Lisa Yuskavage: Critiquing Prurient Sexuality, or Disingenuously Peddling a Soft-Porn Aesthetic?

Lisa Yuskavage's
Lisa Yuskavage's "Biting the Red Thing." One observer sees the artist deftly pushing viewers' responses to erotic images. Another sees a shallow, "Desperately Seeking Susan" embodiment of female empowerment. (David Zwirner Gallery, New York)
Sunday, April 22, 2007

From a working-class North Philadelphia neighborhood, with Yale MFA and acid paintbrush in hand, Lisa Yuskavage made her name in the 1990s by shocking viewers with the confrontational sexuality of her painted female nudes. The art market still can't get enough. Last year, her New York gallery exhibition sold out before opening, a painting sold at auction for more than $1 million, and W Magazine ran a profile of the 45-year-old artist. It's not just the price tag, sexy subjects, or celebrity that may be disconcerting. Some critics refer to great painters -- Rembrandt, Goya, Rothko -- in discussing Yuskavage's appeal; others mention kitsch, Walter Keene's kids, Playboy and pornography. Can a painting be feminist and sexist at the same time? We asked two experts to talk about the work of this provocative international art star with writer Cathryn Keller. Here are some of their views.

Cornelia Butler, chief curator of drawings, Museum of Modern Art

Cornelia (Connie) Butler, the chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution," an international survey of 1970s feminist art. The exhibition will open at the National Museum of Women in the Arts Sept. 21 and run through Dec. 16.

Does the MoMA collection include any work by Lisa Yuskavage? Why?

MoMA owns a painting and about a dozen other works. I've just come from a not uncontroversial meeting of the collections committee, where we decided to acquire an early drawing offered as a gift by a collector. The drawing we just acquired, "The Hairbrusher" (1999), is quite wonderful. It's an early work, less aggressively sexual, a very quiet portrait of a seated woman. It's a woman in a moment of private contemplation, except that her legs are splayed open for the viewer. This is the beginning of Lisa exploring confrontational sexuality. What it represents is Lisa as an artist and painter engaging with the history of painting and the representation of the female nude.

What led to her phenomenal rise in the art world?

Yuskavage emerged in the mid- to late 1990s with colleagues like John Currin, Luc Tuymans and Elizabeth Peyton. They reinserted a certain kind of figuration into the world of painting and there was a voracious response from the contemporary art market. Now all of these artists have reached superstar status, with very high prices for their work. We're in a moment of reassessment of what the return to figuration means, and whose work will continue to be resonant. Both Yuskavage and Currin had recent exhibitions of very provocative paintings, in terms of subject matter. Some people are reacting against, and some are supporting, these provocative, sexualized representations, which in Lisa's case are exclusively female. It's hard to assess where their power lies when they are so readily consumed by the market. Is it because they are titillating?

You've said, "Gender is fundamental to the organization of culture." How should we consider Yuskavage's paintings in relation to contemporary feminist art?

When Lisa looks at the female nude, in her whole body of work, she is pushing notions of viewership, voyeurism, and our responses to very confrontational psychologically charged images and erotic images. I think she wants to make the viewer uncomfortable. She wants to push sexualized subjects at the viewer, just as she pushes color and decorative aspects of painting. I'm sure the pin-up for her is a rich source of material. She takes it and makes it into a confrontational representation. I think that because she deals exclusively with the female figure, often nude, there's a way in which she also plays quite directly with prettiness, and a saccharine decorative quality. Combined with the frank sexuality, for a lot of people it's like eating too much cake . . . hard to swallow.

Do you notice any similarities in the ways her work has been received with the reception of Judy Chicago?

Absolutely! I love the idea of juxtaposing works by Lisa Yuskavage with Judy Chicago's in a museum. Chicago's paintings in "Wack!" are precursors to "The Dinner Party." At that time she was earnestly investigating what she called a central core, pulling back the body, finding a way to insert the body, exploring ways to feminize abstraction.

Can you tell from looking at her paintings if Lisa Yuskavage is a feminist -- or political -- at all?

Lisa Yuskavage is not a political artist. I wouldn't describe her work as feminist, but there's definitely a feminist position there. You can't paint the female nude and use it in an explicit and confrontational way and not have it seen as feminist.

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