lynette yiadom-boakye’s lovely, ‘louder’ new paintings

January 16, 2019
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It’s a testament to the aesthetic beauty and emotional clarity of British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work  that gallery exhibitions of her new canvases have been treated as art-world “events” since just about the very beginning of her career. Then again, the 31-year-old, London-born artist’s first critical success came soon after she left art school, and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize as a 26-year-old.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Level with the Lawn” (2018), oil on canvas, 55 1/4 x 51 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches

Some of the acclaim of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings — portraits of fictional individuals whose characteristics make them seem anything but made-up — is, in many ways, easy to understand. Or at least, it’s easy to understand what makes them relatable and uncommon. A lot of it is the warm affection that Yiadom-Boakye brings to the details of her subjects’ lives (temporal facial expressions, or the relaxed gesturing of their bodies), making them recognizable and familiar as our contemporaries. Yet these scenes also take place amidst such quiet settings (the subjects often floating inside monochromatic dark hues), that her pieces also take on the still timelessness of portraits by old masters like Velasquez and Degas. At a glance, we seem to know Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects and paintings, just as previous generations have — even if projecting everyday Black lives onto canvases was unheard-of back then.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Stone Arabesque” (2018), oil on linen, quadriptych: 78 7/8 x 47 3/8 x 1 1/2 inches (each)

“In Lieu of a Louder Love,” Yiadom-Boakye’s newest show at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery (at both its 20th and 24th Street locations), features 26 paintings and is named after one of the artist’s poems. It too is an event, Lynette’s first exhibition of new work following winning the Carnegie Prize at 2018’s Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, among the oldest and most prestigious awards in art (honoring the top painting of the year’s exhibition). And though “…Louder Love” contains no radical transformation in the artist’s work, there are changes in tone.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Amber and Jasmine” (2018), oil on linen, 59 1/4 x 55 1/8 x 1 1/2 inches

For one, there are new color schemes and context at play here. “Black Allegiance to the Cunning,” which features a smiling man sitting on a stool over a fox, seems to take place in the same checkered, linoleum-floor studio where West African photo-portraiture masters such as Malick Sidibe developed their public practices. Meanwhile, “Amber and Jasmine” features a woman in a headwrap and bathing suit, leaning on a simply designed, prayer-sized rug — the framing yellow, orange and green background illuminating her modest beauty.

It is not so much a departure as a pivot (or a slight remix), examples of a more expansive playfulness in terms of palette and where Lynette’s seeds of inspiration may be blossoming now. Both are qualities present throughout the show.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (L-R), “Rue The Days” (2018) oil on linen, 33 3/4 x 55 3/16 x 1 1/2 inches; “The Ever Exacting” (2018), oil on linen, 74 15/16 x 63 1/8 x 1 1/2 inches

Possibly my favorite of these remixes is “The Ever Exacting,” which portrays a seated man, open-shirted in khakis and white tube socks, with an open-winged white owl perched on his forearm. A bird of prey on a powerful man’s arm is a well-worn motif of ages-old white patriarchal Western portraits, and also trodden territory for Yiadom-Boakye. But where in the previous subjects she saddled with such a meaning-laden bird brought a seriousness to the canvas, here the man just stares at the owl with a bemused wonder. Not quite smiling, but not weighed down either.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibit, “In Lieu of a Louder Love,” is on show at the Jack Shainman Galleries in Manhattan, until February 16th