Power to the People
by Jonathan Griffin
Anyone who informs you that there’s been a recent resurgence of figurative painting – especially the kind of person who says this in relation to portraiture by artists such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Aliza Nisenbaum, Jordan Casteel, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and Njideka Akunyili Crosby – should be swiftly apprised that portraiture never went away. Throughout recent decades there have been overlapping waves of painters returning to this most traditional of genres.
Portraiture is a practice too elemental, too fundamental to our aesthetic processing of human experience, to be influenced much by trends or novelty. (How else to explain historic anachronisms like Lucian Freud or Paula Rego?) Nevertheless, with each new generation there emerge modifications to portraiture’s conventions that reflect significant concerns about who is (and is not) represented in contemporary culture.
Portraiture essentially being about what people look like – the revelations and deceptions of external appearance – in recent years it has naturally lent itself to discussions around race. Many of the most prominent voices in that discussion, as it pertains to painted portraiture, are based in the US. The attention paid in that country to paintings of nonwhite people was gathering long before Kehinde Wiley became a market darling, before even Barkley L. Hendricks’s portraits of the 1960s and 70s, perhaps even before the strident midcentury visions of Romare Bearden or Elizabeth Catlett or Jacob Lawrence. But after Donald Trump’s election, portraiture of racial minorities was supercharged with an unprecedented (and largely unanticipated) urgency, as the incoming president threatened to wage war on human empathy and tolerence, promising to reverse most of the modest immigration, criminal justice and civil liberty reforms that had been made under America’s first black president.
The dominant critical narrative attached to this work concerns visibility. As the critic William S. Smith wrote of Aliza Nisenbaum’s paintings of undocumented Central and South American immigrants, ‘this bold work makes visible individuals who are effectively invisible within American society.’ Painted portraiture’s gravitas and historical cultural dominance is what grants it legitimacy as a contemporary tool, coopted by contemporary artists not in order to establish a new aristocracy but to democratise painted portraiture as a form fit for the representation of everyday folk who look much like the painters themselves. The very thing that contrived the near-total absence of non-white faces in Western museums, that is to say the ubiquitous representation in paintings of powerful and wealthy white people, is seized and occupied by the people it once excluded.
Despite the relatively recent creation of new museums in the US for African-American, Latino, Asian and other under-represented fields of art, museum wall space is limited real-estate, which made Kerry James Marshall’s recent occupation of the Met Breuer (a retrospective that travelled from the MCA Chicago) all the more momentous. This major museum retrospective of Marshall’s work was a long time coming. An important early work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), was inspired in part by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, a description of the African-American protagonist’s marginalisation by white America during the 1920s and 30s. The painting itself is actually not so much a portrait as a silhouetted placeholder for a black head, individuated only with white eyes and a grotesque, gap-toothed grin. As with Kara Walker’s later silhouettes, Marshall posits a bitter racist caricature in place of a reflection of his own subjecthood.
What Marshall shares with many of the younger figurative painters who have come after him is a sincere appreciation of Western art-history, even as he takes issue with its systemic racism. The strategy, in America, of forcibly inserting a black or brown narrative into established white-European art-history would be merely a symbolic gesture if it did not also aim to absorb – and exceed – all the examples of beauty and progressive thought within that history. This can lead to some fruitful cross-cultural and cross-generational allegiances. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s pictures of herself and her family are influenced by Vilhelm Hammershøi, while Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has recently drawn on Edgar Degas’s paintings of ballet dancers. Jordan Casteel’s paintings of young black men in turn borrow their confrontational directness from Édouard Manet’s paintings of women.
When critic Karen Rosenberg interviewed Barkley L. Hendricks last year, the seventy-one-year-old artist wasted no time in hotly rejecting Rosenberg’s assertion that his latest exhibition (which included a painting of a hooded black man, holding up his hands in the crosshairs of a gun, in front of a Confederate flag) was first and foremost political. His position seemed contrarian to say the least; in another painting, Roscoe (2016), a man in a ‘Fuck Fox News’ T-shirt grabs his crotch. There were many other paintings in the exhibition, Hendricks pointed out, but it was always the racially volatile pieces that were referenced in the (predominantly white) art press. He was just painting people as he saw them on the streets of New York. ‘Anything a black person does in terms of the figure is put into a ‘political’ category.’ he said. ‘I paint because I like to paint.’
