Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Daydreaming of Devils, 2016, oil on canvas, 78¾ by 47¼ inches; at the Kunsthalle Basel.

Since the British-Ghanaian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977) completed her studies at the Royal Academy Schools in London in 2003, her reputation as a talented painter of fictional portraits (she does not use models) has steadily grown. This exhibition of twenty-four new canvases (all 2016) follows major shows in London and Munich and centers on the theme of performance, with many of the paintings portraying singers and dancers. 

Yiadom-Boakye’s works, like those of American painters Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley, help correct the historic underrepresentation of black people in painting. Her canvases range from nearly life-size depictions of three or four figures to close-ups less than two feet tall. Her paint handling is decidedly turbid, and her compositions slightly unstable, their parts not entirely in equilibrium. Her palette seems indebted to that of previous generations of British painters, such as Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, with chalky browns and blacks punctuated with warmer reddish tones and minimal highlights. 

A number of the new paintings show adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, evoking the time just before people settle into the roles they will play in life. The diptych A Fever of Lilies features a boy and girl in school uniforms. She smothers a grin, while he is pensive. In Magenta in the Ravages, three young women dressed in black tights and leotards stand on a reedy bank, looking across the reflective surface of a river stretching into the distance. Yiadom-Boakye usually employs monochromatic grounds defined only by heavy shadows but in this image offers a detailed background composed of the luminous water and a gloomy forest.

Even when the figures in the works face the viewer, they are contemplative rather than confrontational. Often they wear basic figure-hugging clothing, but here and there they don striped sweaters or ruffs on their necks. In Daydreaming of Devils, a man sports a pink boa and points the toes of one foot as if preparing to dance. If some figures seem like they are waiting to move, others are captured in full motion. A diptych called Harp-Strum (one of many evocative titles by Yiadom-Boakye, who is also a writer) presents two views of a woman in mid-arabesque against a jade background. 

Although Yiadom-Boakye’s work helps address the omission of black subjects in art history, to limit it to such an interpretation would do it a great disservice, as it would obscure the artist’s subtle statements. Her paintings present a nuanced exploration of how fiction operates: Who are all these characters she paints if they are not specific people? How do we read fictional characters when they are painted in the mode of a portrait? And are portraits of performers in truth a reflection of their audience?