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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