8.23.17 — The Enigma of Blackness

A portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye presents an enigma. Why are those black women watchful—and what are they watching? One takes her ease in a steel-backed chair, while the other stands behind her with opera glasses, like the audience to their own lives.

What has brought those men together, in their identical green jackets and white shirts? Are others, slumped backward or hands raised, restless or at ease? Why is one man holding an owl and another a smaller bird, as if questioning it? Is that lean man standing against a wall, one hand crossing to rest on a shoulder and one foot crossing to rest on its toes, a dancer, a prophet, or a thief?

Yiadom-Boakye loves enigmas, at the New Museum through September 3—and I have added this to earlier reports on Teju Cole, Umar Rashid, and blackness as a universal for a longer review and my latest upload. They appear in her titles, like Matters, Ropes for a Clairvoyant, or A Cage for the Love. They appear in her dark palette, broken only by a dancer’s white against a dark background, the heavy orange backdrop to a man’s dark silhouette, or glassy eyes. Much of her cast finds its double in shadows, including that small bird. A man in profile looks toward the light that casts his shadow behind him, like a nude for Edward Hopper. She, though, stands fully exposed and fully in the sun, a subject for the male gaze or an Annunciation, while the black man is isolated and self-composed.

These are heavy enigmas at that, to the point of collapsing under their own weight. Born in London of West African descent, Yiadom-Boakye portrays private moments and intimate acquaintances, often lost in thought. Yet she wants to make them protagonists in a vaguer but grander narrative. She sees them as at once casual, otherworldly, and universal. That belief in life as a vast theater may explain her fondness for performers, quite apart from who an artist’s friends are likely to be. The green jackets may belong to a musical act, while the owl rests on an artist’s palette, like a stand-in for the dark wisdom of his brush.

They sure have a lot to bear. Part of the weight derives from the literal side of British realism, part from the awful demands on the black community in England or America. It appears in the prouder stances of African American artists like Barkley L. Hendricks, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, or Kehinde Wiley. It plays to the feel-good side of politics for many white artists as well. Just think of the price that Dana Schutz has paid for presenting the death of Emmett Till as horrifying in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. But then Kara Walker has taken her licks, too, for dredging up discomforting racial stereotypes.

Are the enigmas insipid or inspiring? One can admire a realism that does without the precision of one tradition, like Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close, or the snappy brushwork of another, like Alfred Leslie and Alice Neel. One can admire, too, the litheness of dancers in action or at rest. Still, Yiadom-Boakye ends up with mostly academic painting in place of the ordinary or the universal. She makes things heavier still with low lighting and painted walls out of old-fashioned drawings rooms. She could do with fewer enigmas and a lot more deception.

Wiley, as it happens, was back at Sean Kelly through June 17 with some deceits of his own, as “Trickster.” And his deceits, too, turn on a dark palette and friends in the arts. He inserts black artists into a parody of Regency or Victorian realism, sometimes with direct quotes—and then he sinks the whole thing into night. He even includes Yiadom-Boakye as a person of property dressed for the hunt, with a landscape behind her and dead rabbits at her feet. Even humor, though, can fail to lighten things up, especially when the players and the references alike amount to inside jokes. He, too, left me wanting a little less pride and a lot more outrage.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.