The Yale Center for British Art presents an exhibition of recent works by the British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977). This display is the second in a series of three devoted to women artists working in Britain today, curated by the author Hilton Als in collaboration with the artists and the Center.
This selection of paintings and etchings, completed between 2012 and 2018, focuses on Yiadom-Boakye’s interest in making portraits of fictional people of color drawn from found images and her rich imagination. At turns dreamy, dramatic, and lyrical, Yiadom-Boakye’s images depict people living in worlds where they have complete sovereignty and are viewed as human beings rather than artistic symbols of pain, suffering, triumph, or other projected notions.
Matthew Hargraves, Chief Curator of Art Collections, said, “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
is among the most important artists working in Britain today. The selection of these works, which includes six paintings loaned by generous private collectors and a portfolio of etchings from the Center’s own holdings, offers an opportunity to see her powerful representations of imaginary people of color shown in action and contemplation. Arresting in its painterly beauty, her oeuvre stands in a long but often unrecognized tradition of images of black nobility.”
Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects exist outside a specific place and time. The artist deftly achieves this uncanny atmosphere through the use of fields of color and minimal settings, allowing the character of the imaginary sitter to come forward. The painting “1 pm, Mason’s Yard” (2014; shown at top) features a female figure in repose in a patterned chair, which is banked on the right side by a potted plant. The cues are few but speak volumes; naked feet with painted toes, a spiky plant, and splashes of green on the chair’s fabric all conspire to establish the presence of a personality but also to edge the artificial up against hints of nature.
“Harp-Strum” (2016) is a diptych telling a tale of motion and stillness through the juxtaposition of two images of dancers that vary just enough to show how a small gesture makes all the difference between openness and finality, reaching and refusing. The spontaneity, discipline, and joy expressed by the dancers also finds its form in the act of painting itself. The subtlety of expression is as natural as breathing and the brushy quality of the artist’s technique.
Throughout her career, Yiadom-Boakye has examined what introspection looks like not only to the spectator but to the subject. In “Amber and Jasmine” (2018), a young woman is poised between the moment she has just had and the one to come. Like Rodin’s “The Thinker,” her chin is cupped in her hand, a gesture indicating contemplation. The vibrancy of the rug’s patterns contrasts with the woman’s stillness, paused fleetingly between inhaling and exhaling. Here and elsewhere, Yiadom-Boakye addresses the question of what privacy looks like to an observer.
Like the great American portraitist Alice Neel, Yiadom-Boakye focuses on the humanness in men of color and their presence in a visual field, as in “Brothers to a Garden” (2017). In “Greenhouse Fantasies” (2014), Yiadom-Boakye pays particular attention to her subject’s eyes — their direct gaze and gentle, assured connection with the viewer.
As an emerging artist, Yiadom-Boakye was drawn to Whistler’s moody surfaces and Manet’s portraits of individuals in social situations, brought into being with a strong sense of color. (Whistler, like Yiadom-Boakye, was also a prolific writer). The paintings seen here recall those artists in their use of darkness — not as light’s absence but rather as light of a different kind.
“The Hilton Als Series: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye” is organized by the Yale Center for British Art and curated by Hilton Als, staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker, in collaboration with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Matthew Hargraves, Chief Curator of Art Collections at the Center.
The exhibition will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, Connecticut) through December 15, 2019, and then travel to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, in January 2020. For more details, please visit britishart.yale.edu.