When filmmaker Christine Turner got a call from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) if she would be willing to make a film about painters Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. She had followed the work of both artists for several years and once even saw Sherald’s work in New York when she was nine months pregnant. And she knew the only way to show Wiley and Sherald in their full glory was to “show them the same deference, dignity and respect” that they show their own babysitters. The end product “Paint & Pitchfork” examines the unfinished legacies of two black cultural icons and how they attempt to correct the social and cultural lack of “as” by inserting themselves, their subjects, and their people into the art historical record, Wiley says in the film : “People who happen to look like me.”
Wiley speaks of growing up in South Central Los Angeles as a time when his artistry blossomed and his family ties deepened, even in the face of poverty. In the documentary, photos from those years appear on screen, accompanied by the instruments fueling the jazz soundtrack: drumbeats introduce an image of a young Wiley with a head of Basque hair; The metal bars of a vibraphone give way to the artist as an adult, photographed amidst a sea of smiling family members, all dressed in colorful robes and tightly embracing. Turner shows the lush and intricate backgrounds of Wiley’s large-scale paintings before zooming in on the precise details: his palette, his brushstrokes, the areas of the canvas he meticulously colors. Wiley explains his intense devotion to seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, and to contemporary masters of more figurative art, including Charles White and Kerry James Marshall; Partly because of this mix of influences, Wiley decided his style would be very regal – and very black. “I would look at that,” he says, referring to great European portraits, “and I would empathize.”
The film then turns to Sherald, who appears in jeans from head to toe, her collar popping open and brushing her corkscrew curls. With roots in the American South, she explains how the conservatism of her hometown of Columbus, Georgia became a model for what she should not emulate in her life and art. Horns trill through a sequence of Sherald’s childhood photos, and we see that the striking color schemes of her art are reflected in her clothes – as if that’s when she’d started to develop her style. “I drew a picture where I found this young woman living outside the drawer. I realized this is the kind of person I’m looking for,” says Sherald. “These are the people who need to be represented in art history and stand on the walls of institutions. These are the people who need to look at something and find their humanity in it, because sometimes it’s impossible to find it anywhere else.”
The artists’ timelines converged when they received life-changing commissions from the National Portrait Gallery to immortalize the Obamas. Wiley’s work tends to frame black men with metaphorical flowers and other patterns. In his portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley added botanical depictions of the former president’s past, including flowers from Hawaii, Illinois and Kenya, emerging from their green curtains to embrace the stoic sitter. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is typical of the artist’s color-blocking style, which emphasizes the former first lady’s stately pose.
Both portraits are reminiscent of their subjects, although the artists aim to do no more than they would for any other black person they portray. What unites their work is that it is a direct address to a void of representation – they use their medium to say “yes” to black humanity when history says “no”. “The question I was often asked was, ‘Are you ever going to paint anyone other than black?’ My answer is ‘No, I won’t,'” says Sherald. “I’m here to paint my own ideal and represent it in the world, and if I can’t do that then something is deeply wrong.” then see anyway if you want to ask me that question, because the problem is that you recognize an absence of yourself, but you don’t recognize the absence of me.”