NEW YORK — One can’t call Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings of people portraits, because the young men and women in these images don’t actually exist. They are composite figures, worked up from her imagination and from files of images — photographs, clippings, drawings — that she has gathered. They are, perhaps, invented characters, but she doesn’t tell us of what kind, what motivates them or what they are about. The titles of her paintings are poetic and suggestive — “Ropes for a Clairvoyant” and “Of All the Seasons,” for example — but they bear no identifying traces, no clues to the people she has summoned. Stand in a room full of her work, and you have the sense that you have been dropped into the middle of something, in media res. It isn’t like being in the middle of a crowd, teeming with energy — rather, you feel yourself surrounded by a collection of quietly thoughtful and thoroughly self-contained individuals who are taking a moment from the stream of life to do nothing at all.
The work of Yiadom-Boakye, a London-based artist born in 1977 and a finalist for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2013, is on view at the New Museum, filling the midsize fourth-floor gallery, which has been painted a deep burgundy. The rich color of the background walls contrasts sharply with the standard institutional white favored by most contemporary art galleries, and it flatters the generally earthy tones and deep shadows of the artist’s oil-on-linen medium. The lights are also kept lower than is often the case in contemporary galleries, and everything seems to have a warm glow. An effort has been made to banish the bustle of New York and allow visitors to exist in a space that is backward-looking, to indulge nostalgic fantasies of the hushed art museums of the 19th century, which were also richly painted and architecturally removed from the everyday world.
Yiadom-Boakye paints most of her works in one day, and this exhibition includes 17 new ones. Several of the figures appear to be dancers (one young woman is seen in a ballet pose wearing a white leotard), and all of them have a casual, lean, athletic grace. The speed with which she paints yields broad, almost sketchy brushwork, paint that is drawn quickly and proximately over the surface of the linen, with streaks and rough edges rather than fine lines and polish. The virtuosity of her work, as well as the physicality of her mostly young subjects, gives a sense that there is something precipitous about the people she has imagined, as though they are about to tip out of the picture space and into the room.
The artist, born in London to Ghanaian parents, focuses on subjects who are of African descent, and her work is often seen as part of a larger project of restitution, shared among other artists who are seemingly working outside the mostly white, Western tradition of figure painting, to people the world of art with new faces, new figures and new subjects who aren’t uniformly white and European. Western painters only occasionally painted non-Western faces and bodies over the past half-millennium, and often when they did, it was to underscore the supposed exoticism or otherness of African or Asian subjects. They were represented as servants, objects of sexual desire or emissaries of far-flung and deeply foreign worlds that only occasionally encroached on European lands, as in the depiction of Balthazar, one of the three Magi, who was often depicted as a Moor in Renaissance paintings.
But compare Yiadom-Boakye with another artist, Kehinde Wiley, who deliberately inserts black faces and bodies into some of the most mannered tropes of Western art, and it’s clear something very different is going on. Wiley’s highly finished images use not just the medium of painting but often the poses and trappings of European elites to create a satire on the exclusion and whiteness of the art world. He inserts a young African American into a heroic and imperial context borrowed from the Napoleonic-era works of Jacques-Louis David or renders the rapper Ice-T as Napoleon, and the resulting work is as bombastically colorful and richly finished as Yiadom-Boakye’s work is earthy and improvised. Wiley is creating an ironic indictment of exclusion, whereas Yiadom-Boakye is quietly and steadily remedying the problem. There is something endearingly pragmatic about her work and her method, as if to say: The way one deals with exclusion is to open the doors and let people in.
But the more you look at it, the more you realize this isn’t just a matter of increasing the sum total of people with dark skin represented in art galleries or museums. Bodies and faces aren’t sufficient to get at the idea of race or identity; one also needs poses, gestures and expressions, characteristic ways of standing and leaning and lounging, that have also been excluded from the way people of color have been represented in Western art.
So at least as important as the skin color of these imagined people is the fact that they are so profoundly, even extravagantly, at ease. Perhaps more important than the simple fact that people of color are represented in a traditionally white or European space is that they are entirely comfortable being there.
One might do this with snapshots of people at ease, reproduced, framed and introduced into the art space. Photographic representation captures ease and grace and the lounging frame of mind, but it also introduces real people into the equation and so sends the mind down different paths. Who are they? What do they do?
By painting people who don’t, in fact, have real existence, Yiadom-Boakye keeps the focus on their physicality and on the paint and the process whereby they have been created. Sometimes, these things intersect in delightful ways. “In Lieu of Keen Virtue,” for example, shows a man casually dressed in an orange turtleneck while a cat lounges on his left shoulder. But the left arm isn’t quite right and doesn’t seem to meet his torso in a natural way. It’s tempting to think the cat may have been a painterly inspiration, to divert attention from the slightly awkward arm with the introduction of a draping feline. In summoning the man in a quick and provisional way, the painter has by necessity also summoned the cat, who does indeed help fix the problem.
The kitty isn’t the only interloper in these works. Sometimes birds appear, as well, and often, there is a dark, assertive shadow cast by the human figures, a shadow that takes on more personality and presence than a mere play of light. In creating a character, or painting an imaginary being, the artist may well ask a question we often ask ourselves: What completes us? What makes us whole? When are we ever pulled together as a being? Almost certainly, we experience this coming together as a real being in moments of reflection, inwardness and ease and not when we do our best (as in a grand oil painting) to project a sense of ourselves to the outside world. But does it ever happen? Only the shadow knows.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher is on view at the New Museum in New York through Sept. 3. For information, visit NewMuseum.org.