‘His pose, I fancy, is based on Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, as is his surprising grimace and even his indeterminate sexuality. On its most obvious level, this then is contemporary black art elbowing out some space for itself at the table of the old masters. But what I really admire about this show is Yiadom-Boakye’s revolutionary use of black paint. It’s hardly a new colour in art: but never before has it claimed a creative identity as fierce and tangible as this. I hope she wins’
—W. JANUSZCZAK ON THE PRESENT WORK AT THE 2013 TURNER PRIZE
‘That emphasis on a strong presence is really important, and I’m always looking for a strong line, a strong curve or a strong look. They should never appear to shrink away—they are never victims, never passive. I always destroy the work if anyone looks passive’
'I want the work to be pulled out of the air somehow, to play God and exploit that power of creation in paint’
‘It’s not a person, it’s not a portrait; it’s a painting, and everything that goes on within it qualifies the other elements’
The centrepiece of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s major 2012 exhibition Extracts and Verses at Chisenhale Gallery and subsequently of her Turner Prize show in 2013, Bound Over to Keep the Faith is a monumental and compelling vision. Looming from a vast 2 x 2.5 metre canvas, a huge, long-limbed man grins over his shoulder, hand poised at his chin. His eyes, teeth and shirt gleam bright in unadulterated white against a background of rich, Goya-esque darkness. Any sense of place or character is left supremely enigmatic. A slim rope around his waist perhaps gestures to the title’s ‘bound:’ as for ‘faith,’ amid the work’s Old Masterly overtones, is that a glint of missionary zeal in his eye? Yiadom-Boakye’s creations live off such ambiguity. Working swiftly and without models, she presents compound beings who have no backstory or real-life source but instead allow her to probe the mysteries of how paint translates into people. The resulting apparition is oblique in import, yet confronts us with a gaze of disarming directness. Free of external narrative and made tangible purely through the power of the medium, Bound Over to Keep the Faith is emblematic of one of the most distinctive practices in contemporary figurative painting.
The larger-than-life figure in Bound Over to Keep the Faith is a key recurring character for Yiadom-Boakye, alongside another man who wears a striped shirt. As she explains, ‘The really big ones of the man with the white top … started off as a very small work. It was a triptych of three of that man and there was something in the facial expression that really captured everything for me, everything that I was trying to do somehow. Really, if I had to choose two pieces that encapsulate the spirit of what I’m trying to do, it’d be him and the stripy man. When I say capture everything I’m trying to do, or the spirit of what I do, I mean the way that I think, the way my sense of humour works. When I start a body of work they are a good reminder, if you like, an anchoring of how I think generally and the reminder of where I am. It is also the sense of getting to know someone better. They have changed a lot since their first incarnations ... There’s this calm, sense of something level and almost elegant in the stripy man, and then the white shirt is far more like a sphinx I suppose’ (L. Yiadom-Boakye, quoted in H-U. Obrist, ‘Lynette Yiadom-Boakye,’ Kaleidoscope, Issue 15, Summer 2012). As we regard the man in Bound Over to Keep the Faith, Yiadom-Boakye’s invoking of the sphinx seems apt. This mythical creature is also a multifaceted beast, most often imagined with a human head, the haunches of a lion, and sometimes the wings of a bird. Said to have guarded the gates of the ancient city of Thebes, the treacherous sphinx would devour those who could not answer its riddle. This timeless sense of trickery and playful menace resonates from the man’s inscrutable countenance, beaming with unknowable secrets. Conjured here at his most imposing, he is himself a figurehead in the artist’s personal painterly mythos, running like a lithe keynote throughout her oeuvre.
Yiadom-Boakye takes painting, rather than people, as her subject. ‘I want to think about painting, not the personality of the man sitting with me,’ she has said. ‘I’m far more interested in how we can make people intelligible through paint, rather than getting bogged down in characters. I’m not interested in the personalities of specific people I know. I want the work to be pulled out of the air somehow, to play God and exploit that power of creation in paint … I often refer to these figures as people but they aren’t, they are composites pulled together from scrapbooks and drawings. They aren’t real men and women’ (L. Yiadom-Boakye, quoted in J. Stevens, ‘Interview with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye,’ Chisenhale Gallery, 2013 http://www.chisenhale.org.uk/archive/news/images/Lynette_Interview.pdf [accessed 03/08/16]). For all their abstraction from the contexts of place and history, however, her ‘composites’ create an important contemporary dialogue. By engaging with the traditions of painterly practice but normalising the almost exclusive presentation of black people within her work, Yiadom-Boakye’s formal investigations of composition, structure and palette also raise questions of identity, visibility and representation, pointing to the dearth of such depictions in the Western art-historical canon. Her titles, too, remain open rather than closed, inflecting her work with hints of wider fictions and narratives that remain tantalisingly untold. ‘I would think of them as an extension of the work, another mark, but not as an explanation,’ she says. ‘I love Miles Davis. He puts titles to things, even though his music is instrumental. You see the title, and you feel it in the sound of the music’ (L. Yiadom-Boakye, quoted in R. Cooke, ‘Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: artist in search of the mystery figure,’ The Observer, 31 May 2015). Smiling conspiratorially from the canvas, the man in Bound Over to Keep the Faith stands testament to paint’s unique ability to expand the world we think we know into myriad new and unseen places.