A profound immersion in the great tradition of European painting—an immersion so whole-hearted that some contemporary critics would dismiss it as simply conservatism—and an equally strong affinity for the in-your-face vulgarity of Jeff Koons or Mike Kelley (which other critics might equally condemn as mere provocation) should add up to an unsustainable contradiction. The fact that Lisa Yuskavage does, for the most part, bear up under the tensions inherent in her style, and has been doing so for some 15 years now, may account for the fact that her work gives me such an otherwise inexplicable sense of jubilation. Because the work contains this tension, it is almost impossible not to be both attracted and repelled by it —and when experienced with a certain degree of intensity, this attraction/repulsion becomes a species of the sublime. When I see Yuskavage’s work, I can’t help but be in awe of what she can get away with, and I’m not just referring to her notorious ‘bad girl’ imagery—lately focused on the sort of faux-lesbian encounters beloved of men’s magazines—which after all should have lost its capacity to shock by now.
She gets away with it because she’s so good—and that’s about as much as needs to be said, maybe, about the issue of ‘skill’ that’s hovered around Yuskavage, John Currin, and a few other figurative painters of late. These artists’ detractors claim that they exploit a criterion of skilfulness that is academic, irrelevant to contemporary concerns, but they should remember what the poet Frank O’Hara had to say about technique: ‘If you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.’ With respect to the age-old dichotomy between colour and drawing in painting, I have always seen Yuskavage as primarily a colourist, and her recent paintings, shown downtown at David Zwirner, certainly give strong support for that understanding: the luminous mist that swathes the two blonde babes of ‘Kingdom’, 2005, with its astonishing transitions from pale yellow to pink, is more voluptuous than any mere body could be. But the drawings and other small works uptown at Zwirner & Wirth show that for Yuskavage, colour is only half the story. The fact that she even showed a couple of watercolours in grisaille—‘Brood’, 2005 (a pregnant nude looking away past a foreground still life of fruit) and the older, self-explanatory ‘One Girl Holding Another Girl’s Leg’, 1999—could be taken as polemical: to employ a medium best loved for its ability to conjure brilliant colour and then leave out the colour makes a big point about colour being inessential.
Am I starting to sound like a formalist? Shouldn’t I say a little more about the political or psychological implications of Yuskavage’s imagery? Does her insistence on it over 15 years express conviction or merely habit? I’d say the female nude serves her the way colour does—and that just as she can create a sense of the richness of colour while using only grey, she could just as well evoke the feelings of emotional and physical unease that fascinate her with an apple. But that sort of indirection is not Yuskavage’s style, and she’s nothing if not true to herself.
Barry Schwabsky is an art writer and poet