Painter Lisa Yuskavage Goes Beyond Undressed Nymphs

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Lisa Yuskavage’s
work reminds me of an old Castilian adage. A book is like a mirror, the saying
goes; depending on who’s looking at it, he will see a monkey or the Virgin.

paintings of erotic Keane kids, stridently old-fashioned in facture yet hotly
contemporary in subject matter, burst onto a dry, incipiently greening scene
in the mid-90s. Her work virtually invited a fracas. Feminists were, predictably,
outraged. While admirers swore by her Pontorno-and Parmigianino-like effects,
professionally angry critics like Hilton Kramer saw gorillas in the mist. Others,
like Yuskavage stalwart Chuck Close, admitted to being, at least momentarily,
confused (a member of a distinguished panel, Close and his colleagues passed
up the artist’s work for a grant because they could not, essentially, decide
whether it was high art or not).

When the smoke
lifted, two things were clear: Lisa Yuskavage’s scantily clad, pneumatic
nymphs stood both as bright, eye-catching visions of cliched titillation and
as empathic, populist portraits painted with an unusually accomplished hand.
Read flat, like the softcore and cartoon source material that inspired them,
Yuskavage’s figures held the eye via pendulous breasts, distended bellies,
ski-jump noses and delectable baby fat. Given a second look, her lurid, suffused
color and sophisticated use of light posed a delightful if slightly embarrassing
dilemma: many admirers found it impossible to take their eyes off the paintings’
glowing, curvaceous forms.

Half a decade
later, Lisa Yuskavage has, despite her youth, turned into one of the leading
lights of contemporary painting. Enjoying a peak in her career, she has recently
gained the first in a series of important institutional plateaus. Her first
solo museum exhibition, organized and hosted by Philadelphia’s Institute
of Contemporary Art, offers a retrospective glance at the evolution of her work
over the last five years. A second, concurrent exhibition at Marianne Boesky,
the artist’s gallery, contains Yuskavage’s latest magic trick: a brand-new
painterly corpus, the pictures on view representing another advance on one of
the decade’s most brilliant artistic balancing acts.

A painter at
the top of her game, Yuskavage has long been an artist on the lookout for expectations
to frustrate. Intensely interested in undermining her own and others’ beliefs
about art, she has continually chosen the dark, wooded path (the wrong road)
over the predictably straight and narrow (the right road). Moving past the easy,
subject-laden ironical art of the early 90s–what she today calls "Hah,
hah art"–Yuskavage, along with a small cadre of young painters, bucked
the reigning cynical art orthodoxy by pumping low popular sources full of high
technique. Her purpose was simple: to gain license to paint like a classical
master. Screening her deft painting hand with palatable kitsch (reminiscent
of Jeff Koons only on its surface), she concentrated on painting not for the
purposes of parody or cultural politics but for painting’s own sake.

While accessing
all the elements of traditional figure painting, such as color, light, space
and some six centuries of underused art history, Yuskavage’s buxom beauties
packed in disturbing, ambiguous content to match their triple-D-cup breasts.
Mirroring the values of their confused cultural milieu, the artist’s girls
exposed themselves in ways that twitted, celebrated and upped the ante on the
genre of the female nude (that they did so without resorting to blinkered commentary
on the "male gaze" is an enormous credit to their creator). Relying
on distortion, caricature and a no less discomfiting sense of color (she once
used a Laura Ashley palette to paint an important triptych), Yuskavage distanced
her blondes, redheads and brunettes from real live feminine allure, and a balance
was struck: the figures, however suggestive of real Penthouse women,
remained weird, multivalent and, despite their big-titted, round-haunched exposure,
thematically indistinct. They should never, if kept in expressive check, overtake
Yuskavage’s fine-tuned painting technique.

Her newest
suite, made up of six large paintings, nearly threatens to tip the scales. Painted
from consciously blurred reproductions of models posed inside a Dame Barbara
Cartland mansion, Yuskavage’s canvases hint at a dangerous, appealing,
nearly irresistible humanism of the sort postmodernists have been warning us
about for 30 years. Her new femmes, rendered sadder, less doe-eyed and more
realistic, cross a self-locking threshold from ripe girlhood to physically exuberant
lady-land. They’re more experienced-looking than their predecessors; Yuskavage’s
expensively draped, bejeweled women resemble nothing so much as young sophisticates
(wives, perhaps, since they’re all wearing rings) trapped inside the boring,
repetitive conventions of softcore pornography (or, alternately, rich marriages).

Posed inside
drawing rooms and libraries, placed next to comfy furniture, lazy drapery and
rich flower arrangements, Yuskavage paints these girls with their unrecoverable
bloom definitively gone. In one painting, a pretty, round-faced girl with her
breasts and belly spilling out from beneath her camisole, reclines on a plush
green couch. Behind her, a wash of matching emerald light steals through the
window, invading the room with a glow that is equal parts low-wattage neon and
nostalgic, soft-focus Degas. In another picture, the same model stands in profile
dressed in garters and an impossibly small beaded jacket. Bathed by a roseate
light that fuses figure and kitschy ground, Yuskavage turns the model’s
mouth down at the corners, tilting her head to communicate not submission but
contemplation, of the unexamined life perhaps (we all know, of course, that
it is not worth living).

But it is one
picture in particular that signals what may turn out to be a small, but potentially
radical, shift in the artist’s painting style. Titled Northview,
like the other five paintings in the series, this one features a markedly older,
less ethereally attractive model friend of Yuskavage’s named Kathy with
whom the artist has been working for several years. Painted at once more generously
and more harshly than the other canvases, the picture describes a realistic
version of human wastage, both fleshly and mental, draped inside an elegant,
William Merrit Chase drawing room. One of only two pictures to use single-point
perspective, the painting also underlines its restrained humanism in the telling
details: there’s a cushion placed gently beneath the model’s feet
and, in the rendering of a disheveled mop, a cruel depiction of the woman’s
dirty roots.

Yuskavage," through Feb. 3 at Marianne Boesky, 535 W. 22nd St. (betw. 10th
& 11th Aves.), 680-9889.

Yuskavage," through Feb. 9 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S.
36th St., Philadelphia, PA, 215-898-5911.