Summary of Lisa Yuskavage
New York City painter Lisa Yuskavage's women arrive to her canvas in pearlescent swaths of otherworldly color straight from the annals of candy-hued fantasies. Throbbing with a sexual tension that teeters between liberation and objectification, her women take center stage, their highly exaggerated bulbous genitalia and voluptuous nudity meticulously inspired by classical High Renaissance techniques yet wrapped in the provocative questions of contemporary society. Are her women enjoying their own private moments of unabashed sensual bloom under the complicated gaze of society's sexual mores? Or are they expressing their personally complex relationship with their own bodies that women universally lament as they navigate an environment where body parts are elevated to iconic status as in the traditional, historical nude? Yuskavage's semi-uncomfortable foray into this centuries' old exploration of the female body has catapulted her into her current role as a leading figurative painter of our time.
- An innocent early fascination with the female body and the various ways it could be presented was the original impetus for Yuskavage's painting. Over time, this fascination evolved when Yuskavage realized she was bored with merely painting women, and began to materialize an unmistakable signature style based in overly sexualized figures lingering in a visceral ambiance between passivity and control.
- In true Postmodern fashion, Yuskavage's paintings build up imagery from multiple art historical sources, often containing references to artists who have influenced her. In doing this, she treats art history as a fertile soil from where multiple new ideas can be grown. A prime example of this is her often use of sfumato.
- Yuskavage has stated that her favorite thing about viewing Renaissance paintings, was that she could see in them that, "the supernatural has arrived." She accomplishes her own sort of supernatural feel by presenting color palettes that seem highly unnatural and built upon the frothy tones of dream worlds preferred by young girls.
- Yuskavage has suffered much criticism from feminists and other groups concerned with the treatment of women in popular culture. Yet, instead of eschewing blame for her own presumed collusion, she honestly states, "Misogyny is so rampant, extreme and insidious that it doesn't get called out nearly enough. A lot of men, including gay men, are misogynists, and a lot of women are too. I've experienced it personally from so many, and I can therefore assume that because I live in this society I must have absorbed it too, so if I want to talk about misogyny I have to first acknowledge the aspects of it I've absorbed."
The Life of Lisa Yuskavage
When Lisa Yuskavage was scanning a Penthouse magazine for inspiration for her "soft porn" paintings in a shop one day, a man approached and asked if she was doing research. She told him she was doing whatever he was doing, adding: "I didn’t want to lose the right to be a creep. I want the range. I don’t just want to be a good feminist doing research."
Progression of Art
A rich, golden glow permeates this painting as if lit by the warm, flickering embers of a fire. The sculptural form hinting at a female figure slowly emerges from within the frame; seen from behind, her head is tilted coyly to the side allowing her long hair to fall over one shoulder. We cannot see her face, giving her a certain mystique, but drooping shoulders suggest sadness or resignation. Her back forms an exaggerated, bulbous curve, whose hard surface catches the light. Onto the wall behind her a series of intricate patterns dissolve like faded wallpaper.
Yuskavage made this haunting painting early in her career, before she began to work on her signature, hypersexualized figures. The work was in part influenced by the monochrome abstraction of Color Field Painting, which was a popular trend when she was a student at Yale in the 1980s. Into the warm, orange hues her addition of a sculptural figure and the suggestion of wallpaper creates illusionistic depth, revealing her innate interest in painterly narrative, alongside contemporary abstraction.
Referring to the work as timid and reserved, over the next few years Yuskavage set out to explore the sculptural, figurative language seen here with more direct, confrontational imagery, turning her female characters outwards to face the viewer in all their glory.
Oil and wax on linen over panel
The Ones That Don't Want To: Kelly Marie
This painting is infused with an intense, artificial green light, from which a curious female figure reluctantly emerges. There is an eerie duality between restraint and availability in her clothing; her upper body is covered all the way up to her neck, yet she is naked from the waist down. Her pale face and auburn hair is lit from above with a ghostly white light, making it the main focus of the painting, and we are drawn in by her sour expression and the permeating fear in her eyes. In her hands she carefully balances a delicate cup and saucer, as if serving an imaginary client.
