The Epic Banal

May 7, 2021 10:08 am

Tyler Mitchell and Amy Sherald—two Atlanta-born, New York–based artists—both capture everyday joy in their images of Black Americans. Recurring motifs in Mitchell’s photographs, installations, and videos include outdoor space and fashionable friends. Sherald, a painter, shares similar motifs: her colorful paintings with pastel palettes show Black people enjoying American moments, their skin painted in grayscale, the backgrounds and outfits flat. Both are best known for high-profile portrait commissions: in 2018 Mitchell became the first Black photographer to have a work grace the cover of Vogue. That shot of Beyoncé was followed, more recently, by a portrait of Kamala Harris for the same publication. Michelle Obama commissioned Amy Sherald to paint her portrait, and last year Vanity Fair  asked Sherald to paint Breonna Taylor for a cover too. Below, the artists discuss the influence of the South on their work, and how they navigate art versus commercial projects. —Eds.

TYLER MITCHELL: Amy, we spoke before about finding freedom and making your own moments of joy. I think of Precious jewels by the sea [2019]—your painting of two couples at the beach, showing the men standing with the women on their shoulders—as a moment that you constructed. My work is also constructed, but viewers don’t necessarily know that when they see a boy flying a kite in a park [as in Untitled (Kite), 2019]. You told me you made that beach image with a camera first and then painted it. Can you talk more about that process?

AMY SHERALD: For me, a painting starts in the viewfinder. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I don’t really know how to use a camera: don’t ask me about aperture or f-stops or whatever. I just put it on automatic, and try to shoot at eleven o’clock, or two o’clock, when I know the light will be good. The camera is basically my sketchbook; the photographs themselves aren’t really special. If you saw them, you might say, “You’re going to make a painting out of this?”

I do with a paintbrush what you do with a camera: in the end, I think we create a similar sensation. There’s the weight of history, but mostly there’s freshness and lightness. I’m not trying to replace the narrative of historical trauma, but I do want to shift into something different for us now. I want to make space for all the things our mothers didn’t see themselves doing. I take my kids to Martha’s Vineyard because I want them to see us living in these houses and walking on these beaches. For me, those are truly American moments, and that’s exactly what I want to document, because [pictures of Black people doing these things are] what’s missing in the American painting canon.

MITCHELL: We’re both also thinking about outdoor space alongside interior worlds. I think of outdoor scenes as a way to explore Black folks simply existing in public space—that’s what I was getting at with my installation Idyllic Space [2019], which included Astroturf, a white picket fence, and a video of Georgia boys enjoying the outdoors. The video is projected on the ceiling. I see it as a radical gesture to show young Black folks enjoying public space.

SHERALD: I wonder if being from the South has something to do with our shared interest in leisure.

MITCHELL: Our moms know each other in Atlanta!

SHERALD: Yeah! I don’t think my work would be what it is had I not grown up in the South, then left Atlanta for grad school, and then moved back with more knowledge of who I am. Once I was home, I spent a year not making anything, trying to figure out what I wanted to make. The first five paintings I made after that period were almost like a journal: coming back as an adult, I realized how much the South influenced who I am—for good and for bad.

MITCHELL: I relate to that. The most clarifying times for me and my work occurred when I was abroad. That’s when I started to think back on the complicated dimensions of the Southern experience: it’s easier to see it when you’re not there. I made Boys of Walthamstow [2018] in England, but I was thinking of Georgia. . . . Those British marshes had willow trees that almost looked like Savannah willows.

My feelings toward the South aren’t necessarily good or bad. The South involves this mix of welcoming and warmth, as well as estrangement. People will invite you onto their porch to have tea, but there’s also a lot of gossiping around the neighborhood. I experienced feelings of alienation throughout my upbringing, but also feelings of amazing freedom as a middle-class person who grew up around lots of green space. Most people have a hyper urban image when they visualize Atlanta, though Atlanta is actually the US city with the most green space per person. So when I ask myself, “What does the South look like?” for me, it’s very green.

How did you develop your signature style?

