To walk in to British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s current exhibition at the New Museum is to leave the downtown institution and enter an impressively elegant party. The reveal happens as soon as you exit the museum’s twin elevators: The loft-like gallery is painted burgundy; the lighting inside the space is nightclub-moody; beyond the visitors’ heads more than a dozen painted figures are visible — hung so low that they directly meet the viewer’s gaze. Though these are portraits of entirely fictional people, they remain the folks in the room you most want to meet.
Standing, sitting, or lying down, Yiadom-Boakye’s figures look back at the viewer with uncommon self-assurance. They are the contemporary kin of the popes, kings, and queens painted by Old Masters and proto-Modernists from Velázquez to Joshua Reynolds to Édouard Manet. Up-to-date portraits that recall the stoicism of Renaissance martyrs, they also channel the secular saints of the African diaspora. There’s the self-possession of a James Baldwin–like figure seated at a café table, the steely mettle of Shirley Chisholm in an unidentified woman’s set jaw, the youthful worldliness of Lorraine Hansberry in a strapping ballerina’s arabesque.
Not so much looking back in anger as encountering the world confidently, Yiadom-Boakye’s mysterious yet familiar figures exude that one thing all convincing human representations throughout history possess — formal presence. Their elegant bearing grows significantly in stature when contrasted starkly with the historical absence of black faces and bodies during some five centuries of European painting.
The first solo U.S. museum show for Britain’s 2013 Turner Prize contender in seven years (the last was at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2010), Yiadom-Boakye’s current outing is a mini-blockbuster that is major in every way except for the number of works on view. Made especially for the New Museum, the seventeen paintings included in the exhibition (one is a triptych) come together like a plotless yarn, or what the French call nouveau roman (think Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel La Jalousie). Pictures of imaginary people the artist composites from drawings, magazine clippings, and her own memories, her likenesses rely on the viewer to complete their storylines. The exhibition’s title, “Under-Song for a Cipher,” underscores Yiadom-Boakye’s oblique vision: Like all portraits, hers are grounded in history, yet they ultimately function as a magnet for the viewer’s associative filings.
The daughter of Ghanaian parents who moved to London in the Sixties to work as nurses for the National Health Service, the now 39-year-old Yiadom-Boakye underwent the routinely alienating experience of being both black and a child of immigrants in the U.K. After discarding a childhood interest in optometry — “the science got in the way,” she told one interviewer — she took up art, eventually finding her way to painting: a different but related study of visual phenomena. On receiving a graduate degree from London’s Royal Academy, the artist was tapped for her career-firing debut at the Studio Museum. Numerous presentations in biennials, institutions, and galleries (as well as prizes) followed. On the evidence, few match the concision and coherence of the artist’s current display at the New Museum.
Arranged around the wine-colored walls of the museum’s large fourth-floor gallery, Yiadom-Boakye’s work offers an encyclopedic sweep of historical portraiture, but with a pantheon of sensuous black figures depicted against neutral backdrops instead of the usual Caucasian suspects. Her habit of posing her imaginary subjects in isolation against monochrome grounds summons the standing portraits of James McNeill Whistler; the half-dozen pictures of dancers in leotards, though mostly male, strongly evoke the ballerinas of Edgar Degas; and the Brit artist’s loose brushwork, simplification of details, and penchant for leaving key parts of her paintings unresolved recall the no-frills canvases of Manet — the nineteenth century’s “painter of modern life.” Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are so pared-down, in fact, they resemble a remark ascribed to Manet: “There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against the other.”
Completed mostly in a day and without the benefit (or hindrance) of disegno — the substrate of drawing that undergirds traditional portrait paintings — Yiadom-Boakye’s pictures combine spare but bravura brushwork and a restrained palette full of various shades of brown into a style that has been described by supporters as “improvised and effortless, even virtuoso.” Additionally, the artist actively uses her Old Master–ish manner, which critic Robert Storr refers to in the exhibition catalog as “the warm amber-to-sepia glow of aged pictures about which many commentators wax poetic,” as cover for further racial ghostbusting. The representation of skin in Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits notably runs from light to dark brown. This “mixed race” palette encourages viewers of all hues to see not just the oppositions associated with Otherness, but difference within difference.
Yet it’s certain first-rate painterly passages in Yiadom-Boakye’s simple-seeming, unfinished-looking canvases that best materialize her work’s powerful ambiguity. If, in the artist’s own words, her titles function less as an explanation than “an extra mark in the paintings,” then key portions of thinly painted canvases like An Amber Cluster and 8am Cadiz court enigma, shadowed by the history of representation, with an expert hand. The first painting, for instance, features a black dancer whose wide-collared orange shirt incorporates the chevrons of the canvas’s weave, while the second reprises a barefoot, forward-facing, brotherman take on Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World. In Yiadom-Boakye’s coolly ironic version, the eyes, nose, and mouth of the picture’s male subject are strangely illuminated by white flashes of exposed canvas.
A third work, Vigil for a Horseman, consists of three paintings that feature two black males attired in black tops and red tights lounging atop a red-and-white-striped bed and a black-and-blue diamond-patterned cushion. A tour de force of patterned color and painterly restraint, the triptych and its absurd title propose a uniquely timely rationale for making finely calibrated pictures of black figures. Painted without the usual visual markers that might indicate a historical signature or social and cultural origins (which we know to be fictional), the figures exist in an allegorically retroactive space — a present where work like this, and that of other leading black artists, can aspire to self-invent a visual canon.
To paraphrase Baldwin, the story of the black figure in art is the story of what’s missing in art — it is not a pretty story. In this lushly vibrant exhibition, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye updates art’s oldest medium with an expert hand and a bracingly new message.