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

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.

So is Lisa Yuskavage "a painter's painter" or an art market-sanctioned pornographer?

I don't find anything wrong with it politically myself, and I'm the first to get up my feminist dander.

I don't think the paintings are pornographic. They speak of pornography, for sure, among a lot of other things they address, but again, it's pornography, as a visual mode, as much as 19th-century French academic painting. I think the rush toward figuration by the market is a sign of the times. There's a rise of interest in prurient sexuality. Yuskavage critiques this . . . and people can't take their eyes off her work.

Amelia Jones, Pilkington Chair professor of art history and visual studies, University of Manchester

Amelia Jones is Pilkington Chair professor of art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester. Her books include "Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject" (2006) and, as editor, "Feminism and Visual Culture Reader" (2003). She organized the exhibition "Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's 'Dinner Party' in Feminist Art History" (1996).

Might Lisa Yuskavage's rise from "bad girl" to art star represent the realization of feminist ambition for women artists? Or is it feminist art's worst nightmare?

Neither. I don't know if it's useful to come up with an either/or scenario. The important thing is to step back and realize how crucial 1970s feminism was in order for something like this to even occur, to acknowledge the historical precedents. I think of Yuskavage as being linked to what I call the Madonna complex, the kind of 1980s, "Desperately Seeking Susan" sense of "isn't this great that women can be sexual and powerful!" It's not that interesting to me. I don't think it goes anywhere except into MTV and capitalism.

Is it different when images of women such as these are painted by a woman?

We interpret the work differently depending on who we think made it; it's not that it's inherently different. I hate to say it, but if these paintings were marketed as "Bob Smith's" work, they would be interpreted differently. Although it was a crucial political position at the time, I don't agree with the argument that Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro made in the early 1970s, that women inherently made different kinds of work because of our biological anatomy.

We make culture on the basis of our cultural experience, not on the basis of our anatomy. And beliefs about what the artist is determine what the work means for individual viewers. If you think the artist is a heterosexual man, you'll read the image as a heterosexual man objectifying a woman's body. If you think the artist is a woman, you'll read the work probably in terms of whatever your access point is, your conception of this kind of Madonna or Britney Spears or whatever idea of women being sexual and thereby empowering themselves. Whether or not you explicitly know about the whole trajectory of feminist imagemaking, that trajectory is going to condition your understanding, because it's become influential on levels of culture.

So is there a "feminist" critique of Yuskavage's body of work?

I read a comment that Yuskavage's paintings have "roiled the waters of orthodox feminism," and that irritated me, because I think it's one of these old knee-jerk tendencies to fall back on something called orthodox feminism. I'm not sure we know what that is. Who is it that would hate these paintings? I refuse to react in a way that could be interpreted as orthodox feminism. I refuse to say, "Oh, these are horrible and they're sexist."

I personally don't particularly like them, but I'm interested in the fact that I find them obnoxious.

I suppose they're slightly intriguing, but in some ways I read them as disingenuous.

They're disingenuous in the way they are presented. I've read a few quotes by Yuskavage to the effect that "these are the things I most hate about myself" and "I'm exploring my own sexuality." But the fact is, they're also 100 percent marketable. I think it's somewhat disingenuous to use that language of early 1970s feminism if you make images that are soft porn. Everybody knows they're soft porn, because that's the first thing everyone says about them.

Why is Yuskavage's work so hot in the market now?

Because it both gives you a kind of kitschy soft-core image, but it's art, it's hip. People with disposable income, for whom that kind of hipness is at a premium, will pay money for it. It's not hip to put a clipping from Hustler on your wall. Also, there's an element of fetishization and connoisseurship that goes along with Yuskavage's paintings. They are incredibly well painted. Some of the stuff that's written about her work, the catalogues, are just drooling over her method, comparing her painting to Michelangelo and Vermeer. They use all the tropes that get trotted out for high-art imagery.

Do you agree?

They're interesting paintings as paintings. There's no question that Yuskavage knows her art history. If those are the tropes that are still active in the art world, which apparently they still are, then that matters.

Should we distinguish between excellent execution and subject matter that may be viewed as possibly pornographic, or otherwise troubling?

There are hundreds of artists who have traded on that tension between high-art form and style and low-art or mass-cultural content. Mapplethorpe used pristine modernist photographic tropes and forms and style to depict pornographic imagery in some cases. It's not a new idea.

But many reviews mention the disturbing quality of her work.

In 2007, I don't find the images in her work threatening at all. To the contrary, it's like half of what you will see in any glossy magazine.

Can a painting appear to be feminist and sexist at the same time? Where does this work fit in relation to feminist and contemporary art?

It's not useful to ask "Is this feminist or not?" I don't think those are interesting arguments. A painting might appear feminist if you think feminism means empowering certain women viewers. But it also might appear sexist at the same time, depending on context.

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