In an interview a couple of years ago with the excellent arts and culture website Hyperallergic the painter Amy Sherald described her portraiture as having “a lot of subversive messages … diplomatically presenting a corrective narrative.” She also said it was not “in your face,” which would be well-nigh impossible given the heavy freight of a subject like Breonna Taylor, whom Sherald painted for the September cover of Vanity Fair. And yet there Taylor is, free-floating on a plane above the outrage that attends her death at the hands of Louisville police officers, a transcendent figure of peaceful innocence in a flowing gown against a cool backdrop of pastel blue.
Taylor’s death is well-documented: The 26-year old emergency medical technician was shot and killed in her apartment in the early-morning hours of March 13 by a trio of police officers looking for someone else entirely. Her death, like George Floyd’s, has fueled a torrent of protest nationwide demanding change to a law enforcement system that too often assumes the role of death squad — judge, jury, and executioner — when it comes to people of color. Sherald, best known for her official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama in 2018, knows the force of those stories, their power to produce justifiable rage. Her work doesn’t elide them so much as transcend them.
Sherald’s paintings have always been both peaceful and frank, concerned with Black figures facing the viewer against a quiet monochromatic backdrop. Subtly, she demands her subjects be seen as people, free from mucky layers of social and historical context. This on its own is a radical act — her “subversive message” and “corrective narrative.” Giving Taylor the same treatment, beyond the grave, is even more powerful than usual — bestowing dignity, beauty, and above all peace to a figure increasingly at the eye of the country’s storm. The portrait detaches from the outrage over Taylor’s death; it separates the person from the symbol. It’s both an elegy and a challenge. With it, Sherald sets Taylor free, and crafts a new symbol: not of outrage, but of hope, replacing the ugliness of the moment with the beauty we should all be striving for.