This painting is one of a series Yuskavage made as she was beginning to find her true artistic voice, exploring a dichotomy between voyeurism and fear. In some of her paintings the women she portrays are sexually liberated, while others, like this one, seem repressed and controlled, as suggested by the work's title. The women she painted at this time were set against monochrome backdrops, again showing her interest in the abstract Color Field precedents.
Yuskavage worked from her imagination to produce this painting, which was one of a series titled The Ones That Don't Want To, a series she also refers to as the Bad Babies. Her intention was to create discomfort for viewers, portraying pert young women who are being ogled, but do not want to be, saying, "They did not enjoy being impotent spectacles - they couldn't walk away or defend themselves from the glare ... of the viewer."
Yuskavage had mixed responses when showing this series to her friends for the first time, but she knew she was in the right place, saying, "I was making for the first time in my life what I intuited was great art and felt what artists when they make great art feel. Alive in every way." Her friend, the artist Jesse Murry quoted Bette Davis when he saw her work, saying, "... you are going to have to fasten your seatbelt. It's going to be a bumpy ride." Murry rightly predicted the storm of trouble and criticism coming her way, gaining her a career-defining notoriety.
Oil on linen
Big Blonde with Hairdo
In this apple green, monochrome painting a naked woman is perched precariously on one foot. Yuskavage creates tension here by combining sexually provocative material with a doe-eyed innocence. Through Shirley Temple curls a large, Bambi eye peeks out with a mix of curiosity and trepidation; she is on one hand a seductive temptress, but her coy, partially hidden face and fearful expression expose the model's reluctance to take on this role, suggesting danger lurking beneath the surface.
This work was produced as one of the series Big Blondes, featuring naked, archetypal blondes in provocative poses seen squatting or smoking. Such material had never been placed into works of art in this way and Yuskavage knew she was taking a risk, saying, "It was considered pretty incorrect for me to be using these images, but I was intrigued." Much like her Bad Babies series, in her Big Blondes paintings innocent young women are seen on the brink of adulthood, hesitantly allowing themselves to be ogled, making the viewer deliberately uncomfortable. She said of these paintings, "The figure was in a sfumato field, and though its edges were dematerializing, the eyeballs were always hard and fixed on the viewer."
The pose of the model here was influenced by those seen in Penthouse magazine, where women are posed in such a way to seem as sexually attractive and alluring as possible. In a bid to make her paintings more controversial, Yuskavage imagined looking at women in her paintings through the "male gaze." She also sought ways to integrate single figures into monochrome fields of color during this stage of her career, saying, "The mono-figure and the monochrome were very connected in terms of their psychological impact, their full on intensity."
Yuskavage was also greatly influenced by Neo Pop artists Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, drawing on kitsch subjects, which traditionally would be considered "tasteless," elevating them to the status of fine art. She raised the status of her Penthouse women by combining them with various art historical references, from the sfumato light and form of the Renaissance to the broad, the monochromes of Color Field Painters. The large, expressive eyes seen here can also be compared with Margaret Keane's figures.
Oil on linen
KK in Red Room
A scantily clad woman reclines in a grand, warm-colored room, surrounded by a band of lush, blooming flowers. Dressed in provocative clothing, she disappears into her own realm of sexual pleasure. Daylight seeps in from a window behind her, falling across the soft velvet chair and her exposed skin.
The woman in this painting, referred to as KK, was Yuskavage's close friend from school, who she hired as a model. Painting from life marked a departure from Yuskavage's fantasy Penthouse inspired women, allowing her to explore a new level of realism. KK appeared in a number of paintings, taking up the role of the archetypal blonde bombshell, epitomizing the stereotypical American male fantasy figure.
As with many of her previous paintings, the work has an overall monochrome palette, but the flat backgrounds of her previous paintings have opened up here to include greater detail, allowing it to take on narrative or symbolic significance.
