and mismatch in the spirit of playing dress-up, each item pulled from the subject’s own closet by Sherald when staging the portrait. Against her body, she holds a rag doll with white cloth for skin who is dressed up in corresponding, but not entirely matching attire. Their “closeness” creates strong tension between girl and poppet – a fetish friend, mascot or surrogate self. The quasi-twins float before a deep plum background, its brimming pink bubbles suggest a magic potion of transformational powers. Childhood becoming adulthood. Restriction becoming permission. Self-consciousness becoming self-determination. All themes that tie into the painting’s title of “freeing herself.” For Sherald herself, who underwent a heart transplant in 2012, the theme has a personal connection. Those close to her say, “She talks about setting her subjects free, and in a way, the transplant set her free to be a painter. She owed it to herself to give it everything, even with all of the doubt and self-criticism that we all face.”

Amy Sherald was born in Columbus, GA, in 1973. She lives and works in Baltimore, MD. She received her BFA from Clark-Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, and her MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD. From 1997 to 2018 she has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and is represented by Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, IL, and recently Hauser & Wirth, New York, NY, where a solo exhibition of her work is scheduled for 2019. Sherald is the recipient of a Pollock- Krasner Foundation Grant (2013), Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptures Grant (2015), the Bethesda Painting Award (2016), and the David C. Driskell Prize (2018). In 2016 she was awarded the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition Grand Prize, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, to create the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama which was unveiled in Washington, D.C., on February 12, 2018.