Los Angeles

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Brothers to a Garden, 2017, oil on linen, 59 × 47 1⁄2".

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Brothers to a Garden, 2017, oil on linen, 59 × 47 1⁄2".

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye knows how to capture decisive moments. In her show at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which was curated by Hilton Als and traveled from the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, a group of six paintings document her black sitters, who are often deep in thought or on the verge of connection. Yiadom-Boakye limns her subjects with energetic brushstrokes, usually finishing her canvases in a single day.

In The Needs Beyond, 2013, a bearded man looks out at the viewer with shining eyes, his mouth neither smiling nor frowning, as if he is awaiting a response. His face emerges from a darkened room, in a cloud of browns and ebonies, and is touched with yellow and pink paint. With a few spare lines and deft tonal control, Yiadom-Boakye offers an image that gives the viewer the sense of actually being seen by another human being. The effect is similar to that of Mary Cassatt’s Self-Portrait, ca. 1880, with its pale haze of yellows, pinks, and greens, punctuated by glaringly blue eyes.

The Huntington, recognizing Yiadom-Boakye’s historical references, has placed her show next to galleries filled with “highly formal eighteenth-century British portraits.” But Yiadom-Boakye’s rapid method and skill at documenting evanescent moods bring her closer to the nineteenth-century Impressionists, not only Cassatt but also Gustave Caillebotte and Claude Monet. A crucial difference is that those painters were invested in centering whiteness, something Yiadom-Boakye offsets with her use of the same form to portray black subjects.

In Brothers to a Garden, 2017, a man in an indigo blazer rests his chin in his hand, his mouth slightly agape as he looks into the middle distance, seemingly at an unseen speaker whose tale is transporting him. Yiadom-Boakye has worked so swiftly here that parts of the canvas are nude. In these works, an inverse relationship might exist between the depth of the thought expressed and the volume of paint on the canvas. Rendered in this flash of daubs, the subject’s expression of deep concentration hearkens back to Berthe Morisot’s Jeune femme en toilette de bal (Young Girl in a Ball Gown), 1879, whose unfettered strokes reveal a white-shouldered woman riveted by an off-screen presence. Yiadom-Boakye’s Brothers somehow captures the sensation of having one’s world narrow to a point of fascination: The subject’s eyes are soft and deeply receptive; his left hand hangs down in physical surrender.

Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits are all the more remarkable given that none were made in the presence of a flesh-and-blood subject; they were occasionally based on found images but are otherwise entirely products of the artist’s mind. Her methods build upon the Impressionists’ efforts to render “accurate” representations that were also deeply subjective and imaginative (as in Monet’s hyperreal visions of haystacks). And her efforts shine in Medicine at Playtime, 2017, where a man sits on a chair in front of an ocher wall, resting his hand on his head and his elbow on his raised knee. He lifts his chin slightly, and his eyes—rendered only in a stroke or two of white—appear unfocused, as they do when someone is dreaming or grieving. In a way, the pose and scene evoke John Singer Sargent’s pictures of contemplative nabobs, such as Charles Martin Loeffler, 1903, which shows a broody, beautifully lit violinist. Yet there is a suggestion of emotional access in Medicine: The subject’s round shoulders and calm presence communicate a less defended state.

Joie de vivre arrives with Harp-Strum, 2016, a diptych of two dancers, each occupying one canvas. They leap toward each other, their faces alight with the sympathy reached during an apex of artistic collaboration. The scene is set against a mint-green background, and the dancers wear emerald leotards and tights as they vault through the air. One figure’s face blazes with delight while the other’s verges on rapture. The piece clearly alludes to Edgar Degas’s Two Dancers on a Stage, 1874, in which young, flower-crowned ballerinas exchange timid glances. But the intense communication between Harp-Strum’s two women conveys a sense of sisterhood that was never truly explored in Degas’s study. Yiadom-Boakye brings these rich gifts of empathy and attention to her necessary translations of the Impressionists’ tradition.