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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye talks about creating fictional characters through portraiture

By Paul Laster
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A British figurative painter of Ghanaian descent, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is known for portraits of imaginary black men and women based on multiple sources rather than on an individual model or sitter. A writer as well as an artist, the Turner Prize short-lister works quickly and usually completes one of her eye-catching compositions in a single day. With a survey of new paintings about to open at New Museum, she discusses her process and her parallel career as an author of short stories.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, A Conflagration, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Corvi- Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

How important is improvisation to your work?
It’s very important. Most of my decision-making happens through the course of painting. While I do plan things out in advance to some degree, the plans generally fall by the wayside once I get going.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Vigil For A Horseman, 2017, detail
Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

So how do you begin a painting?
Normally with something very simple that poses some kind of a problem or challenge: a color, a composition, a gesture, a particular direction of the light. My starting points are usually formal ones. There is always something in particular that I think about, and the piece grows out of that.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Repose III, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

What made you decide to become a painter when you were starting out in the 1990s?
I’m not entirely sure. It wasn’t a firm decision. Painting was one of many things that I loved doing, even though I’ve never found it easy. Perhaps that’s why I kept trying to do it.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 8am Cadiz, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

You don’t just paint, though; you paint in a very traditional manner using very traditional materials. What’s their appeal for you?
Things like oil paint, canvas, linen and rabbit-skin glue have something of a life of their own. There’s something visceral and inherently alive about using them to create a painting. Also, while paintings may have a long life span, they age just like people: Over the centuries, paintings change, fade and often crumble.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Mercy Over Matter, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Who are the subjects of your work?
They’re composites constructed from found images, life drawings and my imagination. I realized early on that I didn’t want to depict people I knew; it never worked out the way I wanted it to. My method allows me to think freely about a person, a life, a place or a feeling through the act of painting itself.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Willow Strip, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

You’re also a writer as well as a painter. Do those roles overlap?
No, not at all. My writing parallels my painting, but I don’t paint about the writing or write about the painting. It’s just the opposite, in fact: I write about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Ever The Women Watchful, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

But you use such literate titles for your paintings.
The titles emanate from the associations I make while working on or looking at a painting, but they’re never meant to explain it. They’re more like an extra brush mark.

“Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher” is at New Museum through Sept 3 (newmuseum.org).

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