"I think being able to expand your mind about places that you belong and about changing expectations of what you expect to see when you walk into a museum, I think it's really important for people to see themselves represented in that way in those kind of sacred spaces where they tell us what is valuable and what's important. And, if you're not represented in that, then I think it subconsciously makes you feel like you don't belong." -- Amy Sherald
Painted in 2016, Innocent You, Innocent Me exemplifies Amy Sherald’s career exploration of the ways in which people construct and perform their identities. The Baltimore-based artist, best-known for her presidential portrait of Michelle Obama, which now resides in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., typically paints those she encounters on the city streets – men, women and children who peak her pointed interest. This portrait of a teenage boy named Randall masterfully employs her signature use of grayscale to render skin color; with her expressed intention to “remove color from race,” thus shifting the conversation toward the humanity and individuality of the figure. In real life, Randall modeled in a red, navy blue and gray hoodie, however for the portrait, Sherald modifies this outfit, brightening and amplifying with wide yellow and white stripes, and a comic-influenced camouflage. She offsets the profile against a vibrant palette: his eye-popping, yet surreal, street wear accompanied by a cone topped with two scoops of strawberry ice cream, floats in interesting tension against the abstract blue background, facilitating dreamy depth that does not seem entirely confined to specific time, space, borders or history. His gaze, perhaps the most compelling characteristic of the work, forges a highly intentional dialogue with the viewer. He is not being observed or objectified, he is decidedly self-possessed, yet through pose, style, time and space he is able to activate silent conversations with the viewer and surrounding works in a room.
Sherald describes her portraits as “existing in a place of the past, the present, and the future” (A. Sherald, quoted in E. Silva, Amy Sherald, exh. cat., Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2018, p. 10). Through these vibrant even surreal paintings she is able to capture the whole essence of her subjects, ultimately inviting viewers to engage in a more complex conversation about race representation, the black experience and the historic lack of non-white representation in the Western portraiture canon. Her work, ranging in color, scale and content ultimately stands as a meditation and consideration of America’s lingering constructs, and its state as a nation today.