Their eyes glint like marbles dangling in the dark, while dim features fade into inky surroundings. We can barely see them, these elusive men and women conjured by the brush of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Anonymous, unknowable, they star in her first solo museum show, even as they all but vanish into the painted background. This intelligent, enigmatic and intensely talented artist challenges us to trace intuitively her subjects’ outlines and search beneath her viscous daubs for personas that remain mysterious.
The vexingly blurred figures aren’t actually portraits at all, but depictions of people who never existed, inventions sprung from the author’s memory, dreams and meditations. Some are literary characters, others the residue of photographs the artist once saw. A good many are her glosses on Manet, Sargent, Velázquez and Goya. None of her subjects sat before her easel. These figures have the outlines of ghosts and the specificity of real individuals.
A British artist of Ghanaian ancestry, Yiadom-Boakye is absorbed by the multitudinous possibilities of black. With a palette of ebony, coal, sable, pitch, and jet, she delves into the complexities of tactile darkness and pairs tenebrous skin with the velvety gleam of a dyed peacock feather.
Manet painted his wife in a suburban living room, expertly juxtaposing every tinge of white, from whipped cream lace around her neck to the silken foam of her cascading dress. Yiadom-Boakye works similar magic in darker ranges, and treats Manet’s subject matter as a tossed gauntlet, which she picks up.
She even takes on “Olympia”. In Manet’s masterpiece, a black servant appears behind the nude prostitute, bearing a bouquet of flowers from an admiring client. Olympia lounges tensely on a daybed, a pasty figure lodged against a tangle of white linens. Yiadom-Boakye reproduces the scene – only now a shirtless black man stretches out provocatively, and a harsh emptiness takes the place of the dark-skinned servant, making her absence palpable.
Yiadom-Boakye also strides fearlessly into a confrontation with Sargent’s celebrated depiction of “Dr Pozzi at Home”, from 1881, recasting it as a portrait of a lively but generic person of colour who has borrowed the good doctor’s crimson robe, white collar, and hand-on-hip attitude.
You might choose to see this twist on society portraiture as nothing more than a postmodern smirk. How blind the masters were, even with their supercharged powers of observation! The world they lived in was multicoloured, yet in their depictions of it blacks make only cameo appearances as domestics or exotics. For a black artist to paint is already a challenge to an exclusive legacy; to paint black subjects is doubly defiant. Yiadom-Boakye does more. She creates luxuriant tableaux populated by black protagonists and offers an alternate story in which the old masters applied their magical hands to a more accurate vision of the world. The show’s curator, Naomi Beckwith, makes so much of all these knowing invocations of the past that she labels her a conceptual artist.
The term does her a disservice. Yiadom-Boakye’s lush, seductive textures and nocturnal hues, and the imposing presence of her imaginary subjects give these huge canvases a potency that goes beyond mere polemic. For decades, the painter Barkley Hendricks has endowed friends and acquaintances with the monumental dignity of Holbein potentates. Like him, Yiadom-Boakye not only deconstructs and criticises the tradition of portraiture; she celebrates, reclaims, and adds to it.
‘Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations’, Studio Museum, New York, until March 13. www.studiomuseum.org