Let the monochrome and the gesture become their own enterprise of sensation, and the eye adjusts itself to the absence of light in the washes of muddy siennas, dark greens, and burnt umbers. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s small painting Underground (2009) and its double Underwrite (2009), in her solo show “Any Number of Preoccupations,” both feature a dark-skinned figure that emerges in low-chroma patches from the murky ground. Could it be the same man in both, one moment wearing an olive sweater, the next a gray-blue shirt? The interiors echo the titles’ prefix as they suggest subterranean light. Under alludes to below, beneath—to what is not seen or represented.
In most of Yiadom-Boakye’s 24 paintings at the Studio Museum in Harlem, bodies appear and vanish in hide-and-seek glimpses of night. She seems to paint quickly, composing faces that have a sense of familiarity but nonetheless remain anonymous. The looking she invites is slow but worked up; it tilts the neck, moves the body across the room, or pulls it closer to the tableau of canvas or linen.
Embodied, the dark colors move beyond formal issues; naming them becomes politicized. In these imagined portraits the artist, British and of Ghanaian heritage, takes up the codedness of Western portraiture with its exclusive membership. Her titles resist assumptions about her subjects. In the myopia of the West, dark-skinned bodies have usually been relegated to the role of servile asides—as in Manet’s Olympia (1863)—or deemed altogether invisible, beyond the frame, unavowed. Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects are figments of the mind, conjured identities finding form beneath the brush, the slick fluidity of oil paint.
But there’s a palpable confidence in the gaze of Skylark (2010) and the man of Nous Étions (2009). In the heavy impasto or thinly layered marks of their faces, a glimmer of cyclopean white directs the confrontation with the viewer.
In the larger works, the light is tricky, splintered by the wet sheen of linseed oil. The identities of the figures, dimmed by the Stygian spaces they inhabit, become even more tenuous. In Half a Dozen Dead (2010), the bodies of two dancing women, similarly clad as if doubled by mere thought, are camouflaged by the black gowns they wear. They seem to refuse representation, opting instead for shadow. In contrast, the man’s visual existence in Any Number of Preoccupations (2010) seems fully dependent on his cadmium red robe, composed of patched strokes that absorb most of the light, as if the unraveling of artifice would render him extinct—a ghost, the cipher product of the viewer’s solipsistic looking. He sits, angling one arm to his hip, and returns the viewer’s gaze with a slightly open mouth.
These are truly paintings, involved as much with the sensuousness of oil paint as they are with archetypes of portraiture. The looking involved isn’t easy. It requires a roundabout peering to make out the hazy borders between figure and ground. But isn’t this searching for the body much like the way one culls history to find representation of the non-white subject?