2017-01-11 20:06:17
Looking at an Artist’s Portraits of the Charleston Shooting Victims

Five days after the massacre of nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, the artist Rudy Shepherd painted 9-by-12-inch portraits of two of the victims, Myra Thompson and Tywanza Sanders, and posted them to Instagram.

He made these watercolors quickly, relying on images from the news media, and spending two or three hours on each one. They racked up a modest number of likes and a few admiring comments.

Over the next week, he made portraits of all the other victims: the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd and the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor.

One aim of these paintings, Mr. Shepherd said in a recent interview, was to reclaim the humanity of those individuals, to depict who they were beyond that day. Too often the individual disappears amid the frenzy of reporting about a high-profile crime, he said.

He waited about a week, feeling hesitant, before he painted a portrait of their killer, Dylann Roof, whose federal trial is nearing an end. A jury recommended the death penalty on Tuesday.

“I felt like I had to do it,” Mr. Shepherd said. “And I was interested in the why of why I didn’t want to.”

All of these works are part of a decade-long series, now numbering in the hundreds, portraying people in the news — including Michael Brown, who died after being shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.; Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas; as well as pop-culture heroes like the Beatles producer George Martin.

But the works aim to be more than tributes, said Amanda Hunt, who curated a show including Mr. Shepherd’s work at the Studio Museum in Harlem. That exhibition, “The Window and the Breaking of the Window,” showcases protest art, including Mr. Shepherd’s portraits of the Charleston victims and other targets of racist violence. (The painting of Mr. Roof is not part of the Studio Museum show.)

The exhibition was conceived to address the Black Lives Matter movement, Ms. Hunt said, and to connect that moment, represented here by several large prints from Devin Allen’s 2015 series of photographs of demonstrations in Baltimore, with some of the history embodied in the museum’s collection. Deborah Grant’s “56 Blows” recalls the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles. And there are text-based prints by Kerry James Marshall, showing famed cries of resistance: “By any means necessary” and “Burn baby burn” among them.

Mr. Shepherd’s works, by comparison, are far more tender. His subjects smile with confidence at the viewer. Another distinction is the way they are displayed at the museum. Mr. Shepherd’s works are being shown in series, with a different portrait each week for the duration of the show. This week, Myra Thompson’s image is on view. And two more Charleston portraits will follow: the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor and the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr.

But Mr. Shepherd’s portraits, mounted on their own in a corner, offer an especially intimate connection with these individuals whose names and faces can blur amid the daily churn of news.

“I wanted to create an altarlike space so that you could kind of quietly approach,” Ms. Hunt said.

The portrait series began 10 years ago, Mr. Shepherd said, originally inspired by a New York Post cover depicting Ronell Wilson, a man convicted of killing two New York City police officers and sentenced to death. (“Fry Baby” was the headline; Mr. Wilson’s death sentence was later struck down.)

“I was riding on the train and there were four or five people looking at this thing,” Mr. Shepherd recalled. “And I’m like, ‘What effect is this having on me? I sort of look a little bit like him.’”

He tacked up the Post cover in his studio, and eventually made the first of his media portraits. The earliest examples were often people accused of crimes, but he soon expanded, focusing on victims, perpetrators and others caught up in the news.

“I wanted to dig in a little bit deeper than that surface explosion of press,” he said. “Who are these people? What happened to this person before that day? What happened to them after?”

He would occasionally show these works in groups, long after the initial media sensation had died down, and noticed that nobody remembered who was who. “They’re just people again,” he said, until visitors see a list of names. “And then you can go around and go, ‘Oh good God, that guy!’”

Mr. Shepherd says that his project would be simplistic if he held back from depicting bad people — even an unrepentant killer like Mr. Roof.

“I feel like life is way more complicated than that,” he said. “I’m trying constantly not to just flatten it out.”

Unsurprisingly, there has been a consistent disparity in social-media responses to this work. “I’m asking people to be empathetic to both the victims and the criminals. Who the hell’s going to do that?”