LONDON — Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a painter of portraits. These are not portraits of identifiable sitters. They are a melding, a merging, and an imaginative refashioning of a multiplicity of images found and seen. They cleave close to the human form as we habitually know and see it — so close, in fact, that it can be difficult to accept that these particular sitters do not exist in the world. Yet they do not.
The portraits on display in Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain are not celebrations of individuals, but rather composite human creations that emerged as part of the process of painting. Images from a multiplicity of sources have rushed into the vortex of making.
In many, Yiadom-Boakye pays concentrated attention to the head and upper torso; in others, whole bodies are depicted in movement: walking, dancing, or lounging in groups. Dark tones often emerge from dark grounds, which means that, for the viewer, the looking is an act of slow discovery, the unveiling of a mystery. Many portrait painters wrench the human form about — and the facial features in particular — to forge a vision that often sails close to despair, or to bleakness at the very least. Think of Bacon or Auerbach. Yiadom-Boakye does no such thing.
Rather, there is an enveloping warmth, and even a gentle humor, about her portraiture, and more than a touch of nobility, too, as if viewers are being nudged to see the majesty in her subject’s faces. Her paintings are not heavily textured. There is no evidence of violent workings and re-workings, no surface agitation of the kind that you might find in the portraiture of, say, Leon Kossoff.
She is not in the business of displaying anguish. She keeps her own counsel. These paintings often have an air of serenity, and a quiet assurance, about them. The energies all emerge from the forms themselves: the particular leap of a dancer or the furious, purposive stride of a walker in profile. As onlookers, we witness those energies in a motion now frozen, not in a replication of the ongoing facture of the work itself. Her subjects exude an extraordinary dignity, if not a kind of indefinable wholeness.
The show itself feels calm and well-paced, too. Why? One reason is that the paintings are not at war with an incessant, distracting chatter of words. Inside the gallery spaces, they are unencumbered by text of any kind. There is no interpretation whatsoever, neither tucked in beside individual works nor on panels at the gallery entrances. There is nothing to be read about the artist’s life. No themes are proposed by words on a wall — nothing comes between us and the image. The paintings are allowed to speak for themselves, and they do so with a wordless eloquence.
And all this feels right. What the painter offers, in her wholeness of looking, is narrative promise, together with a certain appetite-whetting ambiguity. And all this is of a human size and on a human scale. The paintings feel entirely self-sufficient human proposals, speaking to us directly, without any need for the mediation of language.
There is no rigid trajectory of any kind, either; no progress report. Chronologically, the paintings are mixed and matched. And there is just the right amount of breathing space between them. They don’t seem to be breathlessly queuing up to assail viewers. They are patient. They take their time.
They also seem to share a common mood. How to describe it? Generosity of spirit? Combined with a certain joy — or even a brazen optimism about what it is to be human? Or is it a restrained spirit of tenderness — even quiet celebration? These qualities are unusual to see in these harum-scarum days. The truth’s in there somewhere.
Oh dear, I find that I have lied a little. There are some words on these walls after all, just a few, and these are the titles that the painter has given to her works. Some painters avoid them altogether, and of those who do them, few give great titles to their works.
Few of us have the imaginative sensitivity of, say, the poet Wallace Stevens. But Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, being a poet as well as a painter, gives her works wonderful titles, titles that enrich our looking: “Any Number of Preoccupations”; “Fiscal Playsuit”; “To Improvise a Mountain”; “A Toast to the Health of a Heathen”; “Repurposed for Songs.”
There is a lift-off about such a title as “To Improvise a Mountain.” A young woman, standing, with her back to us, plays with her hair, somewhat self-consciously, as an older woman, head propped on her arm, stares back up at her.
How significant is this conversation? What is its nature? The title has the suggestive puzzle of the play of poetry about it, a certain quality of imaginative free-floatingness. The hugeness of a mountain is coming into being, it seems to propose, as if by some miracle, as if it might even be conjured by the nonchalance of a human gesture.
Will this young woman, a touch hesitant, a touch fragile, on this checker-board floor, grow into such a mountain? Could life prove to be quite that magnificent? This kind of delicate, dancing interplay between title and image happens again and again in this show.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night is scheduled to continue at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through May 9, 2021. Currently, the museum is closed. Please check the website for updates.