A world of imag­ined peo­ple, at ease in their skin

Artist brings com­pos­ite black sub­jects to the fore while push­ing back against West­ern art tra­di­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT

new york — One can’t call Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye’s paint­ings of peo­ple por­traits, be­cause the young men and women in these images don’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist. They are com­pos­ite fig­ures, worked up from her imag­i­na­tion and from files of images — photographs, clip­pings, draw­ings — that she has gath­ered. They are, per­haps, in­vented char­ac­ters, but she doesn’t tell us of what kind, what mo­ti­vates them or what they are about. The ti­tles of her paint­ings are po­etic and sug­ges­tive — “Ropes for a Clair­voy­ant” and “Of All the Sea­sons,” for ex­am­ple — but they bear no iden­ti­fy­ing traces, no clues to the peo­ple she has sum­moned. Stand in a room full of her work, and you have the sense that you have been dropped into the mid­dle of some­thing, in me­dia res. It isn’t like be­ing in the mid­dle of a crowd, teem­ing with en­ergy — rather, you feel yourself sur­rounded by a

col­lec­tion of qui­etly thought­ful and thor­oughly self-con­tained in­di­vid­u­als who are tak­ing a mo­ment from the stream of life to do noth­ing at all.

The work of Yi­adom-Boakye, a Lon­don-based artist born in 1977 and a fi­nal­ist for the pres­ti­gious Turner Prize in 2013, is on view at the New Mu­seum, fill­ing the mid­size fourth-floor gallery, which has been painted a deep bur­gundy. The rich color of the back­ground walls con­trasts sharply with the stan­dard in­sti­tu­tional white fa­vored by most con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries, and it flat­ters the gen­er­ally earthy tones and deep shad­ows of the artist’s oilon-linen medium. The lights are also kept lower than is of­ten the case in con­tem­po­rary gal­leries, and ev­ery­thing seems to have a warm glow. An ef­fort has been made to ban­ish the bus­tle of New York and al­low vis­i­tors to ex­ist in a space that is back­ward-look­ing, to in­dulge nos­tal­gic fan­tasies of the hushed art mu­se­ums of the 19th cen­tury, which were also richly painted and ar­chi­tec­turally re­moved from the ev­ery­day world.

Yi­adom-Boakye paints most of her works in one day, and this ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes 17 new ones. Sev­eral of the fig­ures ap­pear to be dancers (one young woman is seen in a bal­let pose wear­ing a white leo­tard), and all of them have a ca­sual, lean, ath­letic grace. The speed with which she paints yields broad, al­most sketchy brush­work, paint that is drawn quickly and prox­i­mately over the sur­face of the linen, with streaks and rough edges rather than fine lines and pol­ish. The vir­tu­os­ity of her work, as well as the phys­i­cal­ity of her mostly young sub­jects, gives a sense that there is some­thing pre­cip­i­tous about the peo­ple she has imag­ined, as though they are about to tip out of the pic­ture space and into the room.

The artist, born in Lon­don to Ghana­ian par­ents, fo­cuses on sub­jects who are of African de­scent, and her work is of­ten seen as part of a larger project of resti­tu­tion, shared among other artists who are seem­ingly work­ing out­side the mostly white, West­ern tra­di­tion of fig­ure paint­ing, to peo­ple the world of art with new faces, new fig­ures and new sub­jects who aren’t uni­formly white and Euro­pean. West­ern painters only oc­ca­sion­ally painted non-West­ern faces and bod­ies over the past half-mil­len­nium, and of­ten when they did, it was to un­der­score the sup­posed ex­oti­cism or oth­er­ness of African or Asian sub­jects. They were rep­re­sented as ser­vants, ob­jects of sex­ual de­sire or emis­saries of farflung and deeply for­eign worlds that only oc­ca­sion­ally en­croached on Euro­pean lands, as in the de­pic­tion of Balt­hazar, one of the three Magi, who was of­ten de­picted as a Moor in Re­nais­sance paint­ings.

