Following a fantastic second workshop by frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock, which focused on reviewing, each of the eight writers on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 was tasked with writing a 600-word review of one of the exhibitions at Baltic.
Valerie Zwart chose to write about Joy Labinjo’s ‘Our histories cling to us’. Here, following feedback and a light-touch edit, is what she thought of it. The headline is Valerie’s, too.
Review #1: Re-shaping her histories: Joy Labinjo at Baltic
Joy Labinjo’s debut institutional show takes its title from the first part of a quote by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Our histories cling to us’. As suggested, the British-Nigerian artist’s cultural roots are the foundation of the exhibition. But the main inspiration for her work are the histories you’d have taken with you if your pre-internet house was on fire: family photo albums. The second half of the quote, ‘we are shaped by where we come from,’ while as true as the first, suggests a passive relationship with the past that few of us have; Joy Labinjo doesn’t, in any case.
Her work is remarkably consistent: large, group portraits of family and friends, posed but relaxed, all eyes on the photographer, and often with the flash photography shadowing and composition you might expect from snapshots – such as someone half in the picture. The figures wear near-timeless, semi-formal western or traditional dress, and Labinjo shows a clear interest in patterning. All but one have backgrounds whose large, brushstroke-free blocks of strong colour have almost no architectural detail, apart from a recurring tropical plant or print contained in an otherwise-untethered window-like aperture.
Where has Labinjo come from, as an artist? She has named Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson as formative influences, but not aesthetic ones. Both in terms of content and flat painting style, her work echoes that of Jacob Lawrence, a much-earlier painter of everyday black American life. Other recognisable British aesthetic influences are David Hockney’s idiosyncratic perspective and Patrick Caulfield’s flat architectural settings and black outlining. But that’s where the art histories end.
The defining characteristic of Labinjo’s painting style is her planes; faces and bodies are fractured into organic-shaped facets, outlined with tints or tones of the same colour. This technique reaches a pinnacle in The Final Portrait (2019) which reads like a parade of the wide variety of colours that black and mixed-race skin can take on. This strategy extends to clothing, where blocks of flat colour and pattern are often outlined in black. After all this effort, for both painter and viewer, the paintings’ expansive, flamboyantly-coloured settings feel like a forceful exhalation of held breath. But here too, the artist is consistent: walls and objects have hard edges, which, teamed with Labinjo’s punchy hues, lend the whole an almost stained glass-like effect.
The exhibition’s works on paper are three-quarter or head-and-shoulder compositions on largely empty backgrounds. Here Labinjo translates her facetted style, using oil bars, into lines and unblended chunks of colour, rendered expressively. Among these, two acrylic and watercolour works are a stylistic mid-point between the large-scale paintings and the drawings, featuring flatter colour blocking, but without the prevalent outlining.
In a film accompanying the show, Labinjo talks about the exhibited works as a series of practical decisions made in the face of an important deadline: the use of Powerpoint as a collage tool, searching Google and Instagram for images to ‘fill the space’ around her figures, buying odd colours because of their lower price, and pivotally, the last-minute decision to run back for the photo album. However, between Labinjo’s low-resolution, snapshot histories and her unique melted core/hard-edged painting style stands a great deal of considered thought and handling.
Ultimately, this exhibition’s signpost – its title – points in the wrong direction. The histories that cling to us may be where we derive our shape, but this coming-of-age exhibition demonstrates that the art is in living with those histories, and in making them our own.
Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us, continues at Baltic, Gateshead until 23 February 2020
Joy Labinjo, Our histories cling to us, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC