Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, In Lieu of A Louder Love
at Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC
Wilmer Wilson IV, Slim…you don’t got the juice
at Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC (through March 16)
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye follows in the steps of late 19th century European masters, and makes no mystery about it. They favored the wet-on-wet application of paint, more poetically known as Alla Prima, that demands quick work in one sitting, or one day. When Dutch painters first invented it in the 1600s, the impossibility to render small, time consuming details such as luxurious fabrics and jewels, veered the focus to the sitter’s interior life. Instead of stressing status (rich, powerful, respectable), the protestant artists questioned what it means to be a human being. Manet reintroduced it to his followers in the late 19th century by using the technique to great effect. His work is also instantly recognizable for its deep, unctuous blacks.
The two largest paintings in Yiadom-Boakye’s show, “Les Corbeaux,” commanding a whole wall, depict the same man, or doppelgängers. Their squatting form is boxed by a nearly square frame. Her title denotes an affectionate irony, as if her subjects had the innocence of birds, and their slight ridicule in claiming dignity. Manet did paint “The Raven (Le Corbeau)” for a print of a French edition of Poe’s “The Raven.” However, Yiadom-Boakye’s French title is more likely to refer to the raven blacks dressing both men. Her enjoyment at creating mystery and depth with her blacks, at bringing out the light, the silkiness of the whites, is palpable. French peppers the titles, fleshing out meaning in individual works, and the poem that prefaces the exhibition (see below) further builds on those meanings, broadens them and brings greater understanding to this intimate collection on the whole. The visual quotations speak loud, too: here are Degas’ reflections of ballerinas’ feet on the wooden floor:
Degas’ luxurious, sensual reds and greens further enrich Yiadom-Boakye’s brush, setting her subjects like jewels in their case. She pushes the flat application further, pasting on canvas large, raw plaques which render as if by magic the three dimensionality of the subject.
The tones and position of the man sitting in the foreground in 3PM Blackheath, even the bowler hats, refer to Cézanne’s Card Players, while the doubt read in his Self Portrait or that of Gauguin stretches the face of his companion, or double, in the background. Cézanne, Morisot, Manet, Gauguin, Degas used their fluid, somewhat abstracted approach to painting to represent their world. Many painted their peers extensively, painters and poets, bourgeois patrons. Accessories that had served so well in indicating the status of notables were mostly banned while sitters sat deep in thought on their armchair, or lounged socially on sofas. And that’s how we encounter Yiadom-Boakye’s cohort, with all indications of location and of the present time suppressed — no iPhone poking from a pocket, nor hints of fashion trend. According to interviews and releases, Yiadom-Boakye does not work with sitters. The characters in her paintings come out of her imagination rather than from her milieu. Because of their similarity, they seem to undergo various transmutations, as if Yiadom-Boakye played with paper dolls. As she pours out these people on the canvas, she’s testing, probing the essence of being young and black in the 21stcentury. The scenarios vary, but even where more than two subjects populate a painting, they’re isolated, they don’t look at each other, they don’t touch. Instead of communication, affection, support, they only seem to enjoy a camaraderie in suffering. The few sitters that smile or laugh sit alone in their painting, and exude no joy.
The French intelligentsia certainly knew all about anguish, a late form of Mal du Siècle. God was dead, values drifted on waves of change, and personal focus moved from serving society to serving oneself, in a shift more grinding to the ego than one would expect. When they did not represent these tortured souls, artists turned to those catering to their pleasures: waitresses, ballerinas, prostitutes, and other members of the lower classes. The pictures made them into objects of sexual lust to its viewers. What these women were thinking or feeling, anguish, or sadness, or hope, did not deserve representation. Only the turn of the ankle, the lightness of the fabric over the thigh, the adherence of the corset to the breast mattered.
Yiadom-Boakye also paints ballerine and ballerini, with the same delectation for the rendering of the bodies and the fabrics. But these people, instead of being objectified, think, and feel, and question, and express themselves artistically. The sitters, dancers or others, show a sensuality that eschews sexual titillation. If they seduce, if they are seduced, it is through their whole person, body and soul. She does not paint close portraits. The large paintings are all en pied, or at least down to the waist. The heads, which are typically large in relation to the frail bodies, seem heavy to carry. The eyes stick out of muddy faces, more precise, as those of an African sculpture, the whites stressed unnaturally. These eyes look at us, look us back in the eyes as we look at them, denying us any voyeuristic indulgence. These young people long for something lacking in their life, in lieu of a louder love, and address that quest to us, with directedness. Their appeal denies us the numbness to strangers that is part of our social vocabulary. The bodies seem to partake of the anguish: they’re skinny, twisted, angular.
Southbound Catechism’s young dancer, cornered by her own image in the mirror, curls up for protection, her face full of anguish, her eyes calling to the viewer. It’s not easy to be a woman. It’s not easy to be a Black woman. People from ethnic minorities are subjected to prejudgment in Western culture, as were the ballerinas from La Belle Epoque. These projections deny the individual their psyche which Yiadom-Boyake is out to restore. She has expressed her admiration for Walter Sickert, the English painter of the late 19th century. Unlike his French counterparts, he made no difference in his paintings between subjects and objects, them and us. The naked women he pictured enjoy a narrative, such as a man hovering around. Instead of being offered to the concupiscence of the viewer, the subject has a story, she is in a relationship, she’s an individual. The bold application of pigments he developed for his sitters was particularly modern, close in its rawness to Yiadom-Boakye’s style.
