Lisa Yuskavage at Marianne Boesky Gallery

Lisa Yuskavage, Day (1999-2000), oil on linen, 77″ x 62″; courtesy David Zwirner Gallery

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During the last five years or so, Lisa Yuskavage has generated controversy, as well as breathless adulation, for her paintings of women. The Yuskavage Woman, a lurid amalgam of erotic excess and sugary naïveté, has become a fixture of the contemporary scene and can currently be seen at Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Yuskavage’s figures are fixed in cozy self-absorption, sleepwalking their way through an opulent world that is equal parts fairy tale, soft-core fantasy and teeny-bopper reverie. Enveloped in a cottony glow reminiscent of a Hallmark card, these zaftig girls bask in the radiance of over-ripe sexuality. With their ample and often absurdly proportioned physiques, Yuskavage’s women are signposts of desire rather than emodiments of sensuality.

What gives the pictures an illicit charge is that Yuskavage predicates the imagery as much on the synthetic perfectionism of Barbie and the comforting illusions of Walt Disney as she does on the cartoon pin-ups of Bill Ward and the soft-focus pictorials of Bob Guccione’s Penthouse. Yuskavage’s art is as prurient as the driven snow.

It’s become obligatory to mention the artist’s “bad girl” rep. You can’t skim even the slightest puff piece on Yuskavage without tripping over the honorific–a status due to the contradictory nature of her feminism. Deborah Solomon, writing in The New York Times Magazine, stated that the “naughty” work of many contemporary woman artists, Yuskavage prominently among them, “isn’t exactly what Betty Friedan had in mind” apropos of the feminist movement.

The paradoxes inherent in Yuskavage’s art aren’t without interest. What are we to make of a painter whose take on the “male gaze”, that eternal bugaboo of feminist art theory, is equivocal and perhaps even adoring? That she’s adept at not quite guilt-free art tailor-made for zingy press? Or that she’s a painter susceptible to influences that stick to her vision like so many burrs, whatever or despite her political inclinations? The standard response is to toss up your hands, cut one’s losses and revel in the pictures as, you know, painting.

Is it possible to jump the roadblock of Yuskavage’s queasy cheesecakery to ascertain its artistic merits? The British painter and critic Patrick Heron wrote that the pictures of the Swiss modernist Paul Klee were “compelled” by a “suggestive poetry, rather than by any formal logic or originality.” Sensibility, in Heron’s estimation, powered, but did not forgive, Klee’s lack of pictorial conviction.

Yuskavage’s art suffers from a similar lack: The imperatives of painting putter a furlong or three behind her imagery. The only time Yuskavage’s art perks up to any degree is in the floral arrangements appearing off to the side in a couple of the paintings. Not being the iconographic locus of the work, these still-lifes allowed Yuskavage a painterly freedom she doesn’t (or can’t) extend to her figures. Yuskavage’s women are never more than cartoons, cute and kitschy.

The most convincing aspect of the art is its overpowering nostalgia. With a palette as smothering as it is rich, Yuskavage burdens each image with inescapable fatigue. Forget T&A: the true subject of the pictures is adolescence mourned by an artist who favors icky provocation over hard-won insight. Yuskavage uses melancholy as a cushion. Retrospect gives way to introspection, leading toward self-pity that’s really a covert form of empowerment.

Passive-aggressive, this thing is called. Rarely have paintings exuded a perfume as luxurious and pointless.

© 2001 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the February 5, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.

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