A conversation with Lisa Yuskavage

Photo by Jason Schmidt

With a career spanning over 30 years, New York-based Lisa Yuskavage (b. 1962, Philadelphia) is a figurative painter minutely versed in the history of the medium, channelling artists from Francisco de Goya to Édouard Vuillard and Philip Guston in her ostensibly kitschy canvases. Her paintings are immediately recognisable by their absurdly proportioned naked and semi-clad women, acid-bright landscapes, uncanny interiors and hippie figures that seem to have been cross-pollinated with religious icons. In addition to her figures' delight in their own fleshiness, there is an overpowering sense of otherworldliness at play. Yuskavage's paintings have been read as beguiling, disturbing and ironic, while the soft porn aesthetic–borrowed from men's magazines such as Penthouse–has in the past attracted criticism from some feminists. Regardless, she is reluctant to explain or justify the meaning of her work.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s in what was then a working-class area of Philadelphia, Yuskavage knew she wanted to be an artist early on. She earned her BFA at Tyler School of Art, Temple University in 1984 and later took her MFA at Yale. Her breakthrough came in the early 90s, after exhibiting a suite of modest canvases at Pamela Auchincloss Gallery she disliked so much she took a year off to reconsider her entire approach. The results were The Ones That Shouldn't: The Gifts (1991) and the 'The Ones That Don't Want To' series (1991-2). The earlier work shows a large-breasted young woman emerging from a rich green background with a sprig of flowers stuffed in her mouth and her arms pulled behind her back. 'The Ones That Don't Want To' paintings–which the artist also refers to as her 'Bad Babies'–are shockingly vibrant portraits of girls naked from the waist down, who appear to be merging with their pulsating backgrounds and stare (with the exception of one slightly more dreamy figure) disconcertingly at the viewer. Yuskavage famously channeled the persona of Dennis Hopper's sadomasochistic character Frank Booth from the film Blue Velvet (1986) at this point in her career, and her embodiment of a particularly extreme voyeuristic gaze lent the resulting works a startling vitality. Indeed, she has frequently cited cinema, from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to David Cronenberg's horror movie The Brood (1979), as an important force in her work. (The Brood was the title of her 25-year survey in 2015 at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University [12 September–13 December 2015], which later traveled to Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis [15 January–3 April 2016].)

Yuskavage rose to prominence around the same time as other figurative painters such as Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin, who were similarly refreshing the genre with their own singular visions. In the 90s, she commanded solo shows in galleries in New York, Santa Monica, London and Milan, and her paintings were included in group surveys such as My Little Pretty: Images of Girls by Contemporary Women Artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1997 and Young Americans 2: New American Art at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1998. In 2000, she held an important solo in her hometown of Philadelphia, at the Institute of Contemporary Art. 'I confirmed for myself that she paints wonderfully, and that wonderful painting is what concerns her,' wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker at the time.

Yuskavage's latest show, which is on view at David Zwirner in London (7 June–28 July 2017), includes new works, most of them large-scale. Her female-centric images have in recent years begun to be infiltrated by male figures; in the show, variously spectral and vigorous males join the buxom women. She has also been treating the painting's ground with layers of taupe and leaving areas of the work unpainted–literally, nude. Where couples appear, their relations are signalled via the use of harmonising and contrasting colour combinations. The artist's typical melding of high and low culture is especially notable in Wine and Cheese (2017), a large canvas depicting a rosy male being embraced from behind by a bloodless-looking woman. Its references, the artist explained during a walkthrough of the exhibition shortly before it opened, include images by Hans Baldung Grien (1484–1545) but also one from Viva, the adult women's magazine launched by Penthouse founder Bob Guccione in 1973.

In this interview, Yuskavage discusses her interest in Renaissance modes of colour, contrast and harmony in roleplay, and why she believes it's important for figurative artists to study with abstract and conceptual practitioners.

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Lisa Yuskavage on trusting your creative instincts

Widely associated with a re-emergence of the figurative in contemporary painting, Lisa Yuskavage has developed her own genre of portraiture in which lavish, erotic, vulgar, angelic women (and more recently men) are cast within fantastical landscapes or dramatically lit interiors. Seamlessly blending pop cultural imagery, color theory, and psychology, Yuskavage draws on classical and modern painterly techniques and, in particular, marshals color as a conduit for complex psychological constructs. When asked about working through difficult periods in her career or confronting creative blocks, Yuskavage offers the following: "You paint like you're saving yourself. You're fighting for air. You're going up to the top just to grab some air before you go back down again."

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Painter Lisa Yuskavage's Sultry Sirens Are Back at David Zwirner

In what is her debut outing at David Zwirner's London venue, Lisa Yuskavagepresents a survey of new paintings depicting the erotic yet angelic women that she has become so well known for. Here, her noticeable subjects—whose full busts and hour-glass shapes render them close to caricatures—return in full form, depicted across a series of 14 works.

Particularly voluptuous women are somewhat of a signature motif for the painter, and Yuskavage has long succeeded in imbuing them with contradicting characteristics: they are at once human—their bodies playing a central role in the works—while simultaneously being other-worldly and dreamlike.

Some of this complicated aura can be attributed to the two starkly different realms the artist alternates between: the domestic and the fantastic. The household settings provides the women with a human quality, while the juxtaposing ethereal background reminds us that they possess celestial, seraphic qualities. These starkly different backdrops both serve to underscore the women’s heavily exaggerated sexuality.

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Lisa Yuskavage's Déjà Vu: supernatural satire

Seriously Cute

The woman at the centre of Lisa Yuskavage's Déjà Vu is one of the leading New York painter's typical weird babes, mixing the girly cuteness of 1970s Sarah Kay illustrations with a voluptuous body to rival the Paleolithic-era figurine Venus of Willendorf.

High and low

There's a double-satire at work here, partly connected to all the simpering sweetness and overblown fantasy boobs and bums around, and partly to painting itself. Like her peer John Currin, Yuskavage has turned old master techniques on their heads by applying them to the trashy and kitsch.

Fifty shades

The group of hippy dudes here recall grisaille, grey painting traditionally used on church interiors to suggest sculpture. Betrayed by their love handles, however, they are hardly "heroic nudes", the term used to describe the idealised naked men of classical sculpture.

Bad romance

Yuskavage also seems to be playing with the female nude's role in religious and mythological painting. As the title suggests, there is something supernatural about the woman, whose eyes are closed, refusing our gaze. She appears like a heaven-sent sex goddess among the ageing Peter Pans, though the artist recently described characters in one series as succubi: female demons. Is she dreaming these men or melting their faces to shadow?

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