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Painter Lisa Yuskavage Goes From 'Vulgar' Women to Saintly Men

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Photo by Stephanie Diani

For the past quarter-century, New York artist Lisa Yuskavage has been known for painting women. Ms. Yuskavage, age 53, gained an international reputation in the 1990s for using Renaissance-era techniques to paint cryptic images of women, often nude and set within epic landscapes or saturated color fields.

Critics have hailed her as a feminist, an artist who explores identity politics by depicting women as strong in their frank sensuality. More than a dozen museums now own her paintings of women, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, and her provocative portraits have sold at auction for as much as $1.3 million apiece.

All of which explains why it's a big deal that Ms. Yuskavage has now shifted to painting men. Her latest show, opening April 23 at New York's David Zwirner Gallery, will introduce a new series of lanky men painted with shaggy hair and standing in classic, contrapposto poses. (Michelangelo's "David" stands contrapposto, his weight on one foot and torso slightly twisted.)

Some of these new figures, such as "Dude Looks Like Jesus," are painted nude, staring boldly out at the viewer. Another character, "Dude of Sorrows," is painted close up, one of his eyes rimmed by a yellow-green bruise and his curly hair fluffing around his face like a halo. In "Hippies," a group of men are painted in electric shades of cherry red and alien green. They peer out from behind the nude figure of a blond woman facing us; the rest of the scene is muted gray.

Ms. Yuskavage, sitting in her airy, Brooklyn studio, said the men emerged in her canvases over the winter, as she was experimenting with a painting method championed by Michelangelo called cangiantismo. The technique involves painting spiritually important figures, such as saints, using brilliant, shifting colors to underscore the presence of the supernatural, and placing them against ordinary backgrounds. While sketching ideas, Ms. Yuskavage said she was surprised to find men kept turning up on her pages. "I guess I was craving them," she said.

Ms. Yuskavage didn't set out to paint men—but she hadn't intended to avoid them for decades, either, she said. An artistic epiphany early in her career spurred her to paint the taboo, which in her case became hypersexualized images of women.

Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, the daughter of a truck driver, she said she struggled to shed her "tough girl, potty mouth" demeanor when she began studying art at Yale University in the mid-1980s. One way she sought to gain a measure of charm-school respectability was by painting 19th-century-esque nude images of women sitting with their backs to the viewer. She won praise for this tasteful early work, but the subject matter put her in an artistic funk, she said.

After she graduated, Ms. Yuskavage didn't paint anything for a year—until, she said, her husband challenged her to funnel some of her "ornery" disposition into her canvases.

Her reaction? She took those demure portraits of women and turned them around. "Yale doesn’t think 'Girls Gone Wild' is funny because that woohoo silliness is considered trashy," she said. "But I felt free as soon as I embraced the vulgar—I put it on my palette alongside my paint, and I started laughing in my studio again."

She began painting series of women who appeared at ease in their nudity, some coyly innocent and others brazen. As did Caravaggio, she placed her women in dark rooms, lighted by unseen spotlights. Like Raphael, she used Renaissance-era theories about perspective to arrange groups of women within vast, utopian landscapes. She was also inspired by outlier painters such as post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh and by Philip Guston, who painted cartoonish figures when modernist abstraction was all the rage. Collectors began to visit her studio, and she realized she had found her niche: femininity. "Jackson Pollock had his drips, and I had my thing," she said.

Ms. Yuskavage said she made a couple of experimental portraits of men early on, but they seemed tame compared with her women. She never showed them. In subsequent years, a few tiny figures of men cropped up "as extras," as she calls them, in her pastoral scenes, including one carrying a backpack. Then last winter, it hit her: No one expected her to put men out front in her work. She was deemed a feminist painter. Suddenly, the subject matter intrigued her.

"A long time ago, I told a person that if I were ever to paint men, I would paint Jesus and his friends," she said, citing the rarity of Christian iconography in contemporary art. She hasn't gone that far, but the men in her new show do evoke a laid-back saintliness, particularly "Dude Looks Like Jesus."

The emergence of male figures marks a new direction in her oeuvre that will need to be acknowledged in a survey of her work planned for this September at the Rose Art Museum, in Waltham, Mass. Director Christopher Bedford said his show will mainly explore Ms. Yuskavage's career-long habit of bundling her portraits into diptychs and triptychs. But Mr. Bedford plans to show "Hippies" as well because, he said, her men cannot be ignored.

"Male models in the 1980s were so beefy, but now our ideal man is slinky and wears skinny jeans," he said. "The way she's wading into expressions of men feels so current."

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