Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. 4am Friday, 2015, Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 51 1/8 inches, Courtesy of the artist; Corv-Mora, London; and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I met Lynette Yiadom-Boakye briefly in 2015 in London the day before I saw her show at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, “Verses After Dusk.” If only I had already seen it I would have told her how moved I was by her work.

The first thing that struck me about her paintings was the whites of the eyes of her figures. They are bright white, literal local color, but I can’t imagine them painted any other way. Seeing these bright whites shining in each portrait I couldn’t help but sense meaning in their exaggeration.

The second thing I was struck by was the freshness of these paintings. They are painted until the painting takes on life and not a moment more. In some, the bare canvas is visible, bursting through like light. I’m always excited to see raw canvas. It’s like seeing a bit of skin that is usually covered and forbidden. Later, having learned more about Yiadom-Boakye’s work, I discovered that she paints each canvas in a day.

Walking around “Verses After Dusk,” I wondered who these figures were. I learned that they weren’t portraits of her family, people who sat for her, or historical figures. They were all conjured from her imagination or from her subconscious. They felt like people staring out of another dimension into ours. The fascinating thing, though, is that even as invented portraits, they have that quality that “someone is home.” Its the quality that really good portrait artists impart to their paintings that goes beyond likeness or rendering, the feeling that the portrait has a living presence and a consciousness. Yiadom-Boakye says of the people in her paintings “People ask me, ‘Who are they, where are they?’ What they should be asking is ‘What are they?’” This quote is alarming in a good way. Do the portraits contain spirits from another realm? It gets my imagination going. 

I was also captivated by Yiadom-Boakye’s dark on dark compositions, in which black figures emerge from shadowy backgrounds. In person, it is a pleasure to read the subtle shifts between browns and blacks and the texture of brush work as forms move into deeper and deeper depths of darkness. In a photo, they flatten into abstraction or disappear completely. This effect reminds me of the racial bias of photography companies, many of which have calibrated their cameras for white faces to show up well, but fail to find black faces with recognition software or adjust them into artificial whiteness. Yiadom-Boakye fully embraces the darker ranges of color. I was also making dark paintings at the time I saw her show and it was nice to see another artist making work so unfriendly to Instagram. 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, In Lieu Of Keen Virtue, 2017, Oil on canvas,78 3/4 x 51 1/8 inches, Courtesy the artist; Corvi-Mora, London; and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I saw her work again at the New Museum in 2017 in her show entitled “Under-Song for a Cipher.” It was one big room of portraits and the walls were painted an earthly red. Different things struck me this time around. Many of the paintings were made on very coarse herringbone linen. The colors were somber, but not as dark. I also couldn’t help but notice all the awkward things in the paintings. For example there was a very odd looking cat that looked more like a stuffed toy than a real one perched on the shoulder of a beautifully painted man in “In Lieu of Keen Virtue.” Other times it was a not quite right looking wrist or foot. She paints each of them in a day and that means no fussing around. If it’s weird or awkward the imperfection just makes it more human.

Yiadom-Boakye is a writer as well as a painter. I like that each of her paintings feels like an entire invented world, like the world laid out in a novel. In the surfaces of her paintings I can trace all of her moves and sense the exhilaration of applying all of that wet paint to the whole canvas. So long as this experience is still sublime for painters and the results so moving for viewers painting will never die.

 

Brandi Twilley, The Window, 2016, Oil on canvas, 46 by 64 inches

Brandi Twilley is a painter from Oklahoma. She has mounted solo exhibitions at Sargent’s Daughters (New York, NY), Lord Ludd (Philadelphia, PA), and Hood Gallery (Brooklyn, NY). She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.