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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977)
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977)
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977)
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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977)

A Heaven to Live For

Details
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977)
A Heaven to Live For
signed, titled and dated 'Lynette Yiadom-Boakye 2011 A Heaven to Live For' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 ¾ x 51 ¼ in. (200 x 130.2 cm.)
Painted in 2011.
Provenance
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2011

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

“The timelessness is completely important. It’s partly about removing things that would become in some way nostalgic…I think that’s why I like the outdoors, because it removes sense of time and I want the painting to feel timeless…”
- Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

In A Heaven to Live For, from 2011, British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye employs painting and portraiture to express an imagined narrative with a sinuous and enigmatic figure at the foreground. This painting, while consisting of Yiadom-Boakye’s characteristic dusky palette and dislocation of subject, is one of her first works to contain a sense of an exterior landscape, over her usual monochromatic backgrounds. Combining both a visual and literary language, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye seeks to give the black, contemporary subject a liberating dwelling in the history of portraiture.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has an interesting relationship with the depiction of human form in portraiture-she focuses less on perfecting the anatomical features and more on playing with the tangible qualities of the paint. The medium of paint, specifically oil-based, aids in the abstracted tone seen in A Heaven to Live For. While there is clear indication of a figure, there is more emphasis on the colors interacting with this hazy, hurried tone of the composition. Yiadom-Boakye is famously known for completing her works in just one day, allowing for the impulsive and fresh effect of working in wet oil paint. Through this immediate approach, her characters come to life through her bold and spontaneous brushstrokes.

The balance of greens, browns, grays and blacks in this painting result in a masterful blend of color. The figure depicted in the foreground appears to be walking along a grassy mound while pressing one hand to his head and gripping a dark cane with his other. The sweeping, plum-hued scarf wrapped around his neck and the tight grasp of his precarious hat evokes a brisk, windy day. Ambiguity becomes a common theme in the body of this painting: there is no concrete setting, time, or social context. Her work does not trace back to one particular source, rather it is an amalgamation of many sources within the artist’s invention. Yiadom-Boakye emphasizes the ambiguity of setting in her work where she states, “The timelessness is completely important. It’s partly about removing things that would become in some way nostalgic…I think that’s why I like the outdoors, because it removes sense of time and I want the painting to feel timeless…” (L. Yiadom-Boakye, “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Fictive Figures,” Interview Magazine, May 2017.) This timelessness in A Heaven to Live For allows for a detachment of her character from any sort of bias or assumption.

What differentiates Lynette Yiadom-Boakye from historic and contemporary portrait artists is her unique practice. Combining creative energy from both her writing and art practices, she imposes a story upon an image. She constantly moves between the visual and the literal, blending the distinction between text and image. A Heaven to Live For gives a poetic and novelistic spin to portraiture, it is about the art of creating a character rather than directly portraying realism. She gains inspiration from found images and memories, but chooses to create a subject based completely upon her imagination. “One of the reasons I made a conscious decision not to work from people I know is to get around this idea of objectifying…It’s about seeing but more than feeling. Thinking through feeling” (L. Yiadom-Boakye, Stick to the Skin, Berkeley, 2018, p. 238). Just as an author would hope for in a fiction novel, Yiadom-Boakye leaves it up to viewers to create or unravel a narrative presented.

Prior to 2011, Yiadom-Boakye’s work consisted of a singular figure posing against a monochromatic background. In A Heaven to Live For, the solid-colored atmosphere vanishes and is replaced with subtle grass, horizon, and sense of weather. This change in overall composition ultimately shows Yiadom-Boakye’s mastery of her unique skill in portraiture, where she can begin to experiment and play with other aspects within her painting. While her more recent works toggles between monochromatic backgrounds to landscape settings, A Heaven to Live For lays the essential groundwork for further genre painting in her artistic oeuvre.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye essentially defies and destabilizes the conventions of traditional Western portraiture. Having always been interested in this particular genre, Yiadom-Boakye prefers to capture the emotion within storytelling.

In the tradition of portraiture, historically the subjects were predominantly upper class patrons, typically wealthy, authoritative, white society figures, showcasing their confidence and power. The black individual, when portrayed, was often drawn in caricature or depicted with racial stereotypes. Yiadom-Boakye wants to completely change this notion and therefore chooses to only insert the black subject into her imagined portraits. Her figures, while participating in everyday tasks, indicate the normalcy and the intricacy of blackness in today’s society. Ironically, her influences consist of men who participated in this disjointed portrait canon. She cites the figurative practices of European and British Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as formal influence, stating, “I’ve been influenced by historic painters who share a certain devil-may-care mode working, who were not so concerned with formal perfection or academic rules, but with the physicality they knew and how they could make it tangible through paint-people like Edouard Manet, Walter Sickert and Francisco Goya.” (L. Yiadom-Boakye, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Any Number of Preoccupations, exh. cat., The Studio Museum Harlem, New York, 2011, p. 20). While these men painted the white subject, Yiadom-Boakye gains inspiration from their unconventional form of abstracting the figure to create a complete new portrait palette. While she explicitly references classical, conventional portraiture in her works, Yiadom-Boakye’s primary concern is a history of representation over a mastery of portraiture.

Calm yet aware of his surroundings, this larger-than-life imaginary character commands presence in this composition. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye successfully eschews realism in A Heaven to Live For to draw attention to representation in both the qualities of painting and a history of portraiture. In attest to her success and recognition in contemporary figurative art, Yiadom-Boakye is being honored with her first major survey exhibition of works at the Tate Britain in the summer of 2020, which will showcase over eighty paintings and works on paper. A Heaven to Live For not only highlights Yiadom-Boakye’s mastery of the contemporary portrait, but this work also combines both visual and literary language to enhance the viewer’s perception of the overall narrative presented.

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