I first encountered Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s painting at the New Museum in 2017. The British painter’s exhibition, “Under-Song For A Cipher,” was a revelatory experience, displaying a breathtaking command of the canvas through expressive brushwork and provocative color. “Under-Song For A Cipher” featured Black men and women in a number of colorful, domestic scenarios. The wardrobes, furniture, and even some animals added a new dimension to what might seem to be a painterly technique firmly rooted in art historical tradition. The appeal of the exhibition was perhaps best encapsulated by the painting, “Mercy over Matter,” which depicts a seated black man, barefoot, intently contemplating the blackbird which is perched on his index finger. Whether it was the man’s stare, the handling of the silhouettes, or the swaths of pale and saturated orange, I couldn’t say. What was clear to me then was that this was something truly compelling: a contemporary, figurative painting that felt fresh and exciting. On January 10, 2019, Yiadom-Boakye’s most recent exhibition, “In Lieu Of A Louder Love,” opened at the W 20th and W 24th street locations of Jack Shainman gallery in New York City. Engaging and intimate, the exhibition makes a strong case for Yiadom-Boakye as one of the most fascinating painters producing work today by marrying exceptional painterly technique with multidimensional subjects that demand sustained attention.
Upon entering the 20th street gallery, viewers first encounter “Amber and Jasmine.” Unlike most of the exhibition’s works, the painting features a wide array of colors that drive the viewer’s eye across the canvas. Initially striking is the amber-hued wall which is juxtaposed against a stormy palette of greens and browns. Straddling the two lies a kneeling figure, admirable both for its delicate and expertly executed pose and the way in which her wardrobe rhymes with and unifies the seemingly dissonant background. Stopping here would have yielded a fascinating canvas, but Yiadom-Boakye also lays an intricate carpet under the kneeling figure. The reds and blues which punctuate the carpet’s pattern might have seemed obtrusive if not for their relatively muted values. The piece is a virtuosic display of Yiadom-Boakye’s prowess as a draftsmen and a colorist. As such, “Amber and Jasmine” is an excellent point of entry.
Continuing through the gallery, visitors contemplate the intimate, if simple, diptych “Nearer than Kith, Further from Kind” alongside a depiction of a woman with a brilliant smile and a book titled, “God of all Reason.” More impressive still is the work in the main gallery space, especially the two paintings “A Monday Midnight” and “5AM Friday.” While both paintings depict men in striped shirts, the chronological titles are an enigmatic hint at something greater. Are these two men somehow unified beyond their wardrobe? Could we be looking at the same man later in the night? The difference in the men’s shirts (one is short sleeved and the other long) as well as their facial hair suggest not. In fact, these questions will remain unanswered because of the fictitious construction of each painting’s subject. Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are not painted from models, but are instead executed completely from her imagination. These fictional yet intimate portraits which play out on the canvas, then, have no living counterparts, no frame of reference. This artistic conceit adds great depth to the canvas, as our own imagination prompts us to inquire further about the environment we find ourselves peering into. And yet, the painting alone would be enough to sustain attention. “A Monday Midnight” appears atmospheric and dark from afar, but closer looking reveals a kaleidoscope of unexpected color in the man’s shirt. Violet, sapphire, and clay accents lick the edges of the shirt stripes to near illusory effect. “5 AM Friday” is less adventurous with color, but the way in which the shirt stripes seem to grapple with each other, vying for more real estate in an uneven and claustrophobic battleground is undeniably compelling.
Sprinkled throughout the gallery, the canvases with multiple figures greatly enhance the selection of paintings, bringing Yiadom-Boakye’s attentive eye for intimacy and compassion to the fore. “3 PM Blackheath,” for instance, presents two figures engulfed in hunter green, at once nearly touching and yet seemingly a world apart. “Les Corbeaux,” on the other hand, is a diptych of two dancers in costume. While the left figure is lost in thought and pensively extends his fingers along the floor, the right figure confronts the viewer with his glance. His discolored eyes and raven-like costume are arresting, as is the size of the canvas. Another group image, “Sister to a Solstice” feels the most voyeuristic, as a group of three women sit at a dinner table. While the central woman’s turned back and the toast which occurs on the left initially exclude the viewer, the rightmost woman shoots a careless glance which rooted me in place, making me feel as if I had somehow stumbled into a domestic vignette of great affection, a moment reserved for family and friends.
“Holy Provocations” marries all of Yiadom-Boakye’s differing artistic appeals. Expressive brushwork divides the canvas into swaths of blue, olive, and coral. However, the the indulgent curl of a finger and the contentedly closed eyes bring the viewer back to the men. Lynette Yiadom Boakye’s painting declares its love of humanity in every brushstroke. How lucky is it, then, that her eye for color and form is just as insightful? See her work at the next available opportunity. It will stay with you long after you leave.
Featured image taken by Max Gruber