Lynette Yiadom-Boakye paints portraits. More than that, she explores the history of portrait painting. There exists in her works a link between the sitters, poses, even the costumes and colors of artists as diverse as Holbein, Courbet, Manet, John Singer Sargent, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas and Barkley L. Hendricks. What makes Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings stand out from these other artists, though, is that Yiadom-Boakye doesn’t paint real people. And yet, she manages not to paint stereotypes or archetypes either. There is nothing exaggerated in the series of fourteen canvases and twenty etchings currently on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery. These are real people, even if they are not, actually, real. They somehow maintain individual stories—discrete families, crises, careers, lives. Indeed, with their fictitious realism, these subjects have more in common with characters in a novel than with Sarget’s infamous Madame X.
In 2010, the Studio Museum of Harlem mounted a solo exhibition for Yiadom-Boakye. In the catalogue, the museum published a short story written by the artist, “Treatment for a Low-Budget Television Horror with the Working Title ‘Dinner with Jeffrey.’” The story’s plot builds around a social-climbing, money-hungry man named Carl, his rich and bizarre fiancée and her family, who have invited him to dinner. The story has haunted me, not necessarily because of the dark turn toward cannibalism, but because of the way in which Yiadom-Boakye approaches the all-at-once identifier of a human being:
Carl smiles and spoons away the topmost layer of bread and berries.
Staring back at him from the center of his summer pudding is a perfect dark eye.
A familiar, bright black eye.
Carl drops his spoon in horror and begins to scream.
It is a high, piercing scream that comes from the very depths of his rotten soul.
Having made the appalling realization that he has been dining on Jeffrey.
It’s the eye, that of Carl’s friend Jeffrey, that betrays his humanity and the fate that connects the two characters. Carl has eaten though the meat of Jeffrey’s anonymous, unknown body. But faced with his eye, his gaze, Carl has the sudden rush of recognition.
Standing among the paintings at Jack Shainman Gallery, I cannot help but notice the story’s parallel in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings: individual identity seems to rest in the eyes and the gaze. Sometimes, as in No Such Luxury and A Passion Like No Other, the gaze is direct, engaging, straightforward. In others, such as Interstellar, the fictional “sitter” has his back to us, blocking us from knowing the subject’s personal history. It is as if Yiadom-Boakye has offered some kind of protection for certain of her subjects; she will not allow them to be offered to her audience as sustenance.
Yiadom-Boakye laughs when I ask her about the short story that has haunted me. “I’m sorry,” she says with a puckish smile. I ask her if there is anything about that story, about Jeffrey’s eye in the summer pudding, that might align with the gazes in her pictures.
“I think of the writing as something so separate,” she says. “But then someone will point out something like that, and it seems so obvious.”
“They aren’t always straight,” she says, speaking of the gaze, standing in between two paintings. In one, Jewel, a man looks downward, away from the viewer, as if caught in some movement unrelated to the painting. In the other, The Courtesy of a Saint, a woman pauses her gardening to look frankly at the viewer. She is open, available, engaging. The artist realizes that she is known for her depiction of eyes: “They have been emphatic,” she says. “But that doesn’t always have to be the case.” Jewel’s eyes are not to be misunderstood, however. “It’s the avoidance of passivity,” she says. “He’s looking elsewhere.” The point is, though that he is still looking.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: All Manner Of Needs
13 September–13 October, 2012
Jack Shainman Gallery