New York

Lisa Yuskavage

Five chalk-white cast-Hydrocal figurines of grotesquely infantilized women with bulbous boobs, bloated bellies, and ballooning asses each strike their own lewd pose. No, this motley crew is not a Franklin Mint series in honor of Larry Flynt, it’s the latest cast of characters to spring from Lisa Yuskavage’s twisted psyche—her statuettes The Bad Habits: Asspicking, Foodeating, Headshrinking, Socialclimbing, Motherfucker, 1996. In the past Yuskavage has tested the limits of good bad taste by painting eroticized prepubescent girls’ heads, fleshy blondes in bikinis, fat-bottomed girls, and a busty maiden in a blue tutu who resembles nothing so much as the St. Pauli girl sans serving apron. Looking back, her earlier paintings seem to have an air of good, clean, albeit slightly off-color fun, but in this latest show Yuskavage has traded in her Mel Ramos bag of tricks and pumped her models up with some serious attitude—they’re bigger, badder, and uglier than ever before. Gone are the playful bubbleheaded sex kittens; in their place stand hardened, leering, demonic, mutants who taunt, tempt, and threaten viewers with their very presence (think Tura Satana in training or baby Barb Wire). Like Flynt, Howard Stern, or even Paul McCarthy, Yuskavage is banking on shock tactics to attract an audience. By spreading her saccharine pastel palette around exaggeratedly sexualized nymphets (all of whom feature accentuated turned-up noses, protruding pouts, and enough tits and ass to make even the biggest Hustler fan do a double take), she’s daring you to hate her. Pushing all your buttons at once, she’s begging you to call her obscene, gross, perverse. But be warned. If you play her game and condemn her blend of soft core and straight outta Toys ’R’ Us kewpie doll affectations, you’ll be labeled hopelessly PC and Yuskavage gets the last laugh.

Yuskavage envisions herself as a Drag King–cum-painter—in her own words, she’s “painting paintings that take the point of view of a man.” “I decided to make paintings that would be the dumbest, most far-out extension of what I was trying to say [about] male desire.” But given the array of saddle-bag butts, stumplike arms, rotund stomachs, and exaggerated boobs she presents, it’s as if Yuskavage is peddling a hybrid of kiddie-porn and Channel-35 fetishes as the norm of the “male gaze”—slippery ground, to say the least.

Yuskavage makes a slightly more persuasive claim for her canvases when she contends that they exploit “what’s dangerous and what scares me about myself: misogyny, self-deprecations, social climbing. . . . My work has always been about things in myself that I feel incredibly uncomfortable with and embarrassed by.” Her vampy fleshpots mount a much more compelling critique of socially inscribed images of the feminine when read as symptoms of a woman’s own psyche and phobias: her problems with food, flesh, sexuality, and internalized misogyny. These paintings ask, for instance, why women artists can’t express an ambiguous relationship to their own and to other women’s bodies. Why is it that for a woman artist to be considered acceptably feminist she must paint fleshy mounds of femaleness not as menacing she-devils but as loving representatives of some great goddess figure? Why shouldn’t she be able, instead, to examine the construction of desire and the erotic in less than utopian ways? Yuskavage’s canvases take us into that disorienting place where desire, fear, self-loathing, and sexuality intersect, and whether we love, hate, or just laugh at these paintings, we all harbor similar phobias.

Sydney Pokorny