Los Angeles

Lisa Yuskavage

Christopher Grimes Gallery

Not since the days of “bad painting” has someone tried as hard as Lisa Yuskavage does to make a travesty of the medium. In her saccharine portraits of prepubescent nymphets, girlish innocence and sexual awakening are given thoroughly ham-fisted treatment. Yuskavage mobilizes the entire cutie-pie repertoire—big eyes peering through thick bangs, plump cheeks, pouty lips, upturned noses—to doll-up a field of semiclad and naked bodies swollen as much by baby fat as sexual ripeness. The result is a litter of Hello Sex Kitties. Garish background color catapults each figure toward the viewer, and even Yuskavage’s schooled paint handling, which looks borrowed from a how-to book for hobbyists, comes across as an effort to temper the work’s gitchy-goo obscenity with reassuring touches of class—there are minor painterly outbursts, bold dabs of white glinting from erect nipples, not to mention a kind of battery-acid sfum0ato in which many of the Smurfish pinups appear to steam bathe.

Though these works whistle obnoxiously for our attention, we’re made to feel that these are scenes on which we’re deviously spying. The young pixie in Big Blonde With Tea, 1994, exhibits her nakedness frontally, though she seems aware only that she’s bringing us something to drink; the full-figured naïf with the oven mitt and no pants in a 1994 painting stands in profile and looks across at us as if surprised by our presence. Yuskavage boasts no strategy of appropriation that might distance her work’s icky pandering; on the contrary, though informed by cabbage-patch kitsch and Playboy cartoons, the images seem more invented than stolen, which in turn makes their pandering feel distressingly earnest. But what’s perhaps most embarrassing is how familiar these paintings look—they give flesh to a cultural wet dream as common as it is inadmissible, one unspooling beneath our daily rations of happy-face sadotainment, with its cast of missing kids, recovered memories, Michael Jackson updates, et al. The paintings’ real creepiness emerges at the moment of mutual recognition—they wink as if we too belong to the audience of drooling average Americans for which they’re obviously intended.

To attribute a critical position to Yuskavage’s canvases seems a cowardly response, like reining in outlaws by deputizing them. They’re scandals, visual stink bombs launched for the sole purpose of watching the rationalizations fly. A fine-art pedigree does exist in which Yuskavage’s jailbait could be inserted and thereby ennobled: you could seat them along side Hans Bellmer’s photos of mutilated dolls, Balthus’ underage seductresses, the corrupted innocents of Larry Clark’s series “Tulsa,” 1972, and the X-rated Brooke Shields in Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, 1983. But then again, Yuskavage’s visions of feminine purity and beauty fit just as well snuggled up with those of Nazi Realism and Mel Ramos.

Getting too worked up over these paintings feels a bit like playing the fool. The figures are so cartoony, so lacking in volume, that they discourage reading much significance, let alone anything like mystery, into them. Instead Yuskavage treats them like visual PlayDoh to knead and stretch, and asks that the extremity of her distortions be measured in distance rather than depth (“How far will she go?” instead of “How low will she sink?”). But to go ahead and participate casually in such deformation only abets the work’s devious depiction of innocence, condoning its evacuation of a political dimension from its misogyny. Despite all their cotton-candy frothing, Yuskavage’s paintings look downright grim compared to the bevy of recent art celebrating the triumph of molten libido over static form. The desire to which she sacrifices her thumb-sucking virgins is instead marshalled by a power-hungry gaze, one that demonstrates its might in a single violent gesture, at once caricaturing women in ideological shorthand and raping them.

Lane Relyea