New York

Lisa Yuskavage

Elizabeth Koury Gallery

This exhibition included both paintings and watercolors. In each of the paintings, a seductive, candy-colored monochrome field is inhabited by a single figure, creating a kind of imaginary portrait of a young girl. It’s really the color that hits first: saturated, lurid, aggressively confectionary—cloying hues that speak of manipulation, of some terrible abstraction from reality, of what your mother told you never to take from strangers. The figures seem to be surfacing from somewhere inside the field while remaining very much within its atmosphere.

Sometimes naked, sometimes partly clothed, these wan urchins—who seem to have been snatched out of some contemporary working-class suburb and, simultaneously, from 19th-century Symbolist images of pale innocents—exude a shameful consciousness of being looked at, of vulnerability before a sentimentalizing gaze that is also a sexualizing one. In many of the paintings, that gaze is implicitly focused on breasts, which their bearers seem to endure as discomfiting, almost alien appurtenances.

The titles talk about denial: these girls are The Ones That Shouldn’t, 1991, The Ones That Can’t, 1991, The Ones That Don’t Want To, 1992. It’s hard not to think of our culture’s prurient fascination with the abduction and violation of minors, its excited denial of an erotic life in children except as victims. The faces in these paintings recall the face of Katie Beers as she emerged from her Long Island bunker into the pages of the national press.

Yuskavage’s watercolors are something else altogether. All from the series “Tit Heaven,” 1992, they seem to depict a state of mind preceding the one the paintings embody: a squishy, infantile wallowing in polymorphously perverse gratifications. Bodies, landscapes, and atmospheres are only hazily distinguished, imagery nearly submerged in this overall fluidity. It’s like a blissed-out union of François Boucher and Walt Disney.

While the paintings are mostly about seeing and being seen, the watercolors are more about touching and being touched—an interesting reversal, since one would expect oil to be more “tactile” as a medium than watercolor. From the euphoric dreaminess of the watercolors to the conflicted apprehensiveness of the paintings is a tremendous leap, but the two groups are part of the same, highly ramified field of discourse, one in which esthetic and cultural critiques begin to converge. On this level, the paintings can be seen as glossing an inner hypocrisy within Modernist painting (even in its ostensibly most rigorous instance—the monochrome): its anxious hide-and-seek with visuality. The watercolors would then be parodying the free-floating “signifiability” of abstract gesture and how it lends itself to a reading-in of whatever imagery gratifies the viewer’s primal fantasies. In other words, Yuskavage’s heterodox feminism leads by strange and unexpected byways to an equally contrary formalism. The paintings are genuinely hard to take. They deal with shame and embarrassment, and with a Poe-like melodrama threaten to induce hysteria in the viewer. To analyze them thoroughly would probably be something like psychoanalyzing oneself in public.

Barry Schwabsky