An English artist of Ghanaian descent is expected to honor her heritage, and she seems to have paid heed to it earlier on in her career, when her paintings leaned toward a kind of grotesque form of folk art. Now there is an affirmation that she will paint what the hell she wants. While her subjects come across as tortured, the paintings themselves reveal a lusty enjoyment of painting, of controlling the matter. The compositions, assured, dramatic, draw all the focus to the subjects by confining them tightly inside their frame, or by suppressing context. Animals make an appearance, but they seem to define the sitter more as an ironical contrast then as a clue to their identity. A light colored owl has just landed, while the man seems to back off, awed by the bird’s ability to fly [The Ever Exacting Man]. A parrot outstages the sitter with his flamboyant feathers, a cousin of Flaubert’s mythical creature. A gentle irony seeps also in the depiction of her subjects’ intense expressions. All this inner life sprouts out of the depth of their souls, but few are actually doing anything. In a painting with four dancers [A Concentration], only one is actually moving, and his figure is clipped by the frame, a compositional feature favored by Degas. The 19th century sitters were also doing nothing, but the artists were aiming at representing the personality of an actual individual. The content in her work consists in the longing she sees around her, or that she feels herself. If her creatures express torment, she seems to make her mark with little creative anguish. Her visual style derives from an art movement that most gallery visitors have interiorized as a sure value. It will keep them well within their comfort zone, demanding no leap in their appreciation, no embracing curve. Her work, which has been honored with major awards, and welcome at the various temples of art, would have found no place at the Salon des Refusés.
Wilmer Wilson IV, Slim…you don’t got the juice
You could say Wilmer Wilson IV’s approach to representing the black community is diametrically opposite to Yiadom-Boakye’s. Instead of portraying people bursting with inner life, he masks in his pictures everything that defines individuals: their features, their expression, their eyes. The ready made images of African Americans, selected from magazines or advertisement brochures, belong to the media that surrounds us. Wilson IV enlarges them, glues them on wooden panel and pierces them with staples so dense that the technique can only be identified from close. The name of the show, Slim…you don’t got the juice, refers to control or lack thereof, but it is ambiguous who is manipulated here, the people in the images, or the viewer who is refused access – certainly not the artist.
The title of the piece “RID UM” is also ambiguous, ridum normally denoting ridicule, but could mean here get free from them. It gathers two men, with a woman in the foreground. Their relationship to each other is not clear, the men seem in show business, a common occurrence for African Americans in media representation, and so does the woman, unless she is read as a trophy. In Seasons, the images of four men are grouped behind the blink of some metallic feat of technology, a car’s hood maybe. One holds a mic. Again, they’re not friends, nor family, nor associates. It is their images that belong together, collaged to each other by the artist to form an almanac of their community. The images undergo a harsh, abrasive process, each work pierced by tens of thousands of staples. The painstaking technique. calls to mind trance-like rituals. The punching of nails in African statuary aims at protecting the community against evil creatures and enemies. Here the puncturing protects the sorcerer’s community from the typical use and abuse of their images. Instead of producing an image different from stereotypes, Wilson IV plays, distorts, subverts. We are left guessing, if seduced by the shimmering surface, and the mysterious appeal of his phantasms.
The large drawings/painting on paper derive in style from the staples technique, but they do not dissimulate nor reveal, they are what they are: complex, ritualistic, mysterious. The powerful abstracts, with assured compositions, are arranged on the walls as a supra composition. A humility informs the work as if the gestures involved pertained to a larger purpose that even the artist doesn’t quite see or fully understand.
Wilmer Wilson IV, who just reached 30, has had quite a stellar trajectory. Featured in the New Museum 2018 Triennale, he had already developed his stapling technique but the works were showing human figures full length, one or two by picture. Some areas, hands, or the mouth, were free of staples, the artist directing our eyes to that part of the figure, hiding, revealing. The work at the Susan Inglett gallery shows more subtlety, more complexity. The grouping of human figures comments astutely on the representation of the black community in the media as stereotypes rather than as recognizable individuals. The staples are denser in areas of the photos that are darker. Some of the faces are unreadable but for their outlines, others have an even scattering of staples that veil more lightly the image. The most powerful piece in the exhibition, Diptych, dominates a whole side of the main room. Images of black personalities – they’re all men, politicians, community activists, church leaders, it’s unclear-, are aligned in a frieze not unlike an election slate. The collage produces an institution of important people to admire, to impress, to celebrate. Except that it’s pretty much impossible to decipher. Unlike the Founding Fathers whose figures are carved out of white stone for eternity, this image is missing from America’s collective images. The work’s format, its size, its composition make for a powerful statement, but Wilson IV does not comment whether the monument, rather formal and artificial, is desirable or not.
In a separate, smaller room, a large photo of a blurred silhouette is printed directly onto the wall, espousing its shape, fitting its corner. Again there is a distancing in ‘Across the blue concrete, embers fly to me’, since we can’t read precisely the image. The positioning, the size of the image might lead the viewer to read it as a young black man looming from above, his lifted arm threatening, but from his perspective, he might be an easy target fearing for his life. Looks lonely, up there.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s poem:
In Lieu Of A Louder Love
In the Shade of Hooded Cove,
In Debt to the Dead Oak.
In Range of a Twelve Gauge,
On Embers over Smoke.
At Pains to Hold the Wanton,
At Home to all who Knock.
At Prayer on Prickly Hearth Rug,
An Eye upon the Clock.
In the Parlance of the Pilgrim,
In Hallelujah Coat and Tie.
In Soul so Black Beguiling,
That the Ravens do Carp and Cry.
In Memory of A Cipher,
At Peace beside resting Dove.
In Light of Care and Kindness,
In Lieu of A Louder Love.
Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.