Other artists like Henry Taylor, in The Times They Aint A Changing, Fast Enough, his carefully worked canvas depicting the shooting of Philando Castile at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and Kara Walker, in her furious return in her recent show at New York’s Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, share a willingness to use the canvas to examine the difficult parts of American history, then and as it is happening now. “I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show,” Walker wrote in her statement about her painting show, which examines, in sumi ink, blade, and oil stick on paper and linen, the abject horrors that have led to the erasure and maligning of blackness in this country. “How many ways can a person say racism is the bread and butter of our American mythology?”
None of this is to say that abstraction has nothing to do with this moment in black painting—artists like Jennifer Packer, Tschabalala Self, Derrick Adams, and the 77-year-old icon Jack Whitten are just using it in exciting ways that elevate and complicate the identity of the black figure and its place in the world shown in the painting. (Even Mark Bradford, a painter of pure abstraction who represented the U.S. at the 2017 Venice Biennale, references the social condition of the black body.) “When I think of the figure, I think of immortality or an otherness that is just out of this world, representing an endless possibility,” the British-Ghanian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye told me of the fictive black people in her recent New Museum exhibition. Yiadom-Boakye’s figures, seen in works like Mercy Over Matter, an oil of a black man comprised of many bursts of orange, green, blue, and black, exist in what Amy Sherald described to me as a “luminal space.”
When Kehinde Wiley first encountered Kerry James Marshall’s De Style, a painted scene of a barbershop, at LACMA in the 90′s, it changed his mind about what stories can be told about black lives in painting. “It made me feel as though the walls of the institution were accessible and permeable, rather than alienating,” he told me in a recent interview for the magazine Hello Mr.With portraits like 2008′s Morpheus, of a black man reclining in a sea of flowers, wearing a baseball cap, tank top, blue jeans, sneakers, and a gold chain around his neck, Wiley has made the canvas—and the gallery and museum walls where they’re hung—a place to encounter ordinary black folks. “When I got to New York, I was thrust into the Harlem of pre-9/11 America, where people were parading around 125th Street,” he recalled. “I wanted to wrap my practice around that.”
Like Sherald, who explained that “when I choose my models, it’s something that I can only see in that person, in their face and their eyes, that’s so captivating about them,” Wiley and others are using real and imagined black figures to paint into existence what was previously left unpainted. Take the black figures that Wiley and Amy will be painting into the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.—the Obamas, too, were once unimaginable.