Review: At the Huntington Library, ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Pinkie’ get new neighbors
Portraiture and theater are two of the most imposing artistic traditions that emerged during the rise and ripening of the old British Empire. Both practices are smartly engaged in the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, an artist who uses the adroit flexibility of one to upend the persistent pomposity of the other.
Born in London in 1977, shortlisted for the 2013 Turner Prize, winner of the 2018 Carnegie Prize in Pittsburgh and subject of a Tate Britain survey coming in May, she’s having her Los Angeles solo debut at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Gardens. There couldn’t be a better location for this modest if engaging show.
The Huntington is the place where Grand Manner British portraiture stands out in all its theatrical pomp and histrionic circumstance. Five paintings by Yiadom-Boakye are installed in the room just outside the Thornton Portrait Gallery, the museum’s smashing installation where Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” hold court. “Blue Boy” is off-view for conservation treatment — it will be back March 26, according to the Huntington — but 13 more full-length grandees by Gainsborough, Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney ring the room.
Across the way from Yiadom-Boakye’s work in the antechamber is Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Anne Killigrew Kirke, circa 1637. His lavish rendering of the formidable courtier — draped in yards of copper-gold satin, dripping with pearls and loaded with fey symbols of faithfulness (a dog) and royal service (a rosebush) — anticipates the 18th century efflorescence of Grand Manner style so resplendent in the next room. The inherent corruption in the very idea of aristocracy never looked so good.
Yiadom-Boakye goes straight to the heart of the matter in choosing her portrait subjects. Four portraits of men and one large, two-panel painting of female dancers, all made within the last five years, are not what they seem.
None depicts an actual person. Each is rendered with exactitude and visual weight, but they’re not really portraits. All the apparent “sitters” are fictitious, fabricated people wholly invented by the artist.
They’re masquerades. Not unlike Blue Boy, Pinkie and Killigrew Kirke, whose identity as flesh-and-blood humans is swathed within extravagant costumes, accompanied by ostentatious props and embellished with other elaborate artistic devices.
Yiadom-Boakye constructs her figures with firm, declarative brushwork on linen or heavy canvas, rather than the more genteel, decorous bravura often undertaken by a Romney or a Reynolds. Her brusque spontaneity is more contemporary, in keeping with the paintings’ present-day subjects, and thus more convincing. Look into the eyes of the intimate head filling the frame in “The Needs Beyond,” and a representation of a flesh-and-blood person seems to stare back.
The head is composed almost like a photograph, enhancing immediacy. Just a bit of dark green shirt is glimpsed below a bearded chin, while the composition is tightly cropped across the hair at the top. Red under-painting flickers beneath warm brown skin. It’s “up close and personal,” even though a fiction.
The settings for the paintings’ subjects are uniformly indistinct. You’re never quite certain where these people are.
The dancers are anchored to the floor through the weight of graceful and muscular balance, but the space in which they stretch out their arabesques is an ambiguous atmosphere of green and brown brushwork. One young man is seated before just the barest suggestion of foliage — the title is “Greenhouse Fantasies” — while another is in what could be the wings of a stage (he’s dressed in black tights and a white blouse) or even a kitchen (the floor is composed of black-and-white checked tile).
Settings in Grand Manner portraits are designed to amplify an idealized narrative. With Blue Boy and Pinkie posed on windswept hilltops, for example, the youthful lord and lady surmount an eternity that unfurls in the landscape behind them. Their glossy privilege has always been, the unending countryside implies, and thus it will always be.
Yiadom-Boakye is of Ghanaian descent. The fictional black men and women so acutely represented in her pictures are shown to occupy a generalized kind of no-place. Unlike their white 18th century forebears, their settings offer no authoritative claim to history — a bedeviling condition that resonates with the stories of countless black people descended from ancestors torn from Africa.
Instead, the context her paintings emphasize is a context of artfulness. There are the pair of dancers, the photograph-style head and the figure sitting within the artifice of a greenhouse. The full-length figure in white blouse and black tights, seated in a side chair with his elbow resting on a raised knee, is himself a dancer, or perhaps a Shakespearean actor at rest.
As artists or just folks in artful environments, these invented people can create their own place. Just as Yiadom-Boakye does. British herself, she claims Grand Manner for her own history.
Juxtaposing these savvy fictions with the Huntington’s extraordinary portraits goes beyond a sly unmasking of the Grand Manner’s social and political theatrics. Much of the vast wealth accumulated in 18th century Britain was launched on the back of a slave economy. The roaring textile mills of England’s Industrial Revolution eventually left wool behind for cotton, much of it harvested on the brutal plantations of the American South.
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Aristocratic power relied on many things, including a colony’s cruelty. In one room of the Huntington, stately aristocrats engage in a majestic masquerade. In the next room, Yiadom-Boakye’s non-portraits remove the mask.
The show was organized at the Yale Center for British Art by guest curator Hilton Als, theater critic for the New Yorker — appropriately enough, given these particular paintings. His selection also has a cinematic quality. Together the four assembled paintings of men perform a camera’s zoom: headshot, bust length, half-length, full-length. Then comes “Action!” in the two dancers’ nearly mirrored arabesques.
The show’s one considerable issue is its terrible lighting. Curved hot spots from ceiling light-cans burn bright visual holes in several pictures. In one case, the subject’s face is almost entirely obscured; in the large square and rectangular canvases, the corners get shaved off in pale shadow.
A similar problem has plagued the great Grand Manner room for years — if not quite so severely, because the room is larger. Especially if the Thornton foyer will continue to be used for compelling exhibitions like this one, the Huntington really needs to fix it.
Where: Huntington Library, Art Museum and Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Through May 11; closed Tuesdays
Info: (626) 405-2100, huntington.org
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