Artist Rudy Shepherd is a little new on my radar, I'm embarrassed to admit. In May, I co-organized the Brooklyn Art Book Fair with Paul John of Endless Editions, and he booked Shepherd to do a performance on the pool deck during the fair's Saturday hours (I'd written previously about Zebadiah Keneally's own performance at the fair here). It was my introduction to Shepherd, and I was pretty floored at the performance. In it, he marched around in a black spandex suit with his head concealed inside of a black, rock-like mask appearing to perform a kind of collective exorcism. Accompanying him was a suite of musicians playing a driving and experimental score, and the audience seemed entranced by his commanding presence and energy. We'd mostly booked poets throughout the day, so this was a diametrically-opposed, though very welcome, departure from the rest of the lineup.
From what I can gather, it was an iteration from an ongoing series of performances with sculptures he began in 2006 collectively titled Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber. The pieces "[aim] to dispel feelings of racial prejudice, violence or ordinary disdain by encouraging compassion." He's done these at the Three Rivers Art Festival in Pittsburgh, New York's First Street Green Art Park, and as part of The Studio Museum in Harlem's inHarlem series at Jackie Robinson Park, amongst others. There's pretty great documentation courtesy of The Studio Museum of Shepherd's Induction Ceremony event for his installation last October. Check it out below.
Shepherd was born in Baltimore and currently lives and works in New York City and State College, PA. He earned a BS in Biology and Studio Art from Wake Forest University and an MFA in Sculpture from the School of Art Institute of Chicago. To get to know Shepherd a little better, I'd recommend listening to this episode of Brian Alfred's Sound & Vision podcast where he was a guest. I was going to do a copy/paste of the impressive list all of the exhibitions he's been in and residencies he's been awarded, but I think it's funnier to screen grab it. This man does not sleep.
For several years, Shepherd has painted portraits of people in the news in an effort to connect with them as individuals, to encounter their humanity. In a New York Times article from this year, he spoke at length about his portraits of the nine black parishioners murdered by white supremacist Dylann Roof in Charleston, SC in 2015. The portraits are moving, and Shepherd's ruminating on why he feels compelled to render the victims is authentic and considered. He eventually decided--not easily--to also paint a portrait of Roof. In relationship to the motivations behind Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber, his approach makes sense. Clearly, few people desire to access the humanity of a domestic terrorist like Dylann Roof, but Shepherd's engagement with producing that portrait demonstrates his characteristic empathy, even if the portrait's subject doesn't deserve it. Other portraits included Michael Brown, who was murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and Sandra Bland, whose death in a Texas jail cell was ruled a suicide but seems anything but.
Shepherd is somebody who can create riveting content in a variety of media, and I'm glad that I'm aware of his practice. I'm looking forward very much to continuing to follow his trajectory, and will do my best to get him on an upcoming episode of the podcast. Follow the embedded links above to explore his website, read the New York Times article and see a selection of his portraits, and hear him on Sound & Vision.
I hope your weekends were restful and that you'll hit the ground running tomorrow morning.