Almost all of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s sitters confront the viewer. The few that turn away, as in the oil-on-canvas Bird of Reason (2009), still read as portraits. Of course, “sitter” and “portraiture” are not quite the right words, since none of these persons has ever existed. Described in the exhibition’s wall text as “conceptual portraiture,” Yiadom-Boakye’s work is just as easily deemed a kind of embodied unreality. In his catalogue essay accompanying the show, Okwui Enwezor incisively addresses this practice as “para-portraiture.”
This is not to say that Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects do not come alive. Each appears, in fact, redolent of real experience and eccentricity. Nearly every one of the 25 paintings on display bears a richly allusive and vaguely literary title, brimming with ambiguous locales or half-aphorisms. Her figures emerge from a somber half-light reminiscent of Velázquez and Zurbarán, or Manet’s reworkings of those same shadowy 17th-century backgrounds. That nearly all of Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects are of African descent raises questions regarding the relative absence of black bodies from the canon of figure painting, the maid in Manet’s Olympia notwithstanding (in fact, that figure’s secondary role underscores the issue).
Still, the work of Yiadom-Boakye, a Ghanaian-born British artist, is by no means over-earnest or polemical in feeling (compare to Kehinde Wiley’s defiantly revisionist imagery). The paintings’ incisiveness lies, in fact, in a certain disarming insouciance. Victory Sweat Suit (2008) exemplifies an almost perfect synergy between subject and surface. A man in a snug pair of sweats turns toward the viewer with a cavalier look, his arms slackly crossed behind his back. His offhand affect matches the painting’s loose, devil-may-care strokes. Taking that brushwork to an arresting extreme is the elliptically titled The Signifying Donkey’s Feat (2003). Here the brushwork renders the figure’s face so casually as to evoke a mere mask, slightly grotesque in its toothy smile.
One of the exhibition’s strongest pieces, Wrist Action (2010) seems relatively straightforward in its title. The female figure bears an electric pink hand or glove, her eerie face and awkward carriage even more unnerving than her neon extremity. Similarly large in scale, Vespers (2008) is exceptional not only for the gossamer cloud of a bed on which a young girl sits but also for the figure’s subtle pose of song or recitation. With closed eyes, pursed lips and a meditative cock of her head, she reveals a rare and unselfconscious absorption.
The exhibition’s smaller canvases often appear suspended in a kind of purgatory between half-hearted impasto and mere gracelessness, the characters deprived of breathing room. Yiadom-Boakye is most successful when her brush enjoys larger dimensions, the broader swaths of the surrounding space imbuing the figures with a more forceful presence.
Photo: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Wrist Action, 2010, oil on canvas, 983⁄8 by 783⁄4 inches; at the Studio Museum in Harlem.