SHERALD: The story of why I paint my figures gray has evolved over the years. I’m not trying to take race out of the conversation, I’m just trying to highlight an interiority. In hindsight, I realize that I was avoiding painting people into a corner, where they’d have to exist in some universal way. I don’t want the conversation around my work to be solely about identity.

At first, I considered my work fantastical. But later I realized, though I’m painting moments I constructed, they are moments that do exist: I’m not totally making it up.

I love seeing young people engage with your posts on Instagram: one comment read “have you ever frolicked before?” and it just made me smile. I don’t think my mom, who was born in 1935, was thinking about frolicking while growing up in Mobile, Alabama. She just wanted to make it home without getting snatched up by a Klan mob.

MITCHELL: And your mom’s story isn’t depicted in your paintings, but it’s definitely the backdrop of the work. We’re both out to reclaim these small moments of everyday joy, which is so important because generations before us weren’t necessarily able to.

SHERALD: For me, it’s also about replacing the imagery that we see.

MITCHELL: I also find that both my pictures and your paintings leave so much open to viewers, who bring their own experience to the portrait. Often, your figures aren’t just individuals, but archetypes: they stand for something bigger.

In response to my work, especially the installation Laundry Line [2020], I get a lot of “I used to have that shirt!” or “teal used to be my favorite color!” I wonder if you have a fun story of someone enthusiastically identifying with your painting.

SHERALD:  At an opening of mine in 2015, a young woman and her daughter came in—they were looking at one of the paintings and the daughter said, “I see my grandmother.” She had never seen a portrait of a Black person in a gallery before. I was reminded, this is why
I do what I do.

MITCHELL: We’re both depicting these moments that are devoid of the stereotypical narrative so often imposed on the Black figure in images. I’ve started to think about my work via this phrase I borrowed from my friend RaMell Ross, who made the amazing documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening [2018], a loose, wandering, poetic film about a county in Alabama. Anyway, he uses this term “the epic banal,” and for me, epic banality is simply about existence—it’s about just being and finding those moments of joy.

SHERALD: I absolutely agree with that. You say “I can make you feel good” [the title of your show at the International Center of Photography in New York], and I say, come to the work to see a reflection of yourself. That is love; it’s an embrace, and it has a positive psychological effect. Hopefully, it replaces some of those traumatic memories that we carry around. I didn’t go through all the things that my mother went through, but I feel as though I absorbed some of it. And on social media, you see it all the time. That’s just not healthy for any of us.

I’ve had conversations with artists who feel as if their work has to create teaching moments about history and our struggle. But I wonder, when do we breathe? There has to be room for a range of experiences, because if there isn’t, how do we evolve? Your work touches on that as well.

SHERALD: Between us, we’ve made portraits of, arguably, the two most popular women in the world! [Painting Michelle Obama] was career defining, and I don’t mind that. But I also don’t want my previous work to be completely erased. My life didn’t start the moment I painted Michelle, and yours didn’t start the moment you photographed Beyoncé. The media made it seem like nothing happened until I turned forty-two, but I’d been working really hard for a long time, and it’s important to me that young artists hear about that struggle. These commissions didn’t randomly land in our laps while we were sitting around doing nothing. How did you feel about just being more visible all of a sudden?

MITCHELL: I’m more of a behind-the-camera person, so I had to grapple with that attention. Photographing Beyoncé definitely gave me more resources to extend to my circle of collaborators. I have a background in filmmaking, and often think of myself as basically a director. It’s not just capturing the images, but also creating a recipe, and bringing together the right team and things to make the image happen. This visibility has helped me form teams that I really want to keep around, and it’s given me more tools to bring into the rest of my practice.

SHERALD: People often ask me if painting Michelle changed my work. And I tell them, Michelle is an extraordinary American and an extraordinary Black woman—as are many of the people in my paintings. The only difference is that she’s well-known.

I received some criticism because so many people had their own vision of Michelle. I didn’t respond to most of it, but one woman emailed me, saying, “I really wished that you had painted her brown.” I felt snarky and replied, “when you become first lady, you can pick who you want to paint you. But Michelle Obama picked me.”

