New York

Lisa Yuskavage

Marianne Boesky Gallery | 509 West 24th Street

If in the ’80s, standing in front of one of the Untitled Film Stills, you wondered what Cindy Sherman really looked like, today you might be pondering Lisa Yuskavage’s cup size. In a 1996 interview with Chuck Close, she teasingly described her cheesecake images of naked ladies: “The impulse toward self-portraiture runs through like work from the beginning all the way to the end.” Like many artists who are women, Yuskavage has been playing both the one looked at and the one doing the looking; now, like many women who aren’t artists, Yuskavage has distanced herself from critiques of the male gaze, exchanging that reflective discourse for a gut response of female misogyny and internalized anger. This new anti-theoretical underpinning jibes with what I see here—I often suspect self-loathing when I see kitsch recycled in young artists’ work. Something we once enjoyed whole-heartedly (big-eyed Keane kids, romantic love) we now admire queasily from a distance. But, however interesting, these issues of subject/object and hi/lo aren’t what pushed this show or pulled me in. The real draw was Yuskavage’s inventive manipulation of the stroke that synchronizes abstraction and representation.

Yuskavage’s new work is her most sophisticated and, excepting digressions into surreal abjection (Now You Can Dance, 1998) and Thomas Cole/sci-fi fantasy (Manifest Destiny, 1998), her least Freudian to date. The best paintings (and there are several very good ones) want simply and totally to personify themselves. Yuskavage told Chuck Close, “When I think about different types of painting, I automatically anthropomorphize [them] into different types of women.” In works like Loved, 1998 and Big Little Laura, 1997–98, she merges the figure and the painting through mutually empathetic choices of image and style. In the latter, a pubescent Vermeer golden girl is profiled in a raking light against an equally golden surface. Figure and ground share a shallow depth, in which even the “wall” refuses to lie flat; button-tufted, it puffs and tucks like a vinyl banquette.

Not surprisingly, it was a thrill to see this marriage of human figure and pure paint break up in other works. The blond devil-girl in the foreground of Shrugs, 1998 (playing Manet’s Victorine to the virginal Velázquez Infanta behind her?), burns hot pink and red, glowing out of a grisaille setting; at her knees, however, the somber tonal coloring abruptly resumes. Suddenly the red seems to separate from the nude flesh, literally becoming a “coat,” or in this case pants of paint—either the toreador skin tights of nineteenth-century espagnolisme or the capris of summer ’98.

Representation and the real rarely sit easily together, especially in modern art. De Kooning, asserting paint over both images and real people, flattened his women, spreading their breasts and knees and other sundry protrusions in an oil slick across the canvas. Yuskavage does the opposite—these breasts are strongly modeled, parodically bodacious, playing social conventions of sexual beauty (roundness) against aesthetic conventions of modernist beauty (flatness). The grotesquely erect nipples threaten to but never quite poke through the canvas into the real world.

Another critic has elegantly described Yuskavage’s paintings of women as seeking out the minimal condition for representational work. Finding it, however, they insist on exceeding it—these women aim for maximum picture.

Katy Siegel