Thick Love, Slender Dusk

A review of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition ‘Verses After Dusk’, at Serpentine Gallery, London, 2015.

I’m looking at a man who exists only in paint, a canvas titled A Coterie of Questions. He’s preoccupied, sitting on the suggestion of a stool, his neck tilted in thought. The setting is unresolved, and the wavering background curls around his figure in colours that match his face. A brown with blue in it, browns infused with yellow, and a deeper black-brown that glints like polished stone. The oil paint is unstable, as if the colours threaten to collapse together and the figure to slip out of focus.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye paints people who don’t exist. She is careful to remove details that might signal a particular time or place – her characters often wear only socks, for example, and hover in uncertain landscapes. Engaging very pointedly with the history of figurative painting, her works make compositional reference to Degas, Manet, Goya, Sickert. And yet, they also insist on something else. Yiadom-Boakye puts paint under pressure, compelling it to bear more that its material property, and to acknowledge its history – what it promotes, what it contains and, ultimately, what it excludes – as if the paint, in a moment of reckoning, is asked to perform its own exegesis.

In these works on canvas, Yiadom-Boakye confronts painting’s failure to adequately represent coloured bodies; quietly defiant, she is engaged with painting dark skin, to capture its radiance, the blueness and butteriness. Her brushstrokes are not disguised but reveal the exertion of dragging a form into focus, as if she wrestles with the paint. In 4am Friday, a man’s face emerges from a black backdrop, eye-whites glowing and his body just visible inside a striped shirt, which jumps out in vigorous brushmarks. His legs disappear into the gloom, claimed by his secretive surrounding.

These are spectral figures which have been improvised and assembled, a fact that is continually revealed by their proportions, by the awkwardness of an elbow or an extravagant limb. There is always a sense the paint is resisting, and that Yiadom-Boakye’s heavy brushstrokes are intended to describe figures only ever on the point of arrival or departure. Every work contains a double gesture: a thick love that radiates from the surface of each canvas, while at the same time invoking the absence of a real subject. Yiadom-Boakye tells us, these figures can only ever be imagined.

Another canvas shows a woman with binoculars, The Woman Watchful. She wears a khaki sunhat, like that of a hunter, and holds the barrels to her eyes. This is a weaponized gaze in two senses – the binoculars appear as a kind of firearm, while her safari garb conjures a colonial aesthetic, but one that is reclaimed by tawny, female flesh.

Each painting is produced in one day, a gesture that is politically potent, a mode of production that makes this daily in the most palpable sense, in an effort to grind down the endemic othering of coloured bodies. Yiadom-Boakye demonstrates the normality of blackness, and in this sense, her paintings are instructions for social thought.

But the paintings are not exactly normal; they feel haunted, their figures suspended – as Yiadom-Boakye strains to arrest these missing bodies, to fix them in paint. She says in an interview, “The sense of being trapped happens through the act of painting; through the act of making… I can never divorce one from the other.” In this way, she insists on paint as a vehicle for the political: paint is her protagonist, the brush is her tongue, paint and politics are the same thing.

These are not ‘empowered’ people and they are not reacting to some kind of pressure, which is why Yiadom-Boakye places them outside of history and beyond its rehearsals of oppression. Instead, her figures hold themselves quietly. They have nothing to prove. In Knowledge of the East, a man looks into dawn, but a white light arrives from behind his face, spilling from the profile of his nose, winking between the curve of lips and chin. This white is the canvas itself, but the man is not diminished by this aesthetic incompleteness. Instead he withholds the white light. It’s not dissolving him; he is not submitting to routine exclusion; he is not a victim.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Frieze Writer’s Prize.