There is also an unsettling, voyeuristic quality to the painting, emphasized by the flowers in the foreground, which an unseen peeping tom, or even a hidden camera, could be hiding behind while spying on KK. Yuskavage puts viewers into this position, creating the uncomfortable sensation of intrusion. This frank exploration of the female body and its potent sexuality has influenced numerous artists since, particularly the fleshy, womanly bodies in British artist Jenny Saville's work.
Oil on linen
A young, blonde woman kneels on a grassy outcrop with her body tilted back, her loose tendrils of hair blowing in the wind with a carefree abandon. She is wearing a tight-fitting pair of beaded knickers that could be made from sweets or pieces of fruit, some of which are dropping off, emphasizing her ripe sexuality. She seems narcissistically self-absorbed, seemingly fascinated by her own sexual possibilities, while behind her a storm is brewing. There is a suggestion here of a young women coming of age, just beginning to discover her own sexual freedom, while still unaware of its potential dangers.
This painting, like Yuskavage's others from the decade, marked a departure away from interior spaces with a move into the landscape, where she could give her characters greater freedom, while adding drama to the work. The David Zwirner gallery, that represents Yuskavage today, said, "Rich, atmospheric skies frequently augment the psychologically charged mood, further adding to the impression of theatricality and creative possibility."
Public admiration for this painting has given it an iconic status, with several subsequent appearances in popular culture; Kate Moss posed for a photo shoot with W Magazine in an identical manner as the character seen here, and it appeared in episode four of Emmy nominated drama The L Word.
Oil on linen
An expansive, barren landscape with rolling green hills that disappear into the distance sprawls beneath a pink tinged sky that is cut into with jagged branches, creating a sense of unease. In the center, two busty young women are nestled among a pile of rocks while a ghostly pair of legs emerges on the right suggesting a third, unseen character. Yuskavage's mysterious women seem to be emerging dazed and confused from a post-apocalyptic disaster amidst a broken heap of rubble. That the women are in a state of partial undress suggests this is the morning after some sexual encounter. Their striped stockings, a recurring motif in Yuskavage's paintings, add a flare of intense color into an otherwise muted scheme.
This painting represents Yuskavage's mature painting style, which incorporates voluptuous female protagonists amidst a broad, open landscape. These paintings delve further into the realms of the fantastical and surreal, opening the work up to multiple interpretations. Yuskavage has often discussed her admiration for the work of the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer, and the influence of his rounded female forms can clearly be seen here. Influences from Renaissance painters such as Bellini and Carravaggio can also be seen, particularly in the foreshortened plate of fruit and the women's sculptural bodies.
Yuskavage moved away from painting real models or Playboy style, fantasy women here, working instead from a series of her own plaster sculptures.
Oil on linen - Private Collection
An acid bright yellow floods the surface of this painting, capturing the vibrancy of the setting sun. Several characters can be seen, including a pair of young children sitting back to back and a young man on the right, who leans casually on a walking stick. But dominating the canvas are two women, one a powerful femme fatale with pendulous breasts splaying outward and flowing long hair blowing in the wind; the other only seen bent over from behind. Around them ripe fruits are piled up and spill over one another suggesting free-flowing sexual energy.
Much like her painting Wilderness, made two years earlier, there is an ambiguous story unfolding here which we can only guess at, with a private symbolism suggesting multiple interpretations. By this stage in her career Yuskavage had begun to fill her paintings with numerous art historical references. Her sprawling landscapes reference the Hudson River School, the Northern Renaissance and the Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, while the curvaceous figures with fleshy bodies and the rolling fruit resembling Gustave Courbet's paintings. This layered approach, building an image up from multiple art historical sources, epitomises the Postmodern mind set, treating art history as a fertile soil from where multiple new ideas can be grown. Yuskavage has often spoken about her deep connection with other artists, saying, "I've come to experience art like a séance. Over time you can meld minds with artists: you laugh and feel their humor, or you are shocked by their sadness and grief."
