- By David Gordon
- Issue 28
- Free Radical●November 2019
It looks like something that landed from space. Or was unearthed by an archaeologist, right at this spot, in Socrates Sculpture Park, on the waterfront in Queens. Twenty-four feet tall and nine feet wide, built of wood and concrete and amethyst and mica, it is gray, streaked, and rough, as if it has weathered some trauma. It’s called Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber, and, though odd, the name fits: it’s a kind of anti-monument; you can almost feel it drawing power from the city across the river.
Rudy Shepherd, the artist who made this sculpture back in 2006, said that the work proved more popular than he anticipated. “People seemed to resonate with it and with my sense that traditional methods of addressing the world’s problems in art don’t seem to work,” he told me. “At least now I realize, thirteen years later, that’s what I was doing.”
In the interim, Shepherd has continued to reimagine what political art can be. His current project stretches back more than a decade: a series of more than four hundred watercolor portraits of people in the news—victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, the famous and the unknown. He has painted Trayvon Martin and Toni Morrison, but also Jeffrey Epstein and Dylann Roof. It is an ever-expanding gallery of our lives and a confrontation with the most troubled moments of recent history.
Not long ago, Shepherd invited me to his studio to look at the latest additions to the project. He picked me up at the elevated train in the Bronx, near where he lives, and we got coffee and drove to his studio in Yonkers. On the way, we passed his teenage son, who was on his way to meet some friends, and pulled over to say hello. A few blocks later, Shepherd pointed out the home of David Hammons—his favorite artist. Finally we arrived at his studio, in a converted industrial building refashioned into creative workspaces, the halls quiet and mostly empty on a rainy summer afternoon.
Shepherd paints in a simple room—raw walls, big factory windows, old furniture—with boxes of gear pushed against the walls and a large worktable standing in the center. It is a room you could think clearly in, without distractions. Watercolors were spread on the table, and a recent piece was tacked to the wall. Shepherd is lithe, a vegan and ultramarathon runner, with a shaved head and a seemingly endless amount of energy. He seems especially cheerful for someone who describes his own work as “an exploration of evil.”
He told me how his abstract sculptural practice led to the watercolors. “I kept making more sculptures, until one day I was riding the train to the studio and everyone was reading the New York Post, whose headline blared, ‘Fry Baby!’ This guy had killed two police officers, and in court the day before, he’d stuck out his tongue at the wife of one of the victims. So the newspaper was like, Burn him! It seemed related to these sculptures to me, and this idea of negative energy, but I wasn’t sure how, so I just took the front page and stuck it on the wall. And then I thought, I’ll just make a painting of the guy. And after making one I made another and another. And you just keep hearing about these stories. As you look, you find more.”,br/>
The initial subjects were all black men accused of crimes. “The story goes out, and before they even go to court and are found guilty, they are villainized, and that affects all black men, including me, being on that train. People are reading this paper, and does that then affect how people perceive me as being safe or not? And does that even affect the justice that the person gets? That’s what drew me in.”
Shortly after his first gallery show of these paintings, Shepherd began expanding the reach of the series to include victims as well as perpetrators, sometimes portrayed in pairs: “I’d heard about this guy James Byrd, who was dragged behind a truck in Texas, and when I looked it up, two guys’ pictures came up, and it was a bit confusing, like who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator? And I thought, That’s weird, how you can’t really look up one person without finding the other. It’s like the victim and the perpetrator are joined together forever, they’re married. They are connected throughout all of history. So I painted them together.”
Shepherd paints watercolors because they are faster and cheaper. “They have a certain momentum,” he said. “And there’s a certain speed in watercolor that allows me to respond almost in real time… Sometimes I do one or two a day and other times one or two a week. There were seventeen victims of the last school shooting,” at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, “so I was doing two a day.” The results call to mind Impressionist and Expressionist paintings, as well as Japanese woodblock prints, but they feel sculptural, too: the line carves forms and features on which the layers of color build up skin and muscle. The subjects look poised to jump out at you.
Shepherd’s first subjects were people who had been dehumanized, deindividualized, and objectified by their transformation into media figures. The paintings were meant to reintroduce each person as an individual rather than a type or a character in the dominant cultural narrative.
“It stayed in the realm of criminals and victims for a long time. Then I did these drawings of anonymous people from a book of photos of Taliban fighters,” Shepherd told me as he showed me an almost tender image of a young man with long, dark lashes and a shy smile.
Some of the most recent works aren’t portraits at all. Shepherd pointed to a painting on the studio wall of Eric Garner struggling with police. The composition is striking, bodies captured from a low angle, as if caught in motion. “I thought, People need to see this,” Shepherd said. “At the time there was all this debate about, Was there too much force, was he in a sleeper hold? Here’s one guy and four armed police, and one of them has him in a headlock, what’s confusing about this?”
Also on the wall is a painting of a Yellow Vest demonstration in Paris, chaos unfolding before the Arc de Triomphe. It feels epic, like a nineteenth-century history painting set in Emmanuel Macron’s France. Shepherd made a special visit to the Louvre to study some of the examples of the history-painting genre on view. “But what I’m doing is totally different. There, the story is written by the victors, so it’s already kind of simplified, rationalized, so that Napoleon is the hero. But I’m saying, Here are normal people, and this is an actual picture of a moment in time, and I’m going to represent that, and it’s going to change in its translation from a photograph to a watercolor.”
Today, of course, photographic images are everywhere, news is everywhere, but there’s too much of it: a war happening across the world, a racist attack happening across the country, an ice shelf melting at the end of the planet. Everything rises from the void and vanishes into the void. Shepherd rescues these events from oblivion by taking ownership of them, making them works of art, and then returning them to the world.
“I’m pulling things out of that infinite stream and recontextualizing and slowing them down,” he said, looking over the painting of the Yellow Vests with me. “I’ll have a show in a couple of months, and this event happened in April, and most people like us, something happens and you register it, but then five minutes later, something else happens. I’ve pulled it out of that stream, I’ve changed the medium it’s in, and now I’m re-presenting it, months later, for you to reconsider.”
The portraits require Shepherd to get to know his subjects in depth. He spends time with their stories, he thinks about them, he puts labor, even love into making something about them. “I’ve been doing these for thirteen years,” he told me, flipping through images on his laptop. “Now, when I look at a photo, I see more. The more I do, the more I see, and the more I articulate in the painting. It’s almost like a gift to them. It’s always too late, but I’m going to take the time to make a painting of you.”
Art is often the final word on history (Tolstoy’s and Stendhal’s views of the Napoleonic Wars now mean as much as or more than Napoleon’s), but it is very slow. Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings, for example, were completed in 1988, more than a decade after most of the original members of the Red Army Faction had died. By painting quickly and posting his work almost immediately to Instagram and Facebook, Shepherd is trying to speed up the process: “The typical model is you make work, then wait for like a year and then show it. But who’s got that kind of time? Its impact is diminished. When 9/11 happened I had just moved here and I had a studio down in Tribeca, very close. And I was already thinking about these issues of how to be a political artist. But it took forever to be able to say something meaningful and make something about it. But now with this project, I feel like I’ve set up a structure or a system that can respond to things as they happen.”
And so Shepherd works on, racing against time, or perhaps rushing along with time, doing what he can to redeem our shared, lived experience from nothingness, to snatch snapshots from the inferno of history. In a sense, of course, this is what every artist and writer has always done, spend his or her life in a race against death. But today the race has sped up, and the finish line feels a lot closer.