Beyond fighting for the right to hang pictures of black or brown faces in Western museums, many of these painters demand simply to be received as painters, just as white artists are allowed to make figurative images, without challenge, that deal with issues other than their own whiteness. Baltimore-based Amy Sherald’s work hangs in Washington DC’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016. She has commented on how decisions such as colour choices of clothing or backgrounds, for instance, in her full-length portraits of African-American men and women are often interpreted as politicised – red, white and blue referring to the Union flag, for example, in her painting Miss Everything (Unsurpressed Deliverance) (2013) – when they are usually only aesthetic.
The British-born Yiadom-Boakye, whose exhibition at the New Museum, New York, opens in April, has spoken of the ‘normality’ in her paintings of predominantly black figures dressed casually and positioned against nondescript dark backgrounds. Since she was raised among black people – her family original hails from Ghana – she says she finds it only natural to depict similar figures in her work. Her unfussy, direct compositions contain little in the way of biographical clues about their subjects; with allusive titles such as Pale for the Rapture or Crowds of Autumn (both 2016), these paintings seem less concerned with individual identities or the politics of representation than they are with atmosphere, or intimacy, or offering threads of narrative potential.
None of Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects are named in her titles. In fact, the people she paints don’t really exist at all, except in the artist’s memory of people she has known or seen. Her ageless art is fictional, even literary (she also writes short stories), and a world away from the social realism of earlier artists whose objective was simply to represent, as faithfully as possible, the people they saw around them.
Hilton Als writes, in an essay on her work, ‘If I sound a little defensive about Yiadom-Boakye’s right to paint what she likes, it’s because when spectators see coloured figures they see politics and not art: dark markings are associated with sociology, the same old story of black oppression writ large, obscuring the power of aesthetics at the heart of Yiadom-Boakye’s expressionist style.’
Herein lies the paradox at the heart of visibility: that to be seen, in the flesh, is inevitably also to be read, interpreted, dissected. How can artists put black and brown bodies on display in their work without submitting them to the violent intrusions of the imperialist, white gaze? How can I, as a white critic, write about these paintings – even admiringly – without perpetuating those same actions? The fact that painting, especially figurative painting, occupies the mainstream of the global art market adds an extra anxiety over the commodification of such images. As Als observes, ‘black bodies have been bought and sold for centuries.’
Fictionalisation is one strategy, as demonstrated not only by Yiadom-Boakye but also by Crosby, whose apparently candid self-portraits and family scenes are and filtered through literary references, particularly to Nigerian authors. Indeed this approach is not limited to artists and subjects of colour. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, who is half-Cajun, half-Jewish, also takes broad liberties with her descriptions of the American class system. Along with characters of various ethnicities based on people she knows, she has painted Trump supporters and Occupy Wall Street protesters, rendering them neither caricatured grotesques nor specific individuals.
As the novelist Zadie Smith recently said, when asked about her response to Brexit and the US election result, people “do not have one idea within them.” They are pluralistic, multivalent. While Aliza Nisenbaum chooses to paint a specific category of person – undocumented immigrants in New York City – she also insists on their resistance to, and transcendence of, those reductive terms of description. Although she titles her paintings with her subjects’ first names, there is in her work a sense of their unreachability, of their remoteness from the viewer, which is often explained in terms of the subjects’ preoccupation with the distant places they left behind. But is it not also a way for Nisenbaum to keep them safe, to leave them out of harm’s way?
It would also be a mistake to presume that the intended viewership for portraits of people of colour, by artists of colour, is necessarily white. Crosby, in particular, has talked in interviews about how her work derives from her own desire to see herself, and people like her, represented in Western visual culture. Instead of mounting a direct attack on the white status quo – which anyway, it has been argued, implies the superior power of that status quo – many of these artists instead primarily address the very people whom they paint. It is this redirected address that reveals, and contributes to, the very real changes in the power structures that portraiture has traditionally upheld.
First published: Art Review, March 2017