CO: For me, it was such a delight to see Ernest Shaw’s large paintings fill the third gallery in this part of the museum because it’s a vast space and you get a dramatic long view. His work juggles scale and monumentality, layering delicate details over bold oversized portraits, so seeing them from a distance is so important in emphasizing their theatricality. Having the opportunity to cross the room, to allow yourself to be magnetically pulled in close and be rewarded by their intimate fine detail is such a gift.
Shaw is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts – he was a student there when Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur were there. He has this deep knowledge and affection for Baltimore’s artists and this is palpable in his work. After two decades as a Baltimore City Art teacher and muralist, and now as a full time artist, his career is dramatically blossoming and this exhibit just confirms it.
When you dig into the specific subject matter, Shaw’s portraits are of specific individuals, some are self-portraits, and they are based upon his lived experiences in Baltimore. They come from a place of empathy and also research, where African masks, patterns, and shapes are layered over his figures. In the gallery Shaw talked about one piece in particular, where a young subject wields a squeegee like a royal scepter and he spoke eloquently about this connection to historic labor, and how working gives us all a value and worth as human beings.
MAF: When speaking about his practice, Shaw mentioned “humanizing the dehumanized,” and I almost wish there were fewer paintings in the hang, because I think it would’ve encouraged viewers to spend a bit more time with each individually. Speaking from a strictly formal point of view, not each-and-every one of these is one of my personal favorite paintings in the world—but that’s an issue of individual taste rather than a critique of their merit, and I’m glad they’re getting recognition.
His mixed-media self-portrait “Me,” (2020) however, is probably one of the strongest pieces in the whole show, with a variety of surfaces and gestural marks that alternately imply confidence and questioning of identity. It’s both mask-like and visceral, with some areas deliberately “unfinished.” I like that idea of a self-portrait as something that’s a composite, and forever a work-in-progress.
“When I see squeegee kids, I see a younger manifestation of myself,” Shaw said, and that was a little heart-breaking, because—Cara, I believe you mentioned that Shaw said his father had never been to the BMA before?? What a sad commentary about the real and perceived barriers to institutional access in a city with so much to offer and so much inequality. So there’s a special kind of poetic justice that Ernest Shaw Sr.’s son should win one of the city’s biggest art awards in this space, representing himself and those most marginalized.