If we look at the history of portrait painting, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work, at Jack Shainman’s Gallery on 20th street, is quite subversive of this genre on a few levels, but in subtle and even disarming ways.
First of all, these pieces just don’t seem to fit any of the previous categories in the field of portraiture. These are not psychological portraits, these are not ego-stroking portraits commissioned by the well-heeled, these are not documentary portraits – a la Géricault – to show social exclusion or aberration. In fact, these portraits by Yiadom-Boakye seem to violate a central premise that most of western portraiture has been based on – you start with a real subject, learn his/her overarching nature, and you capture it.
From Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, through Raphael’s Baldassare Castiglione, through Géricault to Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and beyond, you’ve got some real person as the source and artistic success is measured by the extent some interestingly salient feature about that person can be perfectly revealed. Yiadom-Boakye throws all that away and just paints what have been described, in previous reviews of her work, as ‘fictitious’ subjects. She just creates the portraits out of nothing, from her own imagination.
Perhaps what’s even a little more subversive – in our contemporary art world or culture in general – is that the fictitious subjects are black folks who are not depicted as, on the one hand, impoverished, violent or suffering, or, on the other hand, as overachievers who beat the odds and should be admired. In fact, this show is called “The Love Within,” and I assumed, based on the good will of the characters portrayed, that this title might refer to the love and sense of unity and community that often exists within any segregated population within a dominant culture. We could go even further and say Shainman is being a bit subversive by even hanging this show in New York City’s lily white art corridor: if not subversive then certainly provocative. Dare I say that this show might even look a bit out of place given the usual offering of white people stuff in Chelsea and given the usual racial demographics involved in the folks who go gallery hopping and who buy art?
So Yiadom-Boakye has her fictitious subjects presented as if she is following in the tradition of portraiture, but the fake subjects violate the most sacred tenet of portraiture. So why is she doing this? Well, since she is not observing the traditional practices of portraiture, she doesn’t have to present real subjects. Her art is not about documentation or psychological revelation. I think she’s trying to depict black ‘subjects’ or black folks apart from the charged contexts in which we usually see them in our cultural offerings. They are not being glorified, they are not being vilified – they are just black folks. Basically, this is just a bunch of paintings of black folks, but that’s what makes the show so amazing – nobody ever seems to just do paintings of just black folks. Given all the racial conflicts and dilemmas and controversies that pervade our society, it becomes significant when black folks can just be depicted as black folks. I guess this is the big secret of the show – when we look at a portrait of a black man in this show, what do we expect to see and what are we actually seeing here? For the most part, we see guys who seem to be totally benign, if not engagingly warm and open. The artist seems to be asking: what will it mean, or how will people be affected, if she presents a black person without any social or cultural baggage whatever? In fact, the artist is so interested in removing her subjects from any possible context, that she does not even paint shoes on them. She feels that shoe style might reflect the period of time or social or cultural context in which the subjects live.
I think this is an interesting show to see given the recent racially charged stories that are pervading our news sources.