Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, In Lieu of A Louder Love
at Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC
Wilmer Wilson IV, Slim…you don’t got the juice
at Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC (through March 16)
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye follows in the steps of late 19th century European masters, and makes no mystery about it. They favored the wet-on-wet application of paint, more poetically known as Alla Prima, that demands quick work in one sitting, or one day. When Dutch painters first invented it in the 1600s, the impossibility to render small, time consuming details such as luxurious fabrics and jewels, veered the focus to the sitter’s interior life. Instead of stressing status (rich, powerful, respectable), the protestant artists questioned what it means to be a human being. Manet reintroduced it to his followers in the late 19th century by using the technique to great effect. His work is also instantly recognizable for its deep, unctuous blacks.
The two largest paintings in Yiadom-Boakye’s show, “Les Corbeaux,” commanding a whole wall, depict the same man, or doppelgängers. Their squatting form is boxed by a nearly square frame. Her title denotes an affectionate irony, as if her subjects had the innocence of birds, and their slight ridicule in claiming dignity. Manet did paint “The Raven (Le Corbeau)” for a print of a French edition of Poe’s “The Raven.” However, Yiadom-Boakye’s French title is more likely to refer to the raven blacks dressing both men. Her enjoyment at creating mystery and depth with her blacks, at bringing out the light, the silkiness of the whites, is palpable. French peppers her titles, and the poem prefacing the exhibition offers further circumstances to the paintings’ subjects (see below). The visual quotations speak loud, too: here are Degas’ reflections of ballerinas’ feet on the wooden floor.
Degas’ luxurious, sensual reds and greens further enrich Yiadom-Boakye’s brush, setting her subjects like jewels in their case. She pushes the flat application further, pasting on canvas large, raw plaques which render as if by magic the three dimensionality of the subject.
The tones and position of the man sitting in the foreground in 3PM Blackheath, even the bowler hats, refer to Cézanne’s Card Players, while the doubt read in his Self Portrait or that of Gauguin stretches the face of his companion, or double, in the background. Cézanne, Morisot, Manet, Gauguin, Degas used their fluid, somewhat abstracted approach to painting to represent their world. Many painted their peers extensively, painters and poets, bourgeois patrons. Accessories that had served so well in indicating the status of notables were mostly banned while sitters sat deep in thought on their armchair, or lounged socially on sofas. And that’s how we encounter Yiadom-Boakye’s cohort, with all indications of location and of the present time suppressed — no iPhone poking from a pocket, nor hints of fashion trend. According to interviews and releases, Yiadom-Boakye does not work with sitters. The characters in her paintings come out of her imagination rather than from her milieu. Because of their similarity, they seem to undergo various transmutations, as if Yiadom-Boakye played with paper dolls. As she pours out these people on the canvas, she’s testing, probing the essence of being young and black in the 21stcentury. The scenarios vary, but even where more than two or more sitter populate a painting, they’re isolated, they don’t look at each other, they don’t touch. Instead of communication, affection, support, they only seem to enjoy a camaraderie in suffering. The few sitters that smile or laugh sit alone in their painting, and exude no joy.
The French intelligentsia certainly knew all about anguish, a late form of Mal du Siècle. God was dead, values drifted on waves of change, and personal focus moved from serving society to serving oneself, in a shift more grinding to the ego than one would expect. When they did not represent these tortured souls, artists turned to those catering to their pleasures: waitresses, ballerinas, prostitutes, and other members of the lower classes. The pictures made them into objects of sexual lust to its viewers. What these women were thinking or feeling, anguish, or sadness, or hope, did not deserve representation. Only the turn of the ankle, the lightness of the fabric over the thigh, the adherence of the corset to the breast mattered.
Yiadom-Boakye also paints ballerine and ballerini, with the same delectation for the rendering of the bodies and the fabrics. But these people, instead of being objectified, think, and feel, and question, and express themselves artistically. The sitters, dancers or others, show a sensuality that eschews sexual titillation. If they seduce, if they are seduced, it is through their whole person, body and soul. She does not paint close portraits. The large paintings are all en pied, or at least down to the waist. The heads, which are typically large in relation to the frail bodies, seem heavy to carry. The eyes stick out of muddy faces, more precise, as those of an African sculpture, the whites stressed unnaturally. These eyes look at us, look us back in the eyes as we look at them, denying us any voyeuristic indulgence. These young people long for something lacking in their life, in lieu of a louder love, and address that quest to us, with directedness. Their appeal denies us the numbness to strangers that is part of our social vocabulary. The bodies seem partake of the anguish: they’re skinny, twisted, angular. These positions, and the flat application of paint borders evokes expressionism.
Southbound Catechism’s young dancer, cornered by her own image in the mirror, curls up for protection, her face full of anguish, her eyes calling to the viewer. It’s not easy to be a woman. It’s not easy to be a Black woman. People from ethnic minorities are subjected to prejudgment in Western culture, as were the ballerinas from La Belle Epoque. These projections deny the individual their psyche which Yiadom-Boyake is out to restore. She has expressed her admiration for Walter Sickert, the English painter of the late 19th century. Unlike his French counterparts, he made no difference in his paintings between subjects and objects, them and us. The naked women he pictured enjoy a narrative, such as a man hovering around. Instead of being offered to the concupiscence of the viewer, the subject has a story, she is in a relationship, she’s an individual. The bold application of pigments he developed for his sitters was particularly modern, close in its rawness to Yiadom-Boakye’s style. . .
To read more of this review on Yiadom-Boyake, including the review of Wilmer Wilson IV, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/lynette-yiadom-boakye-wilmer-wilson-iv/
And please follow us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/riotmaterial/