Oil on linen
The Art Students
A sense of discovery and wonder permeates this painting. Two art students paint the body of a third female figure, bringing her to life. Yuskavage described this grouping as a "triad," making reference to the holy trinity. While two are fully formed, the third, reclining female is only half painted, as if still developing into adulthood. Set in a suburban back garden, this story seems to unfold in the grey, half light of the early morning. Behind them the sky glows with supernatural light, bleeding through the fence in thin slivers. The title of the work, The Art Students, seems to reference the playful discovery in art school, which Yuskavage likens here to a sexual awakening, portraying naked young bodies engaging with each other. The confident, pleased expression on the face of the female figure in the center reinforces this coming of age symbolism; she is powerful and self-assured, finding herself through burgeoning intimate interactions.
Yuskavage has often talked about her fascination with Renaissance painting, particularly those portraying the moment "the supernatural has arrived." Here the unnatural, glowing sky suggests an otherworldly event is taking place.
Such powerful portrayals of young people on the brink of adulthood can be compared with many contemporary artists, including the angst-ridden teenagers in Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum's paintings, or the sexually-inquisitive characters in Eric Fischl's suburban portraits.
Oil on linen
A deep, golden light beams out from this painting, featuring two embracing figures. From the back of the painting a young, blonde woman emerges, her white, slender arms reaching out over the older man in front. The pair's hands are interlocked in the foreground, where the woman's long white fingers resemble spider legs. There is a stark contrast between the coloring of the two characters; she is young, pale and blonde, he is older, tanned and "golden." He is decorated in ornate golden jewelry including an orb suspended around his neck, giving him a God-like quality.
Yuskavage sets up a complicated power play between the two figures here. On the one hand the man seems to be in control, infused with the heady, golden glow of money. He takes center stage and we can't be sure if he is forcibly pulling the woman's arms over his shoulders like a worshiping neophyte or if she is willingly embracing him with such subservience. His expression could be a smile but his eyes are tinged with pain and sadness. The female figure could be a rich man's accessory, held captive and out of control.
Yuskavage often paints her female figures with this mix of passivity and control. She has often spoken of her fascination with Hans Baldung's Death and the Maiden paintings, where skeletal figures prey upon young women. But here it is the young woman who resembles the skeletal predator here, and there is a suggestion that the woman could be the specter of death visiting the man's door. This potent symbolism between sex and death is a recurring theme throughout the history of art and one which Yuskavage updates for the 21st century with a series of contemporary cultural references.
Oil on linen
Biography of Lisa Yuskavage
Lisa Yuskavage was born in 1962 and grew up in the working class neighbourhood of Juniata Park, Philadelphia with one older sister. Her father was a pie truck driver, while her mother was a homemaker with inventive sewing skills. The artist remembers "finding" art at around age 12, a skill which set her apart from her academic sister who would go on to become a doctor. She recalls, "I remember sitting at my grandmother's table with a tablet - that's what we always called a pad of paper - and drawing. I always drew naked people, and then I tore them up. I was always only ever interested in people."
As a teenager Yuskavage attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls. She remembers, "I wasn't one of the top students. I was kind of muddling through for a long time." A high spirited and sociable young student, one teacher wrote in a report, "Lisa needs to talk less in class." Academic life failed to sustain her interest, but the diverse girls she encountered in her high school were a source of great fascination. She remembers vividly, "(The girls in my) high school were from all over Philadelphia; everybody was slightly nerdy because you had to be smart to get in. (We had) Ukrainian girls that would come to school dressed in their Ukrainian national garb a couple of times a month, white girls from South Philadelphia that were Italian. It was very multicultural."
At school she was taught by nuns and she initially toyed with the idea of becoming a nun herself, describing them as "the first feminists I met." But after experiencing a sexual awakening she found solidarity instead with the girls around her, who were all experiencing the brink of adulthood together with trepidation and fascination. She remembers, "We were obsessed with Playgirl, and everybody thought we were crazy because we were reading the sexual fantasies in the magazine. We were so anxious to grow up and to become sexual creatures, trying really hard ... to understand what was going on."
