When you walk into the main entrance of West Building, you may notice a new pair of eyes gleaming at you from across the room. Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) by Amy Sherald depicts a young girl with gray skin and black facial features, standing front and center against a nondescript and naturalistic blue-red background.
Amy Sherald, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), 2013, oil on canvas, H. 54 x W. 43 1/8 x D. 2 1/2 in., Collection of Frances and Burton Reifler, © 2018 Amy Sherald
Sherald credits Alice in Wonderland as the inspiration behind this painting: “That's where the teacup is coming from—bending temporal space and thinking of yourself outside of how the world sees you.” According to Sherald Miss Everything is a part of her body of work that “originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternative existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history.”
Looking toward the work of Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, Sherald’s portraiture combats African American stereotypes in visual culture. Yet Sherald mediates the hostility toward racial issues in America by imaginatively subduing her subjects’ skin tones, not to eliminate the idea of race, but to ambiguate it, so that the humanity of her subjects stands in an unwavering light against prejudice.
Artist Amy Sherald; Photo: Christopher Myers
Sherald credits Alice in Wonderland as inspiration for this painting: “That's where the teacup is coming from—bending temporal space and thinking of yourself outside of how the world sees you.”
You might recognize Amy Sherald’s style, as her portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama went viral earlier this year after it was unveiled alongside Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. Sherald’s Miss Everything is an exciting highlight to the NCMA’s Contemporary Gallery, where the painting cleverly parallels with Wiley’s Judith and Holofernes. There are apparent similarities between the two paintings, in the subjects’ posture and gaze, yet the glossy enamel finish characteristic of a Wiley is not mirrored in Sherald’s work. The polka-dots feathered across the left side of Miss Everything’s dress make the artist’s touch palpable. On Sherald’s part, this is anything but unintentional; whereas Wiley employs an internationally collaborative and factory-based approach to producing hyperrealistic portraits, Sherald creates each painting individually in her personal studio in Baltimore. Unlike Wiley’s martial allusions to the eurocentricity of the art-historical canon, Miss Everything confronts us with racial issues in contemporary America through a soft interplay of imagination, naturalism, and realism. However, rather than stand antagonistically, both Miss Everything and Judith and Holofernes harmoniously posit the presence of blackness in art from the Renaissance to the here-and-now.
Though Sherald’s fame is recent, to consider her a novice artist would be incorrect. In an interview with artnet after the unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery, Sherald directed attention to her long career as a painter: “There has been a lot of work that has not been accounted for, because for some reason the media wants to make it sound like it was a beautiful miracle, that I have a career now out of the blue—but no, it’s just from plain old perseverance.”
Facing real-world problems related to health, family, and finances, Sherald did not become a prized portraitist overnight. Now 45, she waited tables until she was 38 so that she could afford to persist as a painter in her early career. Miss Everything is an example of Sherald’s earlier successes; the painting won first place in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Sherald has also shown her portrait paintings in exhibitions in New York City, Baltimore, Charlottesville, and Chapel Hill since 2011. And now the demand for her work has soared as a result of her portrait of the former first lady. Miss Everything, on long-term loan to the NCMA, is a gentle yet monumental reminder of Sherald’s relevance within contemporary American art.