MITCHELL: Right, we’re still bringing our signature styles and our voices: these commissions are one part of a larger body of work. When I photographed Beyoncé, I decided to photograph her using the same techniques I would with any of my close friends.

SHERALD: For me, the visibility took some getting used to. It’s easier living in New York than it was in Baltimore. Just the other day, my partner commented that it’s really nice to be able to go to the grocery store and not be stopped five times. It did impact our day at times. . . . A lot of people wanted to take a picture or say hi.

All in all, it’s been a blessing. And it’s come with numerous opportunities. I especially adore the opportunity to be a role model for young kids who want to be an artist. Young Amy was guided by the art of white men. That’s fine. I had the vision, and I was born to do this, regardless of whether or not I saw anybody like me painting. I’m happy that things will be different for the next generation. I’m really embracing that part of my role.

MITCHELL: Yeah, I’ve been hoping to take that magazine world visibility and shift it toward other parts of my work: experiencing a packed opening for my show at ICP was amazing.

Do you make distinctions between commercial work you’ve done for magazines and your artwork?

SHERALD: It depends. I don’t think of my painting of Breonna Taylor as an art piece. It’s not a piece of fine art that’s dealing with conversations about figuration and composition: it’s something that I made to codify this historical moment, and in honor of all the lives that were lost—specifically, the Black women we lost to police brutality. It belongs in a history museum as much as it does an art museum.

MITCHELL: Actually, I do think that there are conversations to be had about your formal decisions. The blue in that painting elicits so many emotions.

SHERALD: It’s really the commodification of the Breonna Taylor painting that made me consider taking it away from the art world. In the end, it was jointly acquired by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

What about you, are you drawing distinctions?

MITCHELL: I actually started working in the editorial and commercial field first. I didn’t go to art school, and [New York University] didn’t really put an emphasis on museums or the art world. I just focused on making images that I wanted to make. But who’s to say that those images can’t operate in different contexts? When I see a large print, it has a different impact than when I see it in a magazine. Those distinctions are more specific to photography than painting.

Tell me about your new work.

SHERALD: I always feel like it’s hard to talk about my work right after I finish it. But I named [my latest Hauser & Wirth] show “The Great American Fact,” after a nineteenth-century essay by a Black educator named Anna Julia Cooper. As American as apple pie [2020] is an image of a Black couple in front of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. They’re hanging out near their convertible. The woman has on a Barbie T-shirt, a pink skirt, doorknocker earrings, and these rainbow flamingo sunglasses. The gentleman has on a denim jacket, a white T-shirt, khaki pants, and Chuck Taylors.

When I first saw the model I used, I knew immediately that I wanted her to be a Barbie and with her Ken: I wanted to replace that iconic imagerwy with something else. It’s not a teaching moment, it’s a more covert statement about leisure and pleasure. It’s a very American moment, something every child needs to see. That epic banality you mentioned is a perfect way to describe it.

MITCHELL: I appreciate all the thought you put into their outfits. Clothing choices are definitely a big part of both our bodies of work.

SHERALD: Sometimes I lie in bed at night just looking at clothes for my paintings, whether on eBay or the runway.

MITCHELL: Black folks definitely understand the importance of wearing our finest clothes to any photo shoot. I think about that rich understanding of fashion a lot.

SHERALD: It was really photography that brought me into portraiture, more so than painting. Deborah Willis’s book The Black Female Body: A Photographic History [2002], and later the documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People [2014], reaffirmed everything that I was thinking and doing. I don’t see images like mine coming from the lineage of  European painting: when the camera was invented, we eventually were able to become authors of our own narratives and, like you said, show up all dressed up. We got to say, “this is how I want to be represented and this is how I want to be seen.”

Tell me about your new work too!

MITCHELL: Every year, the Gordon Parks Foundation selects two fellows to have exhibitions at their gallery Upstate. This time they chose me and [painter] Nina Chanel Abney. My show is drawing on Parks’s legacy: I’ve been researching his images of the South and of family life. My exhibition will be all new work in response to that.