It was worth braving the storm clouds a few days ago to visit the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens and view Verses After Dusk – a solo exhibition of recent works by the British figurative painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977, London).
Although I have been aware of this artist since she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2013, I had only previously seen a small number of individual paintings by her in group displays at Tate Britain (where her works ’10pm Saturday’ (2012) and The Generosity (2010) are part of the British Art Collection) and Leeds Art Gallery (where the beautiful seascape with two figures Condor and the Mole (2011) was shown in the Arts Council touring exhibition, One Day, Something Happens: Paintings of People, 6 March-24 May 2015) . For this reason it was fascinating to spend time delving deeper into her portfolio, appraising recently completed paintings, and learning more about Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic practice via this solo exhibition.
Displayed on the ground floor in five inter-connected rooms, Verses After Dusk comprises c.25 contemporary oil paintings and sketches of individuals, pairs and small groups depicted in a range of quite ambiguous, quotidian settings – from dimly lit, under-defined interiors, to sparsely populated beach scenes and seascapes.
The exhibition opens with a selection of individual portraits of young men and women – some facing out towards the viewer, but most painted at oblique angles with averted eyes looking away into the distance, or with their backs completely turned as if to avoid the onlooker’s gaze altogether.
An impressive oil on canvas titled ‘Interstellar’ (2012) is positioned on the wall immediately facing the entrance to the first room so that a tall, larger-than-life figure of an athletic and graceful dancer, with arms outstretched in a balletic relevé on demi-point provides the first glimpse of Yiadom-Boakye’s sublime work. From the outset, the scale, energy and refinement of this painting drew me in and provoked many questions – not only concerning the subject in the frame, but also musings about the artist herself.
Although figurative Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are not realist works. Nor are they depictions of known, recognisable or named individuals. Instead, each figure is presented anonymously as ‘everyman’ or ‘everywoman’ in a diversity of contexts and poses that only offer suggestions about their unseen thoughts, emotions and states of being.
With several of the full-length and half-length portraits painted with their backs to the viewer this prompted consideration of my own positionality (at that moment within the gallery, but also in general). Furthermore, in the opinion of the exhibition’s curator Amira Gad, this alternative situation of visitors being confronted by the backs of unknown figures “uncannily inverts the roles of subject and object, transforming the viewer into the subject matter” (Gad, 2015: 25).
What, if anything, happens to a spectator’s gaze when the convention of standing face-to-face with the subject of a painting is denied or denounced? Is Yiadom-Boakye forcing us all into an unfamiliar re-alignment (and, for some, an uncomfortable position) behind (and occasionally slightly lower than) these figures? Perhaps, also, the shadowy backgrounds behind the faceless ‘portraits’ were deliberately presented this way to blur and (ultimately) dissolve the boundaries between the Self and whoever we designate as our others.
Many traditions and tropes of classical Western portraiture, and the history of spectatorship, are certainly being questioned – if not completely subverted – in Yiadom-Boakye’s artworks. As the African-American art critic Hilton Als notes in his comment piece about the exhibition (with reference to earlier viewings of selected works at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2010), by deliberately not painting her characters in well-defined, context-rich surroundings the artist is enabling us to be much more creative in our imagination of potential back stories about their lives and identities. Moreover, Als feels that Yiadom-Boakye is actively preventing us from reading too much into what a particular geographical location, social environment or living space might indicate about a person’s socio-economic status and level of material wealth by “divesting her subjects of some of the weight of Western figurative painting, with its reliance on context, the room and furniture treated as another aspect of character and thus destiny” (Als, 2015: 101).
More paired and group portraits are displayed later on in the exhibition – including two women dancing together in works enigmatically titled ‘Half a Dozen Dead’ (2010) and ‘Shoot the Desperate, Hug the Needy’ (2010). On seeing these vibrant images of black women dominating this space I was reminded just how rare it still is to see positive images of healthy, active black girls and women enjoying each others’ company as the subject of fine art works within mainstream European art galleries and high-profile collections.
One of the largest and most striking paintings in the east wing of the gallery that overlooks the 2015 Selgas/Cano Pavilion outside is Firefly (2011) – a dynamic scene of three boys running together along a beach, painted in a soft natural palette of grey, green, brown and beige. When describing this piece, and others depicting young people, in an artist’s statement for the Arts Council Collection in 2014 Lynette Yiadom-Boakye wrote:
“[T]here is something about the small appearing large that makes children apt for this composition. I wanted to think about their power in a different way: about their activities, ideals and conspiracies as potential power.”
– Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (Higgie, 2014: 29).
What marks Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portfolio out as exceptional within the British art canon is her inclusion of black people of African descent as the central subjects in all her paintings. While this is seen as a process of normalisation of the black image – referencing wider historico-political and cultural discourses about making African Diasporans more visible – within the Euro-American art academy, it also challenges the conventions of classical Western portraiture.
Beyond the exhibition, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye recently participated in a series of artist’s talks during the opening weeks of Verses in the Dusk in which she read extracts of her own poetry, and selected other works by literary luminaries such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, which were read and performed by the actors Carrie Cohen, Chris Machari and Carole Street.
A selection of the artist’s poems and short stories have been published in the exhibition catalogue, and the recorded sound files of the readings are currently available online via the Serpentine’s soundcloud.
Verses After Dusk is on display at the Serpentine Gallery until 13 September 2015.
Notes and references
Artist’s profile of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – Jack Shainman Gallery website.
Als, H. (2015) Face to Face. In: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – Verses After Dusk [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Koenig Books. pp. 101-103.
Gad, A. (2015) Reading Paintings: The Work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – Verses After Dusk [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Koenig Books. pp. 21-31.
Higgie, J. (2014) One Day, Something Happens: Paintings of People. A selection by Jennifer Higgie from the Arts Council Collection. London: Hayward Publishing.
Condor and the Mole (2011) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Oil paint on canvas. Dimensions 2300 x 2500 mm. Arts Council Collection. Accession number: ACC5/2011.
10pm Saturday (2012) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Oil paint on canvas. Dimensions 2000 x 1300 mm. British Art Collection, Tate (Ref. T13655).
The Generosity (2010) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Oil paint on canvas. Dimensions 1800 x 2000 mm. British Art Collection, Tate (Ref. T13654).