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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work both eschews and begs for political context. Yet a new exhibition curated by Hilton Als at the Huntington front-loads political nuance onto these works, even where there might not be any. In this context, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, which feature black dancers and portraits, hang together in one gallery, while the surrounding rooms contain more standard fare of stiff, self-conscious paintings of 18th-century British aristocrats.
While Yiadom-Boakye’s work’s political charge is inherent and important to acknowledge, it is her skill as a painter—her unfussy yet purposeful brushwork, for instance—that gives the characters of her paintings a sense of vulnerability and depth. This intimacy is particularly present in portraits that contain direct eye contact, such as Greenhouse Fantasies (2014) and The Needs Beyond (2013). Part of the allure of these works is simply optical, as the stark, unmixed white paint used for the character’s eyes pop intensely from the painting’s surface. Another is psychological—eye contact is a sign of potential interaction.
In choosing to use muted colors and hazy, non-specific backgrounds, Yiadom-Boakye obscures the time and placement of her character’s lives, leaving them open to interpretation. In Harp-Strum (2016), for instance, a 71 x 79 inch diptych, two girls perform a dance on a green screen-like background, too ecstatically engaged with their choreography and one another to notice a portrait of the aristocratic wife of a naval officer (eponymously titled Frances [Balchen] West by Joseph Highmore, 1742) hanging in another room nearby. Seeing as the vast majority of colonialist exploits and the slave trade were commenced via sea, the proximity of these images feels especially poignant. While there is a joyousness to the girls’ focus inward, it does not extend to the viewer, who cannot help but see overt implications of our society’s racism played out in these two juxtaposing images. This pairing snaps into view the stark contrast between the peaceful subjects of Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition and the rest of the Huntington’s collection, implying a more sinister undertone.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 20.