In an exhibition at the New Museum, Under-Song For A Cipher, 17 new paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are shown. This is not a first outing in the city for the British-born artist, who had an acclaimed 2010–2011 solo show at the Studio Museum and participated in the 2012 New Museum Triennial. In each of these exhibitions, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings have been closely read through the lens of European portraiture. The introductory text to Under-Song states: “The characters brought to life in her works […] call to mind the absence of people of color from centuries of European painting and attest to the enduring relevance of black portraiture.” This emphasis on the black figure in art history focuses on its “absence,” nonexistence, smallness, or nothingness. However, Yiadom-Boakye’s use of color isn’t limited to the representation of the black figure, but launches into its mind and psychology.
Yiadom-Boakye’s painting “Any Number of Preoccupations” (2011) shows a figure in a dark room, wearing a red gown. This isn’t just a black figure in a room, but a figure with a sense of concentration, as if posing for a camera. Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are also about the sensations that the colors produce in the viewer. Here, sharp contrasts and low light offer a pensive quality, intensified by the deep concentration in the figure’s eyes. The artist’s formalist approaches also dazzle, such as the shimmering texture of the red gown, which appears like satin.
At the New Museum, the 17 new paintings are installed on a deep maroon wall. This color, which corresponds and dialogues with the paintings, triggers a sort of atmosphere, making them appear as a unified body of work. When I look at the walls, the paintings of dancers catch my attention — a female dancer, or maybe a ballerina, with hands hoisted in the air. A younger-looking male lies in a field of grass, himself wearing a green sweater or shirt; another man reclines on a blue couch in flaming red pants. Because Yiadom-Boakye says all of her subjects are fictional, I’m tempted to think of these not as portraits of people, but as psychological sketches. The man in red pants seems like someone who’s keen on having fun, or has an uncontained and expressive energy; the focused look of the dancing woman tells me she’s self-determined. Some of the quasi-novelistic qualities of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are suggested in their titles, like “Light of the Light Wick” and “The Much-Vaunted Air”.
Yiadom-Boakye is an artist with a literary imagination — she also writes literature, and has published some of her short stories. Indeed, the paintings in Under-Song are suggestive of a larger imagined series of stories. A novel begins often with a brief description of the characters, and this becomes an index of sorts to guide the reader. In the same way, these paintings are a kind of emotional cartography; they exist as markers of psychological states, of ecstatic moods, much like the affective role of music. The work appeals to the sensory and imaginary and, therefore, it’s reductive of the viewer to look only objectively at the color of the subjects in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings. Her formalist approach always points towards something else: a state of mind, a question, or a proposition.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song For A Cipher continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 3.