The Inexorable Pull of Lisa Yuskavage’s Paintings

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The Inexorable Pull of Lisa Yuskavage’s Paintings

I’m not aware of anyone alive who paints as easily, or seems to paint as easily, as Lisa Yuskavage. This, of course, is half her power, which makes the second half — her attitude … I mean her message … I mean the stories she tells — so affecting. In the painting “Scissor Sisters” (2020), which you walk smack into in the first room at Zwirner, three topless women, two brandishing the sort of knives with which you gut a deer, the third pointing a handgun at the viewer’s face, glower down from the canvas. Paint made flesh; paint made flipped bangs; paint made clouds of the coming storm. As in past work, Yuskavage wields, like these knives, the language of centuries of art, here of Rubens, Raphael, Canova and others — though all of her “graces” brazenly face front — to say something of the cultural moment, her own and ours. Who the fuck are you looking at; we’re not Charlie’s Angels.

Lisa Yuskavage, “Scissor Sisters” (2020)

In a painfully expressive portrait of a young woman titled “The Fuck You Painting,” (2020) a face that you want to stare into, full of life and pathos and very convincing anger, the subject and the artist let the viewer know where they can go with their gaze, curiosity, and sympathy, with not one but two middle fingers. No one else engages and challenges a viewer so directly in that specific way, like a passenger on the bench across the subway car with his eyes fixed on yours. There’s a pull and push with subject and viewer, but it’s all pull with the paintings themselves; we don’t want to look away.

Some of the smaller paintings in this first room are more intimate and in one instance, “Scarlet,” (2020) almost tender. Others are either studies for the larger paintings in the second room, or smaller versions of the same, and others still filled with more references to past paintings, the visual lexicon Yuskavage has gathered and catalogued during her career, some mixed with specific art historical quotations. The headscarf on a woman in one painting comes straight out of Bruegel, while the scissor sister pointing the gun has the puffy, blow-up doll visage of one of Yuskavage’s own “Bad Babies” of the 1990s. There are three paintings with bonfires, one in particular sparkles with phosphorescence as though aflame with faerie dust. Each of these is a jewel — limbs and breasts, hammers and nails rendered to perfection — with sharp, cutting edges. Intentionally déclassé echoes of Penthouse and B movies abound in the paintings, suggestions of the world outside the upper echelons of the art establishment and its patrons presumably prefer to eschew, but in whose halls and homes these paintings will soon live. If Yuskavage herself is giving us the finger it’s with a smile as broad as Nelson Rockefeller’s.

Lisa Yuskavage, “The Fuck You Painting,” (2020)

In the second room hang four enormous canvasses on the four facing walls, all loaded up with shapes, vignettes, and a great deal of symbolism, and each bound together by a single color wash — magenta, emerald, pink, and yellow — like light cast by a theater gel. In “Yellow Studio” (2021) a female figure sits on a draped stool examining her foot (or picking her toes) in a pose similar to the classic Spinario in a room littered with the tools of making art including a box camera on a tripod with the lens staring blankly, again, at the viewer. “Pink Studio (Rendezvous)” (2021) is a trip into her own memory with several of her paintings from her past shows here in the same space. In the very back of this painting, under the arch of a doorway doubled by the arc of a narrative spotlight, a nude female figure takes a snap of the viewer with her smart phone. There is a not-so-subtle reference to Matisse’s 1911 “Red Studio” here, but the four paintings hung together as they are, made standing in the room, for a moment, like sitting in the Rothko Chapel. This is Yuskavage’s great gift, turning upside down our settled ways of thinking and seeing and, with ease, transforming the vulgar and ridiculous into the sublime.

Lisa Yuskavage: New Paintings continues at David Zwirner Gallery (533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 23.

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