“I think less about the figures than I do about how they are painted.”
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s canvases showcase complex palettes that luxuriate, overwhelmingly but not exclusively, in shades of brown. The subject matter is central: Yiadom-Boakye paints brown-skinned figures, both men and women, typically situated against backgrounds that barely hint at being anyplace at all. She acknowledges that painting Black people—subjects largely absent from Western art history—is a political gesture, and is quick to point out that, “They’re all Black because, in my view, if I was painting white people that would be very strange, because I’m not white.”
Time and again, in commenting on her work, Yiadom-Boakye prioritizes formal concerns: “I think less about the figures than I do about how they are painted. I ceased to see the paintings as portraits a long time ago.” In fact, she paints not specific people but subjects whose individual characteristics she has lifted from an endless visual repository, fragments of which she collages into scrapbooks to serve as points of reference.
Single-figure works of invented sitters, like To the Last (2013) and Where It Had Been (2013), are mostly monochromic planes of color that range in hue from an inky near-black to a rich, soft dark beige. (Yiadom-Boakye avoids black pigment itself, preferring instead to mix browns and blues into the desired dark shades.) These are figurative paintings that behave like those Ad Reinhardt abstractions in which, the longer one looks, the more the nuances of color reveal themselves. Yiadom-Boakye enlivens and complicates browns with purples, hot pinks, yellows, ochers, greens, and blues that lie just beneath the surface. In the process, she replicates not the look of skin but its character, its ability to reflect and absorb light, its elasticity and its tautness.
In comparison, The Myriad Motives of Men—based on a black-and-white photograph of musicians John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders taken by Chuck Stewart in the mid-1960s—offers a kaleidoscope of color. Crimson, white, green, and gray construct the figures’ wardrobes and live alongside the varied browns comprising their bare arms, hands, necks, and heads, as well as the nondescript setting in which they sit—very different from the original source material.
For all the rich incident present on the surfaces of these works, the paintings’ focal points lie in the figures’ eyes, the whites of which Yiadom-Boakye sometimes leaves unpainted, with bits of canvas peeking through. These ruptures in the otherwise unified skin of paint make visible both the painting’s support and the fictions germinating on its surface. As a critic has written about Edouard Manet, Yiadom-Boakye invents painting while destroying it.
Paulina Pobocha, Associate Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2022