Viewing single post of blog a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20

In the last of the 600-word reviews filed following the second workshop at Baltic in Gateshead, Isaac Nugent looks at London-based painter Joy Labinjo’s recent exhibition.

Review #8: Joy Labinjo at Baltic

Through a series of large, brightly-hued paintings and sketchy drawings on a more intimate scale, British-Nigerian painter Joy Labinjo attempts to make visible the private lives of communities often under-represented in cultural spaces. In her exhibition, ‘Our histories cling to us’, she depicts black families engaged in the rituals of everyday life: weddings, family parties, time spent with friends and relatives. Yet while she proposes these experiences to be important markers of cultural identity for Britons of Nigerian descent, the works themselves seem lightweight and insubstantial. A recent graduate from Newcastle University and winner of the 2017 Woon Foundation Prize, at 26 is she really ready for her first solo show at a major gallery?  

Clearly informed by photography, Labinjo’s work is suffused with nostalgia yet seems to be lacking in warmth. Eyes deadened by the flash of the camera that originally caught their awkward poses and smiling faces, her subjects – black men, women and children at every stage of life – look out towards us, or even beyond us, momentarily frozen. Changing fashions act as markers in time, prompting the viewer to speculate when the photographs that inform the paintings were taken. The men and women of The Final Portrait, for instance, sport baggy battleship-grey suits and shirts with wide collars, dating them to the 1970s or 1980s, while the child depicted in Everything will be alright (2019) wears a loud sweater patterned with scarlet and blue-grey rectangles and must belong to the 1990s. Labinjo’s attention to what her sitters are wearing makes for a sentimental view of history. Rather than gaining a fresh perspective on the recent past, the viewer simply recalls with bemusement the unusual fashion choices of the period. Her focus on pattern and colour makes for paintings and drawings that are superficially charming, perhaps, but little beyond decorative.

Labinjo paints in such a dispassionate manner that these people could be members of the same family: images from a single photograph album. Like feted American portraitist Jordan Casteel, with whom her approach has some affinity, Labinjo wrestles with her photographic source material, attempting to find a means of deviating from the certainty that photographs provide. However, unlike Casteel, who has exhibited an increasingly sensitive touch as her work has matured, Labinjo’s work fails to generate the intimacy that she presumably intends. Her attempts at abstraction feel forced. Each face is distorted according to the same formula: fractured into a patchwork of tones with no translucency or loose brushwork whatsoever. Oil paint, which Labinjo favours, is a versatile medium, but she permits herself only opaque and clearly delineated blocks of colour. For her backgrounds, Labinjo generally chooses zany blues, electric oranges and shocking pinks, editing out peripheral information from the photograph that she’s working from. She intends to focus the viewer’s attention on the figure, but this decision generates a sterile atmosphere. In several of her paintings, Labinjo attempts to alleviate this through the addition of houseplants or floral patterns. Acting as shorthand for the domestic settings that she’s excised, these motifs are prompted by the still life paintings of Lucian Freud or Matisse by way of popular Los Angeles-based painter Jonas Wood. In short, their addition is hardly an original move. 

The need to redress the absence of people of colour as subjects in figurative painting is rightly receiving significant attention from museum curators both in the US and UK. Yet although working with the black figure as its primary subject, Labinjo’s work is of far less consequence than the paintings of, say, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye or Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Saccharine, generic and monotonous, there is little here to suggest that this young artist is ready for the platform she has been given.  

Isaac Nugent

Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us was at Baltic, Gateshead from 19 October 2019 to 23 February 2020

Joy Labinjo, Our histories cling to us, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC