RA Magazine featured British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye last year in an article that caught up with graduates of the RA Schools. The London-born artist, who graduated from the Schools in 2003, has a solo show on view until 13 May at Chisenhale Gallery, a space in the east of the city which has built an international reputation over 30 years for its enlightened contemporary art programme.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 'Milk for a Maestro', 2012. Oil on canvas, 230 x 250 cm. Photo: Marcus Leith Yiadom-Boakye paints portraits of fictitious figures who, while everyday in appearance, are set in strangely unspecific environments – most often roughly-painted backgrounds of brown brushstrokes. The people who populate her canvases – either by themselves, or in pairs or threes – evade easy interpretation, commonly constructed in poses and with expressions that are deliberately ambiguous and indeterminate. All the subjects in the show are black and the portraits cumulatively act as a challenge to historical portraiture in which non-white subjects are absent.
Are the two figures Milk for a Maestro (2012) involved in exercise, or is the hand gestures of the man in the white shirt that of a ‘maestro’ conducting a classical orchestra? And how does this work relate to The Generosity (2010) where two men are set at a similar distance apart, but this time are bent over, either taking off or putting back on clothes?
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 'The Generosity', 2010. Oil on canvas, 180 x 200 cm. Photo: Marcus Leith Yiadom-Boakye produced the paintings at the Chisenhale especially for the exhibition and intends them to act as a group, so that the viewer projects narratives across the different works. "We were very clear in the way we hung things, using symmetry in places, using a line of standing figures, or taking a pair of paintings that go together and putting them on opposite ends of the wall," she explains.
The paintings’ ambiguity is partly a product of process. "I tend to complete a painting in a day," she continues. This quick execution avoids her overthinking pieces and emphasising an element unnecessarily.
"I don’t want to become too precious about one thing. Finishing the work quickly is a way of not doing that. It works a lot better if I don’t go back to a painting. The gestures are a lot more fresh.
"If I become very precious and worried about a work, spending weeks on one painting, I would lose my momentum. There’s something very particular that happens in that day’s work: there’s a sense of freedom and a very intense type of engagement that wouldn’t happen if I dragged it out over time."
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 2012. Installation view at Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Marcus Leith
Yiadom-Boakye developed this method during her period at the RA Schools, where she says she had a "really wonderful time". She highlights the positive influence on the institution of Brendan Neiland, Keeper of the RA Schools between 1998 and 2004; the painter’s modernisation of some of the Schools’ practices helped raise the status of its course in the contemporary art word.
"I think everything I’m doing now started properly at the end of my time at the Schools," Yiadom-Boakye concludes. "My work’s changed quite a bit, but there’s things that I did then that I look back upon as really important."
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine