British Art Show 8 recently premiered in Leeds. This quinquennial touring exhibition includes 42 artists this year and its purpose, as ever, is to bring up- and-coming artists into the public eye. By intention, the exhibition curated by Anna Colin and Lydia Yee is a mixed-bag. "A central concern of British Art Show 8 is the changing role and status of the object at a time of increasing convergence between the real and the virtual." One exhibit that clearly shows this focal point is by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: an octave of 8 "portraits".
Yiadom-Boakye was born in London, in 1977. She studied at Falmouth and the Royal Academy Schools. In 2013, she was short-listed for the Turner Prize. Her heritage links to the UK and Ghana and her work draws upon French Impressionism (Degas and Manet). Though she does not see her work as political, it is almost impossible not to read it as such: here is a female painter defining herself in relation to a male tradition of portraiture and painting Black male and female figures within a history of painting that largely excludes Blackness. The revolutionary act for Yiadom-Boakye, however, is her approach to painting and portraiture. A portrait, by definition, is a representation of a person within a period in time, but the portraits of Yiadom-Boakye are not copies of real people or contexts. Just as history fixes the Black image by race or class--consider the title "Negro slave" and recent desires to re-name such paintings-- Yiadom-Boakye gives her work imaginative titles that "suggest a narrative" and free her work from specificity. Also, portraits are linked to time and sittings and laborious corrections, yet the octave of portraits assembled in British Art Show 8 reveal speed and lightness of touch. A "portrait" for Yiadom-Boakye is a representation of many people, physical details are selected from reality and combined into a virtual portrait at speed (no more than a day of painting) with emphasis falling on elements of technique, such that the result is a deliberate fabrication. The canvases are confidently flat, not built in layers, and representations of what exists in the artist's mind and the mind's eye.
A Radical Under Beechwood, BAS8
The Twice Done, BAS8
There is a paradox at work in the "portraits". A portrait is usually linked to a person. The purpose of a portrait is to preserve that person in paint and memorialise a likeness. The history of portraiture is bound up with celebrity and continuity. But what does a viewer do with a portrait of someone known to the artist, though unknown to the viewer, like this? What is a reality for the artist, here, is make-believe for the viewer. How do you read an unknown?
For a viewer, this can only be a composite of people they have known. The person represented means nothing to them. In a sense, Yiadom-Boakye paints like a minor artist creating images of ordinariness. Yet, the moment those images appear on art gallery walls, they are lifted into a different conversation, claiming space and debating about the history of Black imagery and the fictional lives that have been led or might be led...
The "portraits" of Yiadom-Boakye endow their Black representations with vivacity and this is done through incredible skill. By not being studied masterpieces, they liberate their subjects rather than enslave them to single interpretations.
Leave a Brick under The Maple.