Frieze New York ended yesterday and one of the standout artists was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. She paints people from her imagination, figments put together, composite personalities that seem real - ideas that live and breathe.
If we see a portrait of someone that we haven't met, whom beyond the painting we are looking at has no relevance to us, we can still feel something for that person - because to us, even though they don't exist, we wouldn't know either way. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's imaginary people, using that logic, are as real as any other portrait to us. Although Yiadom-Boakye hasn't met them, and neither have we - both artist and audience can feel something towards the subject.
Figurative art represents reality, whether it's people or places, whether from photograph or memory. Her work is both and neither. The people she paints are the product of her imagination. We've seen so many people in our lives that we're bound to remember a few things about a smattering of them - stored in our memory bank beyond any conscious reason or rhyme. In her artwork, the memories coalesce into a person that, if we didn't know any better, might aswell be walking around right now.
Of Ghanian descent, her subjects tend to be black, although for no intentional reason - they're of varying gender and ages. People that she's met combine to become someone that's never existed. This gives her portraits a serious degree of mystery - in our times when we feel like we know people that we don't (celebrities, Instagram), her paintings give us an artistic insight into the same intimacy-paradox that we engage with daily.
A 2013 nomination for the Turner Prize gave her a level of public notoriety. Only becoming a full-time artist a few years before, she had previously studied at Central St. Martins - living in London since a child with her Ghanian parents, both nurses for the NHS.
She is a quiet woman, reserved and happier to see her work gain exposure than herself. In this sense, she is the antithesis of the contemporary artist who seem to dwell in this contemporary realm of self-promotion and ego. Her shyness isn't a hinderance though, it draws collectors and galleries to her like a magnet. Her presence is barely felt so her absence is more articulately noted. In many ways she is like one of her portraits - very real, yet somehow not. Present, yet also absent.
Another paradox of her emergence is the style itself. Figurative painting, as muted as hers can be, isn't the 'sexy' artistic sell that we come to expect from rising artists. Where's the bejewelled skulls? The immersive installations? The overtly political? In terms of politics, her work remains almost devoid of it. But in terms of identity she makes herself stand out from the crowd. When she began creating these portraits they were, in a sense, unfashionable. But she's remained faithful to what felt right for her - she's shown the power of the individual and their capacity for self-belief and perseverance. An artist that thoroughly loves to create.
Along with her own identity in the art-world, the fact that she paints imagined figures instead of real people is because she knows how important it is to capture the nuances that make us who we are. After once trying to paint a friend, someone she knew intimately, understanding all of their traits and preoccupations, she was unable to capture them faithfully enough. It was then that her defining method came to the fore. She instead opted to make her own people. They were nobody and everybody - they have no story unless we give them one.
Floating between confines of time and space, the works lack context. There are no props, no pantomime. They hover - nobodies, nowhere. It defies logic then that so many people are drawn to them - after all people crave stories. Beyond their aesthetic beauty is their paradoxical distant intimacy. The lack of story she has given them is a wealth of opportunity gifted to us. Instead of spelling it out, she's giving us a notepad and a pen and she's only drawn the cover. The rest is ours to fill-in.
Her work hasn't come without its critics though. It seems that the vague nature of the subjects and their existence is the factor that simultaneously draws people in or pushes them away. To some, it lacks the imagination or the context to challenge. For those that love her work, this seems to be the very point. We have the news, politicians and a multitude of other artists that make it their goal to interact with these issues. Her works strength lies in its meditative and reflective nature. Because of this, it's just what so many people seem to be unknowingly searching for - a gentle distraction, a question that we can answer whenever we want in any way that suits us. Humans are unique in our fascination with understanding dreams and the nature of being itself. These characters and the fact that they do and don't exist - give us an endless platform to ruminate.
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