Spotlight: In Symbolist Paintings, Surgeon-Turned-Artist Donald Hershman Reflects on ‘the Art of Code Switching’

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What You Need to Know: Premiering September 22, 2023, at Salomon Arts Gallery in New York, Don Hershman’s solo exhibition “The Art of Code Switching” features the artist’s recent body of paintings that explore ideas around language alternation—or speaking alternately depending on audience and context. Inspired by his own personal life and experience as a gay man in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Hershman describes, “These new paintings took me on a journey back to a time where there was no political correctness or recourse, easily fired or shunned if it were revealed that I was gay.” On view through October 15, 2023, the acrylic, ink, and pencil on wood panel works illustrate a unique visual lexicon that speaks to not only personal lived experiences but greater community histories as well.

About the Artist: Donald Hershman began his career as a board-certified podiatric surgeon. In the early 1980s, he relocated to the Southern United States to undertake his formal residency training, where he had to go “back into the closet,” as he says, as a means of survival. Following his residency, Hershman settled in San Francisco in the midst of the city’s overwhelming AIDS crisis and witnessed men hiding both their sexuality as well as their HIV status in response to pervasive prejudices and bigotry toward the gay community. Resultingly, “they were constantly code-switching without even knowing it,” says Hershman. Alongside Hershman’s career in the medical field, he fostered a passion for art that first emerged as a child, inspired by field trips to prestigious institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Maintaining a personal artistic practice that evolved and expanded over time, it was in 1992 when a curator at the Spectrum Gallery observed his work at a dinner party he was hosting that he participated in his first group show. The works included sold, and since then his work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in numerous private collections.

Why We Like It: Hershman employs a signature, graphic-inspired style that conveys a psychological complexity behind and beyond linguistic dualities—or codes. The artist visually interprets code-switching through multiple approaches, such as the use of symbolism, as is seen in the yin and yang sign in (2023), and as part of the human body and personal expression, like in (2023), where we see the figure’s face half adorned with makeup, however, the planes of white suggest a less than clear cut division. Though some compositions err on the side of symmetrical, pristine delineations are conspicuously absent, an allusion to the malleability and changing nature of identity, internal worlds, and lived experience. Together, the show is an insightful personal reflection and offers an entry point for further exploration into collective identity and trauma—historic and contemporary.

See featured works from the exhibition below.

Donald Hershman, (2023). Courtesy of Salomon Arts Gallery, New York.

Donald Hershman, Code Switching #6 (2023). Courtesy of Salomon Arts Gallery, New York.

Donald Hershman, (2023). Courtesy of Salomon Arts Gallery, New York.

Donald Hershman, (2023). Courtesy of Salomon Arts Gallery, New York.

Donald Hershman, (2023). Courtesy of Salomon Arts Gallery, New York.

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