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Using loose, broad brushstrokes and opulent inky tones, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s new collection of oil-on-canvases continues to paw at the portrait-painting genre. From her beginnings, this London painter’s depictions of imaginary black sitters have delivered a swift and silent violence to the European tradition, complicating the decadent medium from within, while seizing its eccentric self-congratulatory bent for painterly make-merry.
Ranging from playful, knowing and resolute, to peering, alert and coy, the bright polyphony of expressions that dart across these coal, sable and ebony-hued canvases animate this body of work, gifting it rhythm and unity. As with previous paintings, there remains an emphasis on pose and gesture, with minimal settings for each portrait rendering youthful and mature subjects both placeless and timeless. In doing this, Yiadom-Boakye elegantly diverts emphasis away from the subject’s surround, allowing for self-presentation to take to the fore.
This collection represents a move away from the more theatrical works for which Yiadom-Boakye has become known, swapping sparse inclusions of metropolitan props – a white ball gown or gaudy red robe – for the subtle use of Arcadian effects. The most challenging works on show, ‘Womanology 2’, ‘Curses’, and ‘11am Monday’, present children and women at leisure in idyllic waters and grasses. Widening her repertoire of influences from the obvious precedents of Velázquez, Goya and Sargent, these new paintings toy with far-reaching pastoral styles from the Renaissance to Gauguin’s portraits of Tahitian women.
Although this taxing selection of works continues to conceptually tear at the historical boundaries of her medium, Yiadom-Boakye is first and last a painter. Her works lay little claim to anything more than pigment and cloth, attending only to notions of visibility and invisibility – what is included on the canvas, and tellingly, what is not.