Contributed by Matt Mitchell / Reviewers have compulsively apprehended Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s loving images of dark-skinned people as manifestations of black identity politics, despite the artist’s insistence that those issues are not central to her work. And, in fact, her paintings can yield some penetrating insights about the new figuration when the viewer looks beyond race. On view at both of Jack Shainman Gallery’s Chelsea locations, the exhibition comprises 31 large canvases, each displaying one or two figures. Some of the paintings are diptychs and one grouping is a quadryptic. Each is executed in deep, rich tones with substantial oil paint. The subjects wear simplified clothing and their surroundings are vague, evoking no particular time or place. The work’s emotional presence, however, is very carefully cultivated.
In Rue the Days a man reads on a couch. The subdued action knits together a fine abstraction of angled color areas. One of the man’s hands appears a careless pincer at first glance, yet it serves as a compositional arrow pointing back towards his gaze, which, in turn, is directed at the book. Eventually the simplified hand can almost be heard turning the page. In a different vein, the diptych Les Corbeaux distorts bodies into graceful silhouettes while retaining all of their expressive capability. Bold, dark figures, posed and muscled, fill white space, poised for poetic action. Yiadom-Boakye has said she is calling forth her ideal male. By contrast, in other works, telltale signs of careless painting are scattered about. Anatomical passages look directly copied from photos, limbs are simple schematics, forearms are wrong-ish stumps. Some hands appear so cursory as to be willful affronts. Yet this designed chaos coalesces into a poignant mood. Call it soulfulness.
Yiadom-Boakye is opaque about her process for generating the figures, saying only that they are fictional, that she draws on a scrapbook of found photos, and that she also works from imagination and sketches. Clues of her abilities with the imagined form can be seen in the occasional elegant outline of a limb, as in Les Corbeaux. Some of her faces also suggest a more involved internal vision. In Rue the Days, the man’s visage is composed of a network of color areas that are just descriptive enough to hold an emotion, yet the form portrayed is soft, as though it is sinking into itself. Another hint that this face is imagined is that itstraitsare repeated– see, for instance, 3PM Blackheath, Les Corbeaux, and Nearer than Kith, Further from Kind. These all include a long face with a strong square chin but a narrow jaw, somewhat hollow cheeks, and a smallish mouth with full lips. The eyes are set at a medium depth usually with upper lids visible, somewhat substantial brows are placed rather high above, and the nose is never very short. This iterative practice echoes that of comic book artists who must memorize their characters so that they can produce their respective visages from a variety of angles from their imaginations, and who may occasionally consult a photograph to pin down a particular effect of form.
Yiadom-Boakye keeps her work in a relatively narrow band of light. She uses a variety of blacks and browns, but doesn’t do it to set off the glow of some lighter-toned object as a Dutch master might. Reveling in darkness, she pointedly suppresses color variation. There are no cool blue highlights or purple undertones that could add vibrancy to flesh. Instead she sticks to warm golds and browns. This challenges the teachings of academic figure painting and mellows her characters while building a nostalgic sense of otherworldliness. A thread of Yiadom-Boakye’s aesthetic winds back to the proto-modernists, from Manet through Degas. A desire for subdued and poetic emotion – at bottom, an authentic sweetness – seems to dictate her choices. This largely sets her apart from the concerns of contemporary art.
In his 1939 article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Clement Greenberg declared that high art was meant to be challenging. It did not include realistic figuration because the human form was too easy to enjoy. Perhaps as a response, figurative artists since then have sought to confront viewers with complex psychology. Alice Neel made her subjects both loved and freaky. Philip Pearlstein puts the model under the eye of the clinician. John Currin explores ironies of porn. Elizabeth Peyton calls out obsessions with celebrity culture. The work of Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojih Odutolah, and Henry Taylor is closer to Yiadom-Boakye’s, but it is entrenched in larger identity narratives, rendered with less tactility, or intended to reflect a specific personal history.
Yiadom-Boakye is distinguished by her singular focus on sentiment itself. She readily breaks any rule of good painting to gain the freedom to articulate sweetness. This unabashed appreciation of gentle moments of humanity is not merely soothing. In our present moment it is also unexpectedly urgent.
“Lynette Yaidom-Boakye: In Lieu of a Louder Love,” Jack Shainman, New York, NY. Through February 16, 2019.
About the author: Matt Mitchell is an artist and writer who specializes in issues of the new figuration.