Philadelphia / New York

Lisa Yuskavage

Institute of Contemporary Art / Marianne Boesky Gallery

Masturbation is without a doubt a great subject for painting. The real question is why more artists haven’t taken it on as wholeheartedly as Lisa Yuskavage has. I’m referring not just to her depictions of women actually playing with themselves, such as Interior: Big Blonde with Beaded Jacket, 1997, or True Blonde, 1999, two examples from the ICA’s five-year survey; surprisingly enough, such directness is not the forte of this notoriously in-your-face artist. More to the point are the paintings of women indulging in a less specific but all the more voluptuous self-touching: for instance, the way the twilit figure fingers her hair in Honeymoon, 1998. Honeymoon? There’s no sign of any groom. But Yuskavage’s brides without bachelors hardly pine; instead, they are totally self-absorbed. When two or three of them share a canvas, they seem only robotically, incommunicatively coordinated. Even when their butts turn into candied hams, or their torsos into marble columns, they seem too lost in reverie to notice the bizarre reality of their actual appearance.

Yuskavage told ICA director Claudia Gould, “I have always thought of the image as a personification of the painting itself,” and her imagery seems to embody the conceit, common enough today, that painting amounts to little more than onanistic indulgence. Yet her work’s intimations of weird and uncomfortable psychological truths would indicate that the opposite must be true. The contradiction is not unexpected: Yuskavage’s paintings, in allegorizing their own operations, have always been pictorial equivalents of the unreliable narrator. Her nearly monochromatic canvases of the early ’90s, of adolescent girls who seemed not to know what to do with their breasts, self-evidently concerned their own awkwardness at being looked at. But what’s a painting for, if not to be looked at? Lacan had a pretty good answer—he hypothesized that a painter presents a picture as a kind of decoy: “You want something to see? Well, take a look at this!” Yuskavage may never strike anyone as a shrinking violet, but the odd mixture of empathy and prurience aroused by her early work clearly pointed to the confusing dialectic of shame and fascination. Of course, those paintings that personified themselves as so abashed by the gaze were in fact profoundly confrontational.

Since then Yuskavage has seemingly hypnotized her subjects into unawareness of being looked at. That’s part of her own trick of appearing to work in the name of primal impulse while in fact mounting a self-consciously virtuoso performance: redoing rococo painting for the age of Koons and McCarthy. Her most recent canvases, shown in New York, plumb a more subdued humor than much of what was seen in Philadelphia, perhaps because she is making ever more complicated magic out of the play of color, light, and volume. For instance, Northview, 2000, an image of a blonde gazing enraptured at her own breast, is a variation on Day, 1999–2000. The difference is telling: In Day there is a cartoonish exaggeration that makes the painting funny and strangely sweet, while in Northview an almost academic correctness conspires with a Playboy-style idealization to give the painting an obscure blandness that is far more disquieting.

Barry Schwabsky