Unveiled as part of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 2013 Turner Prize exhibition in Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland, The Like Above All Lovers is a landmark work from a pivotal moment in her practice. From billowing swathes of deep green, a lone, armed figure emerges, their gun pointing silently at some unknown target in the distance. Loose, feathered strokes of paint chart ripples through the grass, while layers of rich impasto capture the play of light across the figure’s body; the entire scene is infused with cinematic suspense. Yiadom-Boakye’s characters are born from her imagination, where painting, literature and music intermingle freely. Drawing upon multiple sources of inspiration, her paintings are less portraits of individuals than essays in paint’s capacity to evoke narrative, emotion and tension. The Turner Prize exhibition—its first staging outside England—was a triumph, elevating Yiadom-Boakye to international acclaim. Works from the show were subsequently acquired by institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Appreciation of the Inches, 2013) and Tate, London (The Generosity, 2010), where the artist is currently staging her largest solo exhibition to date.
A writer as well as a painter, Yiadom-Boakye presents fragmentary moments from undisclosed tales. ‘I write about the things I can’t paint’, she says, ‘and paint the things I can’t write about’: the two modes of expression are, for her, intimately connected. While many of her titles—such as the present—seem to harbour literary implications, they reveal almost nothing about the characters and scenes depicted. Instead, explains the artist, they function as ‘an extra mark in the paintings’—another layer of texture that colours the viewer’s encounter with the work (L. Yiadom-Boakye, quoted in Z. Smith, ‘Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Imaginary Portraits’, The New Yorker, 12 June 2017). Born of her own photographs and scrapbook images, as well as scenes from art history, her paintings slip seamlessly between reality and fiction, figuration and abstraction. Here, echoes of Goya, Bacon and others resound momentarily, before retreating back into the shadows. An eerie stillness hangs heavily in the air—the impending explosion is almost audible.
Despite depicting exclusively black subjects, Yiadom-Boakye maintains that her works are not intended as explicit political statements. Instead, the ethnicity of her characters reflects the fact that they are very much bound up with her own thoughts—they are products of her mind and hand. At the same time, her works mark an important milestone in painterly representations of black figures, suggesting subtle retellings of history through their knowing references to the Western canon. Ultimately, however, works such as the present find their meaning in their celebration of paint’s humanising power: its fluid, mercurial properties that—like words themselves—coalesce into stories. Who the characters are, or what acts they are about to perform, is less interesting to the artist than the way that such suggestions are borne out through paint. In the present work, it is in the agitated flick of the brush, the blinding glimmer of white and the thick paste of the leaden sky that lend the scene its inscrutable drama. What happens next is left to the viewer to decide.