Thursday, June 19th, 2003

Lisa Yuskavage at Marianne Boesky and Kara Walker at Brent Sikkema

Lisa Yuskavage at Marianne Boesky, through June 27
535 W 22nd Street

Kara Walker: Drawings, at Brent Sikkema, through July 25
530 W 22nd Street- 212-929-2262

Kara Walker Untitled 2003 Cut paper on paper, 48½ x 86 inches Courtesy Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York
Kara Walker, Untitled 2003 Cut paper on paper, 48½ x 86 inches Courtesy Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York

Kara Walker and Lisa Yuskavage are showing right on the same block (West 22nd Street). Are they a chip off the same block, too? They both take postmodern intention-bending to new extremes, pitting authenticity and expression against style and posture. And for both, ambiguity is stock in trade: kitsch and craft collide in art that sets out to dazzle and unsettle.

Kara Walker is best known for her costume-drama silhouettes. Installations of Beardleyesque cut-out figures at first seem like joyous circus parades but on closer inspection are revealed to depict appaling acts of “blaxploitation.” Hieronymous Bosch meets “Gone with the Wind” in fiercely political, erotically fantastic meditations on the legacy of slavery. A profound subject is brought to a slick surface.

In terms of ideology, it’s hard to tell where her first allegiance lies: with Frantz Fanon or the Marquis de Sade. You’d think such imagery was cooked in a bubbling cauldron of rage. Her poetry, crudely (if artfully) typed on reference cards, bears vivid witness to depths of indignation. But, far from resulting in a radical call to arms, Ms. Walker’s art deposits maker and viewer alike in a limbo of moral bewilderment.

Ms. Walker doesn’t merely depict victimage; she embodies it, in the way her methods are always and pointedly labor intensive. The dexterous, exquisite cut-outs, especially, seem to require calm, patient, loving skill. Ambiguity, in other words, is as present in the fabrication as the product. The artist is alienated labor and wants us to know it.

In harmony with her cool skill, her sexual imagery – for all the grabbing and penetrating that goes on – entails little in the way of passion, for givers or receivers alike. (Again, Sade is a useful point of reference, for in “le divin marquis” sexual extremity is measured in numbers and times, not degrees or intensities.) A favored motif, drawn from medieval art, is that of Aristotle and his mistress, with the venerable philosopher ridden like a horse.

Ms. Walker’s graphic mark-making, in contrast to the silhouettes, can be rich in affect. In this show of works on paper of various sizes, including smaller cut-outs, at Brent Sikkema, there is considerable variety of line and texture. She has taken up a kind of smudged brass-rubbing technique, for instance, that recalls Larry Rivers. Her mannerist figuration brings to mind Paul Wunderlich and Pierre Klossowski. Recent forebears aside, some of her most scatalogical and psychologically involved drawings seem genuinely Goyaesque. A monstrously disengaged head, for instance, is endowed with a priapic nose which penetrates a passing naked “negress” (her caricature justifies the word) who nonchalantly holds on to her bucket of soapy suds.

The most acute ambiguity in Ms. Walker has to do with the free and easy manner with which she traverses the line between racist stereotype and an attitude of “black is beautiful,” as in a giant, voluptuously worked-up, graphite “Afro.” It is as if she is lost in iconography the way artists talk about being lost in form. But the deliberately unresolved tension of style and content in her work, an endless loop between what could equally be artworld posture and true feeling, ultimately denies any possibility of catharsis. Greek tragedy may have had its origin in the Dionysian orgy, but at the end of the day, Sade ain’t Sophocles.


Lisa Yuskavage Babie II 2003 oil on linen, 34 x 30 inches Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
Lisa Yuskavage, Babie II 2003 oil on linen, 34 x 30 inches Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

From tragedy to farce: Lisa Yuskavage’s absurdly big-busted, saucy postcard girlies are sisters under the skin of Yale classmate John Currin’s monstrous muses. The art world, it seems, will never tire of would-be alchemists extracting from the base matter of low culture a clever-clever fools’ gold.

What”s most depressing about the meteoric success of Ms. Yuskavage, however, is that champions and detractors alike have taken on trust her “masterful technique”, whereas actually all she boasts is the kind of nerdish facility high school students admire among their peers. A critic sharply upbraiding her for her content could compare her lurid luminosity to Georges de la Tour – of all artists! If an old master can be defined as the deceased author of painting with life in it, then Ms. Yuskavage, very much with us, is the opposite on both counts.

But we surely know where this critical malaise comes from. The ironic revival of painting – conceptual art had deemed the medium passé – presupposes that “technique” is something separate from an engagement with form, as if the laying down of brushstrokes is to a picture what production values are to a pop record.

The recent paintings, on view at Marianne Boesky, suggest that even on her own intellectually lethargic terms, Ms. Yuskavage is running out of steam. Since exchanging her old source material, vintage copies of Penthouse, for a live model (an old high school chum) a vacuous softcore humanism has crept into her work. But it is too little, too late. Her bead bikinis in “Couch” (2003), are blessed with a vague hint of Wayne Thiebaud, but elsewhere her dry-brush flowers are dead on arrival. In “Groom” (2003), there is a hint of painterly interest in the billowing pink clouds and in the skin against the servant’s purple bodice, but nothing where you’d expect it, the drapery folds or the mistress’s breasts. In truth, Ms. Yuskavage doesn’t have the stakes for any kind of high wager with ambiguity. Her technique is flimsy, and her imagery is boring. Neither her paint nor the flesh it purports to depict is remotely sexy.

This article first appeared in The New York Sun, June 19, 2003