Housewarming Devices: Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner
Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner
April 23 to June 13, 2015
533 West 19th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 727 2070
The paintings and pastels in Lisa Yuskavage’s fourth gallery show at David Zwirner continue to problematize the gendered gaze. The figures in these new works are the least exaggerated and abstracted of all Yuskavage’s girls. In fact, they look uncomfortably close to the Penthouse models the artist has referenced for the past 25 years. This shift towards the source further complicates the artist’s ambiguously feminist oeuvre.
The most notable change in this new series is the addition of male figures. Like much of Yuskavage’s past paintings, the men appear both bold and unsure. Dude looks like Jesus (2014), Mardi Gras Dude (2014) and God of Hippies (2014) all feature three-quarter portraits of men standing exposed, delicate and self-conscious. In The Neighbors, a man lays supine at a woman’s feet, gazing up at her with Rubens-esque flushed cheeks, pacified by his blond-afroed queen, who smiles menacingly at the viewer. A fence enclosing the couple, along with the title, suggests an opportunity to peek inside the domestic — a lawless, private realm frequently explored by women artists. Yuskavage’s paintings often aggressively invite voyeurism. This act of self-referential display calls attention to the eroticizing of the gaze, which in turn questions its practice and conflates the object and the subject.
The painter may or may not consider her work to operate within the context of feminism, but it has been a contentious issue since she first began exhibiting. Questions about whether and how her work is sexist, feminist, neither, or something else entirely, arose in response to her shows during the 80s and 90s, though, the discourse of feminism has changed since then under the pressures of Judith Butler’s interrogations, the development of queer theory and the advent of post-colonialism. Recent publications that champion contradiction and/or complacency as a political strategy such as Johanna Fateman’s essay in the March 2015 issue of Artforum, entitled “Women on the Verge”; Roxane Gay’s 2014 essay collection, Bad Feminist; and Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl (2014), provide more context for Yuskavage’s work. As Gay puts it, building on Butler, “Women are sometimes trapped by how they are expected to perform their gender.” Many of Yuskavage’s early figures seem trapped in their squishy, redolent bodies and befuddled by their own allurement. This relationship between women, media representations of women and subsequent body neuroses made her early work compelling, possibly because the work did not claim to offer an oversimplified solution to complex issues of self-representation.
Sari (2015) and In the Park (2014) depict the hyper-sexualized ingénues that have incited allegations of sexism in response to Yuskavage’s work over the years. However, placed among paintings like The Neighbors or the aforementioned dudes and gods, where the men are just as helpless, the performance of the feminine becomes more complex. More curiously still, less apologetic, and even thriving, ebullient figures make an appearance in this series. For example, in Around the House (2015), a small painting by comparison to most of the canvases in the show, a nude figure poses on a kitchen counter, backlit by a landscape of luminous rainbow, an optical device that demonstrates Yuskavage’s skill as queen colorist throughout the series. The figure sits unchallenged atop the counter — wild in her element, the domestic. Here Yuskavage’s private psychosexual girl world seems cured of past disconsolate body anxiety, even if only temporarily. As a woman, I find solace in all of these expressions of self-discovery: self-critical despair, salvation through self-indulgence, and unapologetic absolutism over anyone who wants in, or by contrast, complacent surrender. After all, are these not contradictory musings of self-examination the result of a life on display?
The puffy-eyed girl posed on the counter in Around the House gazes back at the viewer, stylized but conspicuously Yuskavage, or some imagined version of herself. Self-portraiture as a means of self-expression has a long tradition with women painters. Artists such as Maria Lassnig, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo and Joan Semmel all depicted themselves in an effort to complicate simplified versions of the feminine experience popular during their careers. Some used their own bodies to go up against the enduring tradition of the painted female nude in an attempt to depict something closer to a woman’s actual lived experience. All of these artists, Yuskavage included, chronologized a lifelong interest in the wildness of the self within gendered lines, as a respite, a revisionary exhibit for the exhibited.
As an elaboration of the artist’s previous reflections on tropes of the feminine, this recent exhibition culminates in her most curious and revealing body of work yet. The new work depicts scenes of Yuskavage’s girls liberated within spaces that once hunted them, namely the domestic, a realm long since negatively associated with the feminine. By blurring the subjective and objective dimensions of her figures, Yuskavage’s professed apolitical paintings remain ambiguous. Other painters who focus on performances of femininity such as Heidi Hahn, Genieve Figgis, Allison Schulnik and Ella Kruglyanskaya come to mind. All of these artists, albeit some more deliberately than others, take on the problem of continuing the feminist project: how to revise it within the changing discourse of gender.
 Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (Harper Collins: New York, 2014), 72.