On ViewDavid Zwirner Gallery
September 27 – November 5, 2011
Lisa Yuskavage’s large scale, enigmatic, and acerbic-colored paintings complicate how we view their female subjects. These women are mostly rendered either nude in a youthful, cartoonish manner with the curvaceous bodies and voluptuous breasts of soft porn, or as senescent—overly clothed in long dresses and turbans, suggesting babushkas or Mormons. Mainly, Yuskavage employs the former treatment as these paintings’ subjects and the latter as figures in the distant realms of her landscapes.
These nymphets are mostly preoccupied with the sensuality of sexual provocation and the act of eating. In “Afternoon Feeding”(2011), one nude feeds round, shiny fruit to another. The objects (perhaps oversized, multicolored grapes) are only decidedly half as large as the feeder’s breasts and about the same size as the areola of the girl being fed. This act of assisted eating could not be more sexually charged or maternal, which is odd considering the matrons of the background look on, disconnected and uninvolved with the activity taking place in the foreground.
This work evokes François Boucher’s Rococo painting, “Are They Thinking about the Grape?” (1747), which depicts a pastoral scene in which a shepherdess dispenses grapes into a shepherd’s mouth. Yuskavage redirects and complicates this fantasy in her painting, creating a female-to-female exchange of feeding. Her aim, however, is not entirely clear: Is the intended viewer male or female? To whom does this fantasy belong? Are these women sexually empowered or beholden to their viewers? Are they only to be read as objects of a male gaze? Yuskavage, presenting her female subjects with the objectifying language and presentation of pornography, confuses a sound feminist critique of her paintings—she empowers as much as demeans them. In doing so, the artist unites her figures in a common fantasy world where the two archetypally disparate representations of women converge: the young and old, clothed and nude, empowered and enslaved.
In “Afternoon Feeding,” like most of the landscapes, the figures and their environment are bathed in a supernatural kind of sallow, crepuscular light. The feeding nymphets are cast in shadow as light emanates from the woodland scenes behind. Similarly, in “Outskirts” (2011), the mustard twilight seems to discharge from within a glowing sunset (or sunrise) and recalls the grandeur and sublime of a Hudson River School landscape. This atmospheric light unifies, dramatizes, and distinguishes this world as unorthodoxly playing out entangled social and psychological conventions, such as the gendered nature of the gaze and infantile, polymorphous perversity.
Yuskavage’s paintings are sites of conflict for the body, sexuality, and consumption. The painting “Edge of Towners” (2011), for example, recalls an insight the artist made in a 2009 interview featured in this publication: “A painting is only as interesting as its problems.” In this work, the problem lies in her Philip Guston-like description of space—the horizon line implying the surface of a table, upon which the foregrounded nymphet’s breasts rest. But the figure has no lower torso, apparently bisected by said horizon line. Contemptuous of the apple she grasps in her right hand, and uninterested in the stack of books on which her left elbow rests, the figure’s back remains turned to the pregnant apparition in the background. Is there a relationship between eating and the sexual act that produces babies? Perhaps, like painting, they are one of the few sensual experiences that remain in our contemporary world of virtual technologies.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.