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Obama portraitist Amy Sherald’s vibrant paintings detail perceptions of blackness

There is unencumbered movement within celebrated artist — and Michelle Obama portraitist — Amy Sherald’s exhibition, on display through May 18 at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. In this self-titled show, we see nine portraits from Sherald’s latest work, one of which is making its public premiere.

Amy Sherald

In keeping with the depth and intricacy of Sherald’s signature gray-skin-toned subjects, the gallery’s open space uses kindred color on its walls and museum labels, ensuring that nothing deflects from the vibrancy of her art, nor one’s own thoughts. Sherald’s subjects evoke an innate comfortability, reminiscent of the past and present for the future.

Planes, rockets and the spaces in between (2018) sets the mood, beckoning us and causing us to simultaneously stand still. Here, two women hold hands. One is colorfully clad, showing a welcome-if-you-dare stare — not in fear, but for those willing to be part of her experience. The longer you stare back, allowing her eyes to tell the story behind the story, the more challenging it is to walk away. Her eyes seem to follow you throughout the exhibition as if to say, “This outlook may be new to you, but it’s not new to me.” The second woman, in juxtaposition, faces backward and wears denim shorts and a white T-shirt. A plume of smoke shoots skyward in the distance, and there’s a certain uncertainty of foreshadowing. Which woman’s eyes are fixated on the past, the one facing forward or the one whose eyes are unseen? Has past become future or future backward?

Portrait stories continue through piercing eyes that try to speak through closed lips, asking us to put words to assimilated perceptions of blackness. Colors appear familiar yet warrant discussion. One may look blue, another cerulean, cyan or indigo. Judgments seem based on what we’ve been taught, or worse, hearsay — indefinable colors of black skin trying to fulfill perceptions. Perhaps color variations serve as overtones to sound the alarm of just how multifaceted black people have been, are and will continue to be.

In a 2016 interview with Fresh Art International, Sherald spoke of her own questioning of what a contemporary black experience should be. “There’s no freedom to experience yourself as you would be without the preconstructions of race and gender,” she said.

Most striking in this show is the large size of the paintings and the specificity of her subjects’ hands.

Bright, ripe lemons are a focal point of the dress in She always believed the good about those she loved (2013). There’s a sense of dutiful freedom in the flow of the woman’s dress, her hair and relaxed right arm, but her left arm moves away from the body, fingers balled with a slightly tucked thumb that alludes to a conventional stay-in-your-place and a contemporary keep-the-peace duality.

Varsity Girl (2016) seems the most pensive. The subject is in a red-and-white “S” letterman’s jacket, perhaps an analogy for a sobering, significant strength within. Interestingly, this painting’s bluish background is somewhat “flawed” — reminiscent of stains and splotches — which is noticeably different from the other works. “Varsity Girl” keeps her hands and her backstory hidden.

The painting What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (2017) features the only man in this show. He’s a lean-bodied cowboy in a buttoned-down American flag-inspired shirt, exuding confidence down to his veins and knuckles. One blue sleeve, red stripes, one white sleeve — perhaps a silent pledge of allegiance to a flag, an inner nation no longer waving under God but dividing liberty and justice — keeping his cool to cover up what he’s been labeled to be by others, maybe even by himself.

What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence, 2017 (Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery)

Sherald doesn’t tell us how to think. Her portraits move us out of our comfort zones to live, not only in the moments we’re in but in becoming who we’re authentically called to be. Boldly alive, for life. It isn’t about who others think black America has been, is or will be. Sherald gives voice to who blacks are, discarding decades of a manifested façade.