Vitus Shell ‘Bout It ‘Bout It

The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art hosts Vitus Shell: ‘Bout It ‘Bout It, The Political Power of Just Being, an exhibition of portraits by mixed-media collage painter Vitus Shell. The exhibition will open in SECCA’s Main Gallery on Thursday, February 2 and remain on view through Sunday, June 18, 2023. An opening reception with the artist will be held Thursday, February 2 from 5–8pm. Admission is free and open to the public.

This exhibition is organized by the Hilliard Art Museum, Lafayette, Louisiana and curated by Benjamin M. Hickey, Curator of Exhibitions, Hilliard Art Museum, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The exhibition is co-sponsored by Blanco Tackabery Attorneys and Counsellors at Law.

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. Vitus Shell 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.

“My goal with my work in this exhibition is to make Black folks feel comfortable when visiting art spaces by seeing themselves or people they know in the portraits that I paint,” Shell said. “By doing this, I’m hoping to encourage the next black creative to see themselves as an agent of change and fight by using their talent to create safe spaces for their communities.”

Artist Vitus Shell in his studio.
Artist Vitus Shell in his studio.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Vitus Shell is a mixed-media collage painter born in Monroe, LA, where he lives and works. His work is geared toward the black experience, giving agency to people from this community through powerful images deconstructing, sampling, and remixing identity, civil rights, and contemporary black culture.

He received a BFA from Memphis College of Art in Tennessee, 2000 and an MFA from University of Mississippi, 2008. As of 2020, Shell is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Louisiana Tech University. 

ABOUT SECCA

The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), an affiliate of the North Carolina Museum of Art and division of the NC Department of Natural & Cultural Resources, offers a front row seat to the art of our time through exhibitions, experiences, and education programs with a focus on regional working artists. Founded in 1956 and located on the scenic James G. Hanes estate in Winston-Salem, SECCA offers unique large-scale indoor and outdoor settings for exploring the intersections of contemporary art and culture.

SECCA is located at 750 Marguerite Drive in Winston-Salem. Recent exhibiting artists include Will Wilson, Kara Walker, Lonnie Holley, Elizabeth Alexander, Esteban Cabeza de Baca, Freeman Vines, Jillian Mayer, and Antoine Williams. An ongoing Southern Idiom exhibition series highlights the work of Winston-Salem artists. Learn more at https://secca.org.

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