As a young adult Yuskavage was mesmerized by the female body, unafraid of examining and playfully exploring the various ways it could be represented without shame or embarrassment. She remembers organizing an alternative art project with her friends which she jokingly titled, The Tit Papers, where everyone would draw their breasts from various different angles; the project later came to influence her paintings Tit Heaven, which she described as "disembodied breasts having adventures."
Early Training and Work
Yuskavage received a BFA from the Tyler School of Art in 1984. During that time, she spent one year studying in Rome, where she was overwhelmed by the high drama and perfection of Renaissance masterpieces. She said, "In Rome, I got even more distracted and ... even more lost, because then I was wandering around looking at masterpieces like, 'I'm never going to be an artist if this is what art looks like, because I'm so bad.' I felt much more diminished." In spite of this, the chiaroscuro and sfumato effects from the great Italian masters including Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini, and Caravaggio infiltrated her subconscious, ready to be released in the years to follow.
After art school, Yuskavage finished her graduate work at Yale, where she met the painters John Currin and Jesse Murry, and her future husband Matvey Levestein. She was taught by Mel Bochner and William Bailey, but they shared differing viewpoints, as she recalls, "I remember once in a critique of my work, my teacher William Bailey was furious that it didn't have enough 'fiction building.' He quoted Magritte: 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe, Lisa!' I said, 'But I want the paintings to be real!' To which he snapped, 'Well, that's not a good goal.'" Yuskavage continued to pursue the "real" throughout her degree, graduating with an MFA in 1986.
In the years following graduation Yuskavage hoped to gain a teaching position in a university, but it proved more challenging than expected. After receiving countless rejections she eventually secured a job teaching adult evening classes in the school of continuing education at Cooper Union, all the while looking for a more full-time position. But as her artistic career developed, the world of teaching became increasingly distant, not least due to the explicit nature of her work, as she explained, "The end result was that the art world was open but the world of academia was shut to my kind."
Yuskavage held her first solo exhibition in 1990, four years after graduating, but it was not the pinnacle of success she had hoped for. She says of her paintings portraying demure women seen from behind, "I did not connect to the paintings once I saw them on the gallery's walls." The work was too reserved and timid for her taste, and she yearned to produce something with more bite. During this time she encountered an exhibition by the artist Jeff Koons which she described as "like getting smacked in the face. It was nasty work, but it was better than what I did because it was affecting me."
She considered quitting painting, taking up film, writing fiction, or taking a year off to think, read, watch movies, and look at art. Around that time, Yuskavage remembered being invited, but then later uninvited to a friend's dinner party, because she was "too much." She decided her art should take on this direct, sparky quality to reflect her true persona. Dennis Hopper's psychotic criminal character Frank Booth from the film Blue Velvet was also influential, and she imagined making paintings seen through his creepy, voyeuristic eyes.
After experiencing a crisis in 1990, Yuskavage returned to painting in 1991 with the drive to produce a more outlandish and confrontational form of art. Before embarking on new work she had a vivid dream which took on great significance, in which she remembers encountering her old high school motto, Vincit qui se vincit, (Latin for "she conquers who conquers herself"). With great bravado, she subsequently launched into a new series of work.
Throughout the 1990s Yuskavage painted pert, busty, and naked young women in idealized or exaggerated forms, seen against monochrome backdrops through the hazy lens of soft porn. This included the series Bad Baby and Big Blondes. Her intense, single color backdrops played on the language of Color Field painters that were so popular with many of her contemporaries. Although she was greatly inspired by the Renaissance masters including Caravaggio and Tintoretto, she searched vintage issues of Penthouse magazine for modern day muses, in a Koons-like move to elevate "tasteless" imagery into high art. She remembers, "It was considered pretty incorrect for me to be using these images, but I was intrigued." Such work secured her place as a major force in figurative painting alongside others including Neo Rauch, Chris Ofili, Marlene Dumas, and John Currin, making her one of a generation engaged in reinventing the modern figure for contemporary art.
