At UTA Artist Space, Los Angeles (through 15 May 2021)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
The history of portrait painting is long and star-studded from the stunningly humanist portraits of Alice Neel to the politically charged monolithic works of Kehinde Wiley; artists have, for centuries, endeavored to capture the essence of their times and the people who mattered through the lens of figuration. Ferrari Sheppard, like so many artists before him, has created a visual mapping of his life that includes not only friends and family but also artists like Tupac Shakur, Jimi Hendrix and other artists in the Black community whose works have affected him. These paintings suggest less a topography of place and time and more a personal lexicon of strength, love and friendship in the face of injustice.
Encompassing all three rooms of the gallery, Sheppard’s work is divided into distinct themes, the first being the representation of Black culture, including its musical stars and generational tastemakers. The second group of paintings are images of flowers, and the third, according to the UTA gallery catalogue, is an installation of “A polaroid owned by Tupac that forms a metaphorical altarpiece or ‘shrine,’ bedecked with gold floors and a Rick Owens bench contributed by the Owenscorp co-founder and designer Michèle Lamy” [Ella Huzenis]. The result is affecting and deeply moving, especially in the singularity of the image within an otherwise empty space. Again, the gold motif is repeated here as the image appears to float above the floor like a ghostly effigy, the residue of Shakur’s young life, taken way too soon.
Incorporating a variety of “high value” materials into his paintings, including 24 karat gold leaf and velvet, Sheppard correlates blackness with beauty and dignity, implementing these materials in the service of the deeper content in his work, i.e., how the history of Black culture represents an ongoing reclamation of stolen identity and power. Blurring the lines between abstraction and figuration, Sheppard’s conscious choice to black out the features on each of his figures allows that the bodies and gestures take on new and unexpected meaning. As viewers, we are encouraged to take our visual cues from the information we see evidenced in the face, and so the fact there are no facial features to “read” forces us to look at the figure’s gestures and the clothes they are wearing to garner a deeper understanding of the overall painting.
All images courtesy of Ferrari Sheppard and UTA Artist Space
In works like “Me, Reggie and Tavares,” the artist positions himself among friends, dressed in oversized pants and golden shirts, facing forward as though posing for an impromptu photograph. The image is suffused with a sense of informality, and one has the clear sense these young men are comfortable with each other. Images like the irreverent and aptly titled “Put Some Red on It” showcases a young Black woman sitting in an overstuffed red chair. She wears white boots that appear more like cutouts in space, and once again the ubiquitous gold dress. This image in particular is seductive in a playful way, yet there is a seriousness here as well, as the face shows no emotion, only a smear of brown paint where one would expect to see a nose, a mouth and eyes. This strategy of abstracting the central image and denying the viewer the satisfaction of reading the image psychologically opens up the possibility for an alternative, and perhaps more metaphoric construal of the work. Questions come to mind like, who is this woman exactly, and what is her relationship to the surrounding space, specifically the brightly colored objects in the room? Sheppard offers no specific answers and, really, none are needed. It’s enough just to imagine the subtle and complex relationships that exist between the figure and her surroundings.
In contrast, the flower paintings in the second room are spare and uncomplicated, yet they too suggest a mind at work, searching for correlations and details to connect us with the natural world. In each Flower Study, the receptacle that holds the flowers is delineated with a single, spare line. This gesture operates in much the same way as Sheppard’s blotting-out of the faces, where the viewer cannot ground in contextual, visual bearing in terms of identifying with the subject, and instead must search for meaning elsewhere within the painting.
As with artists like Kehinde Wiley, much of the “power” inherent within Sheppard’s paintings derives from the connections we make to outside sources, i.e. actors, musicians, athletes, etc. We as viewers must invent, or rather, reinvent, the subjects. Even with the seemingly innocuous flower paintings, Sheppard demands we pay attention and follow each gesture to its rightful end. It is human nature to search for meaning, yet perhaps the unfinished gesture is all the meaning we will ever need. Sheppard seems to be suggesting that whether painting flowers or the grace and dignity of the Black experience, the precise and luminous gesture will always carry us through.
Featured Image: Ferrari Sheppard, One and Only (2021)
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York.