On Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Birds

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: The Counter (oil on canvas, 2010)

“At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure
And At Pains To Temper The Light
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking
To Fly In League With The Night.”

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

With a borrowed Tate membership card in hand, I recently managed to catch Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s large painting exhibition, Fly In League With The Night at Tate Britain, just before it closed. This show had been rescheduled after it was cut short by lockdown, so I was doubly lucky to get to visit. In the past, I had seen some of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings before in group exhibitions, one in particular in 2017 also at Tate Britain, but those that I had viewed tended to be ‘classic examples’ of her oeuvre, and so I was surprised by the variation in scale and palette on display here.

Yiadom-Boakye: detail from A Toast To The Health Of A Heathen (oil on canvas, 2014)

There was lots for a painting enthusiast to enjoy; mainly large amounts of big, juicy oil paintings. The first room of the show, however, to me, was pretty weak in comparison with the subsequent spaces. The large scale works aren’t as successful as the life-size/slightly larger than life-size paintings that form the majority of the show. Same for the small-scale works, of which there were a couple. This may be my own personal preference though.

Not to start off with all my negative opinions of an undoubtedly great painter, I also felt that the paintings with the creamy backgrounds weren’t as satisfying as the deep, rich jewel tones of the dark interiors. The cream was almost the same colour as the gallery walls and felt a bit dead and sickly, rather than lively with mysterious energy, like the feathers on a corvid’s wing, which could be felt in the darker works.

Yiadom-Boakye: A Passion Like No Other (oil on canvas, 2012)

After leaving the exhibition space, I had a leaf through the catalogue and skimmed a few examples inside of Yiadom-Boakye’s creative writing. I totally understand the link between the painting with her writing, it’s similar to my own practice. Of course she’s a writer. I couldn’t afford the catalogue this time but it would be worth getting my hands on to read the examples of her writing properly. The poetic titles of the works, on the wall labels next to each, are extensions of the paintings, they are part of their interior narrative.

As far as the Tate itself was concerned, there were some very welcome changes to this show compared to other visits I have had over the last few years. It was really nice to have a break from the wall labels, as I always make myself read them and always regret wasting that time. Instead of paragraphs of text, there was simply the title of the work and medium. I also enjoyed the mixed up chronology, where the paintings that shared a space could be from any of the last 15 years. It had the result of almost like a writing prompt; inviting you to construct a narrative out of the imagined relationships between possibly random juxtapositions.

The accompanying reading lists and playlist of songs, in the foyer outside the show proper, is something every exhibition should have. What an incredible way to build out the experience of visiting long after you leave the gallery; and to flesh out the world that the paintings collectively describe. If I had working headphones I would have enjoyed listening to the Spotify playlist as I went around the show.

“Birds’ language inspired a large body of stories in classical myth; the most popular form of metamorphosis, they were credited with the invention of many aspects of human culture, as well as hidden, lucid foreknowledge, both ominous and wonderful; what was apparently random, opaque and unreflecting could become transparent and eloquent.”

Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1995)
Yiadom-Boakye: In Lieu of Keen Virtue (oil on linen, 2017)

As with Paula Rego and her masterful feet, if I was to pick the highlight from Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings on view in this exhibition, it would have to be the birds. The depiction of birds, feathers and the reference to nocturnal birds of prey in the exhibition’s title really underpin the world that this artist depicts. As described by Marina Warner, birds, as creatures of the air, occupy a mysterious position in mythology and are potent symbols of unearthly planes beyond human understanding, or somehow having access to forbidden knowledge; the stork representing fertility and birth; magpies, bad luck and death; eagles, freedom and bravery; swans, romance and devotion; cranes, beauty and everlasting love. All these subjects are profound philosophical subjects of the human condition, and possibly their inclusion in these paintings represent the internal worlds of Yiadom-Boakye’s equally elegant and mysterious humans.

The bird references weren’t just confined to the excellent renderings of owls and parrots; as well as the little verse that gives the show its title, referencing nocturnal hunters, the figures themselves took on bird-like attributes. The paintings of dancers, young and lithe bodies, had the elegance of the mating dances of some birds of paradise; some were wearing brightly coloured costumes, which again suggested the plumage of the males of those species, pirouetting to impress a mate. Some of the figures, such as the poster boy (his painting was the poster for the show) in A Passion Like No Other, shown above, are actually wearing feathers, such as his dark feather collar, in costumes that suggest a theatrical performance or a fantastical nightclub outfit.

I’m now going to run through some quick details from the paintings that I liked a lot: the smears of brilliant white teeth, eyes, cigarettes; the white was masterfully untainted and pure. Sometimes the highlights were just the absence of paint, the primed canvas showing through. There was also a lovely herringbone linen, the pattern highlighted to mimic the fabric of a chair with a few sweeps of a lightly pigmented dry brush. I was taken with the hot pink underpainting of the champagne flutes in Toast to the Health of a Heathen, pictured above; though it didn’t quite come out in my photo.

Yiadom-Boakye, detail from Few Reasons Left To Like You (oil on linen, 2020)

My favourite works were those that were a little more smoothed out, more differentiation between skin and cloth, the figure and the background. The paintings with birds fall into this slightly more polished category. Some of exterior scenes were also particularly atmospheric; the stormy landscape, the blasted hilltop, the cloudy beach, especially powerful from a distance. And I loved the interiors where there emerged poisonous greens, sapphire blues and streaks of startling gold from the muddy brown-blacks. The artist keeps her colours so fresh, unsullied, capturing movement and psychological depth with as few brushstrokes as possible.

Yiadom-Boakye: detail from Accompanied to the Kindness (oil on canvas, 2012)

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