Amy Sherald has developed a language of repose in her monumental social portraiture. Always hued in her signature grisaille, her subjects are not contentious or pre-constructed but at ease and utterly themselves. In her new online exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, “Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender,” the artist presents a series of portraits of Black women at rest, doing very everyday things—here, in small-scale, in gouache on paper.
Resting against white backgrounds, Sherald’s subjects resist time. A woman sits in a sturdy armchair, legs crossed; a cyclist in a spotted yellow dress pauses; a woman in high-waisted pleated paints stands placidly with her weight shifted to her right foot. Sherald’s sitters are confident, aware of being looked at. Her subjects are absolved of self-consciousness and look back with curiosity. They are anonymous. They are also memorable. They appear dressed in their favorite outfits, the ones that assert their most concentrated, happiest selves.
Even Sherald’s large-scale portraits feel intimate (they are typically hung about a foot lower than the average painting, to engage the viewer closer to eye-level) and naturally, here, with some works smaller than a sheet of printer paper, even more so. The online display is tantalizing—zooming in on the exacting yet soft paint application, you want to hold the works in your hand, move them against the light, and see how they come alive.
I imagine that doing so might be like poring over the black-and-white photographs to which Sherald often refers—but maybe the more apt comparison is with a portrait miniature. During the Renaissance, tiny, handheld likenesses were tokens, treasured possessions that offered moments of contemplation or, at times, stand-ins for the sitter—who was often a beloved. Sherald’s miniatures project sitters at their most self-possessed and secure, and they are likewise figures clearly loved, emanating their mysterious selfhoods and inviting you into their realms.
Sherald introduces these individuals amidst novelist, poet, and activist Alice Walker’s oft-quoted phrase: “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Walker gave “womanist” four definitions: “the opposite of ‘girlish,’” “a woman who loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually,” a woman who “Loves,” including herself, “Regardless.” The definition referenced by Sherald is the fourth and arguably most important. It is the definition that asserts that feminism—so often exclusionary to marginalized communities—is only a shade of this stronger, broader, richer unifying narrative.
Walker might have called these intimate portraits womanist models, “models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect” that enrich and enlarge “one’s view of existence.” In “Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender,” Sherald continues her correction of and contribution to Art History, quietly expanding the imagination beyond historical and current expectations for Black bodies in America. Sherald so offers a moment of repose that, outside of the frame, is also a moment of negotiation, of action, and of unwavering vision.
“Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender” is currently on view online. It is a prelude to Sherald’s first West Coast solo exhibition, which is opening at Hauser & Wirth in February 2021.