Portraiture as a genre holds a grand position within the history of art and has for centuries been employed to glorify white monarchs, leaders, icons, and religious figures. Louisiana-based artist Vitus Shell creates portraits that challenge this tradition, while also sharing a concern for the historical representation of Black bodies. For example, the composition of his portraits includes faux gold gilding and oval or circular picture windows—stylistic trends often found in Byzantine and Renaissance portraiture to indicate power, status, and the eternal. Shell also rejects the convention of framing his works. Instead, his canvases hang in an ad-hoc manner with grommets, boasting waves and slightly curled edges. The presentation implies a quickly wheat-pasted handbill for a trendy nightclub or a banner at a protest rally.
Perhaps more importantly, Shell’s sitters are familiar and members of his community. He portrays his sitters as self-possessed, questioning individuals, whose humanity shines. Those depicted dominate the foreground and serve as a counterpoint to a background of collaged newspaper articles and advertisements filled with bigoted or misunderstood accounts of Black American life. The aspirational, thoughtful body language, rendered with authenticity by Shell, stands in stark contrast to the flat, colorless, and stereotype-ridden caricatures of Black bodies found in the largely historical sources he uses for his backgrounds. Presenting his portraits in this fashion empowers his sitters, and by association the Black American community, to reject limited two-dimensional depictions of themselves for ones in which they are interlocutors with their past and present struggles, while being in dialogue with the American Dream on their terms.
from the exhibition text
Vitus Shell: ‘Bout It ‘Bout It, The Political Power of Just Being is on view at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts through June 18, 2023.