The Matters 2016
Of Ghanaian descent, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in London in 1977. Now into her fourth decade, she has already achieved so much as an artist. Her oil paintings are to be found in museum collections across the world and since 2015 she has had solo shows in London, Munich, Basel and in New York.
Seventy of her works are on display at Tate Britain in a show entitled Fly in League With the Night.
Boakye’s focus is people; groups of people going about their daily business or lone subjects, posing in domestic interiors. Walking around these canvases, some of which are of epic proportions, it is surprising to note the separation of the sexes. Male and female almost never occupy the same frame. Hung alongside each other on the same wall however, they coexist quite happily in parallel worlds.
What does all this amount to I ask myself? And then I remember – Boakye’s subjects are not real people. Gleaned from her own photographic research and her memory, they do come across as flesh and blood – at least in part. Some of these studies of composite people niggled me. I don’t mind been niggled as the work was intriguing, and at times, glorious.
In Room 1 I was spooked by the first two paintings. Bird of Paradise 2009 shows a black woman in sombre attire merging into a coffee background. With no discernible mouth, the only part of her that shows her inner life is the whites of her eyes, which peer out at you coldly. The portrait reminded me of a Goya, his Black Paintings.
First (2003) is equally troubling but in a different way. A man in a shocking red robe holds it open to expose his torso and prominent underpants. Boakye’s highly sexualised image of a man showing off his wares, is both comical and the stuff of nightmares, as Boakye endows him with clownish facial features. First seemed to have echoes of a Francis Bacon portrait in its use of the colour crimson and rough brushwork. A touch of the Cindy Sherman too with the clown motif.
Thereafter Boakye veered away from these ideas. All of the obviously disturbing stuff no longer appeared in her work. Her subjects morphed into normal members of the public. The brushwork became more even, smooth even in parts, and the canvases filled with colour and jazzy interiors. Pale for the Rapture with two seated boys sitting on differently patterned sofas trying to think (both pinching the bridge of their nose), had something of the late Matisse, with its attention to the dizzying patterns of soft furnishings.
I enjoyed, and related to, the portraits of men relaxing with their pet animals. A canary, a cat lying across a man’s shoulders were charming. My favourite, The Matters 2016 (see title pic) featuring a moustachioed young man standing proud with his owl, took me back to an earlier age of 17th century Flemish art where young men flaunt their falcons. Rough brushwork around the face, the torso, projected perfectly a boy on the cusp of manhood.
Continuing onwards I paused before a group of young men at the beach, bare-chested, smooth-skinned, they were sensuous without being sexual.
No Need for Speech (2018) broke away from the idyllic representations of youth and showed us two sparring partners crouching on their haunches staring each other out. These two young men in black, feathers sprouting from the neck, two male cockerels ready to pounce on a large monochrome canvas, packed a punch at the show.
A portrait of boy in (ballet) costume, ruffled neck on a green background stopped me in my tracks. In A Passion Like No Other (2011) the eyes tell it all. Out of all the titles Boakye chose to give her paintings- this was the only one which seemed apt and moving.
Repurposed for Songs with two women sitting at a table, one staring into space the other looking across to her with downcast eyes as if preparing to whisper something momentous or comforting to her neighbour, intrigued me, but didn’t trigger any particular emotion in me. The same with To Improvise a Mountain where a woman lying down a mattress looks up anxiously at a young woman with her back to us.
Boakye of course is playing with us with some of her work. Or rather she invites us to give our own interpretation of her pictures. They are mostly domestic scenes, mini soap operas playing out. The subjects rarely make eye contact with the viewer (unless they are portraits) and for this reason seem far removed from our world. Boakye’s highly personal and enigmatic titles are distancing. The words almost never convey what is suggested in paint.
I loved this maddening show and aim to go back to it. Boakye’s subjects may be opaque but they are beautifully produced and the generous, colourful canvases are a pleasure to pore over. Recommended.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Fly In League With the Night is on at Tate Britain until 9th May 2021