But com­pare Yi­adom-Boakye with another artist, Ke­hinde Wi­ley, who de­lib­er­ately in­serts black faces and bod­ies into some of the most man­nered tropes of West­ern art, and it’s clear some­thing very dif­fer­ent is go­ing on. Wi­ley’s highly fin­ished images use not just the medium of paint­ing but of­ten the poses and trap­pings of Euro­pean elites to cre­ate a satire on the ex­clu­sion and white­ness of the art world. He in­serts a young African Amer­i­can into a heroic and im­pe­rial con­text bor­rowed from the Napoleonic-era works of Jacques-Louis David or ren­ders the rap­per Ice-T as Napoleon, and the re­sult­ing work is as bom­bas­ti­cally col­or­ful and richly fin­ished as Yi­adom-Boakye’s work is earthy and im­pro­vised. Wi­ley is cre­at­ing an ironic in­dict­ment of ex­clu­sion, whereas Yi­adomBoakye is qui­etly and steadily rem­e­dy­ing the prob­lem. There is some­thing en­dear­ingly prag­matic about her work and her method, as if to say: The way one deals with ex­clu­sion is to open the doors and let peo­ple in.

But the more you look at it, the more you re­al­ize this isn’t just a mat­ter of in­creas­ing the sum to­tal of peo­ple with dark skin rep­re­sented in art gal­leries or mu­se­ums. Bod­ies and faces aren’t suf­fi­cient to get at the idea of race or iden­tity; one also needs poses, ges­tures and expressions, char­ac­ter­is­tic ways of stand­ing and lean­ing and loung­ing, that have also been ex­cluded from the way peo­ple of color have been rep­re­sented in West­ern art.

So at least as im­por­tant as the skin color of these imag­ined peo­ple is the fact that they are so pro­foundly, even ex­trav­a­gantly, at ease. Per­haps more im­por­tant than the sim­ple fact that peo­ple of color are rep­re­sented in a tra­di­tion­ally white or Euro­pean space is that they are en­tirely com­fort­able be­ing there.

One might do this with snap­shots of peo­ple at ease, re­pro­duced, framed and in­tro­duced into the art space. Pho­to­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion cap­tures ease and grace and the loung­ing frame of mind, but it also in­tro­duces real peo­ple into the equa­tion and so sends the mind down dif­fer­ent paths. Who are they? What do they do?

By paint­ing peo­ple who don’t, in fact, have real ex­is­tence, Yi­adom-Boakye keeps the fo­cus on their phys­i­cal­ity and on the paint and the process whereby they have been cre­ated. Some­times, these things in­ter­sect in de­light­ful ways. “In Lieu of Keen Virtue,” for ex­am­ple, shows a man ca­su­ally dressed in an or­ange turtle­neck while a cat lounges on his left shoul­der. But the left arm isn’t quite right and doesn’t seem to meet his torso in a nat­u­ral way. It’s tempt­ing to think the cat may have been a painterly in­spi­ra­tion, to di­vert at­ten­tion from the slightly awk­ward arm with the in­tro­duc­tion of a drap­ing fe­line. In sum­mon­ing the man in a quick and pro­vi­sional way, the painter has by ne­ces­sity also sum­moned the cat, who does in­deed help fix the prob­lem.

The kitty isn’t the only in­ter­loper in these works. Some­times birds ap­pear, as well, and of­ten, there is a dark, as­sertive shadow cast by the hu­man fig­ures, a shadow that takes on more per­son­al­ity and pres­ence than a mere play of light. In cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter, or paint­ing an imag­i­nary be­ing, the artist may well ask a ques­tion we of­ten ask our­selves: What com­pletes us? What makes us whole? When are we ever pulled to­gether as a be­ing? Al­most cer­tainly, we ex­pe­ri­ence this com­ing to­gether as a real be­ing in mo­ments of re­flec­tion, in­ward­ness and ease and not when we do our best (as in a grand oil paint­ing) to project a sense of our­selves to the out­side world. But does it ever hap­pen? Only the shadow knows.


Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye’s 2017 “Vigil for a Horse­man.” Yi­adom-Boakye, a Lon­don-based artist born to Ghana­ian par­ents, fo­cuses on sub­jects of African de­scent and paints most of her works in one day.


ABOVE: Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye’s 2017 “8am Cadiz.” Yi­adom-Boakye’s work is on view at the New Mu­seum through Sept. 3.

LEFT: “Re­pose III,” by Yi­adom-Boakye. The artist was a fi­nal­ist for the pres­ti­gious Turner Prize in 2013.

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