Along with great success came an onslaught of criticism, particularly from Feminists, who saw Yuskavage's sexualized female figures as derogatory and objectifying. Critics were divided; some saw her work as deeply misogynistic, but for others her hypersexual, overblown sex objects were seen as a cynical reflection of the misogyny latent in contemporary culture. For Yuskavage, her paintings had simpler roots, as she explained in an interview, "Paintings of nudes have been done, so I asked, 'how can it be done differently?'"
In 2007 The Washington Post published a special report titled Lisa Yuskavage: Critiquing Prurient Sexuality, or Disingenuously Peddling a Soft-Porn Aesthetic?, where scholar Amelia Jones discussed the complex arguments Yuskavage's paintings raise about the representation of women today.
Recently Yuskavage has been more outspoken on the issues her paintings have raised, saying, "Misogyny is so rampant, extreme and insidious... I've experienced it personally from so many, and I can therefore assume that because I live in this society I must have absorbed it too.... I admire (Philip) Guston and Diane Arbus and (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder because they show a myriad of internal conflicts. That's what art is - a struggle filtered through the self. That is how it becomes generous."
Today Yuskavage continues to live with her husband Levestein in New York, where she has a large studio and is represented by David Zwirner Gallery. The notoriety surrounding her work in the 1990s has been the key to her success, with her paintings now in worldwide collections. In the past few decades she has also held a number of major international solo exhibitions, with another scheduled for 2020, co-organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Aspen Art Museum. Today, her paintings enjoy celebrity-like status, with one recently selling at auction for more than $1 million dollars and another, the painting Half Family, featured in the Emmy nominated television drama The L Word.
In the last few decades Yuskavage's paintings have become increasingly complex; isolated girls and women have expanded into group arrangements, set in back gardens, hotel rooms, and vast, barren landscapes, or nestled amongst over-ripe fruits that are ready to burst. She has become a rich storyteller, weaving together mysterious, sexually charged narratives featuring wanton young women as playmates for each other and their male lovers. More recently she has also painted Jesus-like men as free-loving hippies.
Critics have highlighted the duality of her work, which weaves the seductive and the unsettling together, entangling sexual desirability with body dysmorphia, a conflict familiar to many women. Danger lurks in the artificial lighting, post-apocalyptic settings, and ambiguous faces that could suggest ecstasy or fear. Gary Garrels, chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has said, "The images are extremely seductive in terms of color and ... light. They are very haunting ...poignant ... brave paintings."
The Legacy of Lisa Yuskavage
Yuskavage is part of a generation of conceptual, figurative painters that emerged in the 1990s. She is often compared with other so called "bad girl" painters who explore transgressive territory related to the human body including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown, and Marlene Dumas. Infused into Yuskavage's paintings is a clash of high and low cultural references that sets her apart from her peers; the technical mastery and glowing light of Renaissance painting is populated with references to lads' magazines and soft porn. Writer Jane Harris has said, "...bawdy girl meets society's uncompromising mirror ... (which) seems closer in spirit to the films of Russ Meyer and John Waters." This postmodern fusion of references is akin to the Neo Pop art of Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, while both she and her friend John Currin occupy similar territory, distorting and exaggerating the idealized female form.
As a Conceptual painter, Yuskavage's transgressive subjects have become part of a Post-Feminist debate, particularly potent with the rise of the #MeToo campaign, and they continue to raise contentious issues relating to the portrayal of women, ideas which have influenced subsequent generations of artists. British artist Tracey Emin has explored her own body as a complex site of desire, vulnerability, and strength with an unflinching eye, while sculptor Rebecca Warren's strident, bulbous forms exaggerate and caricature the female form.
Interactions between characters in Yuskavage's paintings have also proved influential for many; Iranian artist Sanam Khatibi echoes this witty interplay in her highly detailed depictions of women as both vulnerable and predatory. Much like Yuskavage, her paintings occupy what she calls, "the thin line that exists between our fears and desires." Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum paint teens in bleak settings together, drawing attention to the angst and longing that permeates so many of Yuskavage's paintings.