New York

Lisa Yuskavage

Lisa Yuskavage’s luscious new paintings introduce Lupe and Lola, Babie, Smiley, Curlie G., and their girlfriends—the newest additions to an ever-expanding gang at the absolute center of attention. Like their predecessors, these big girls with (usually) voluptuous bodies and Cabbage Patch faces embody contradictions concerning age, innocence, and desirability. Part child, part woman, but fully neither, they reside at an indefinite number of slippery points in between. All seem to live a girl’s idealized life of leisure. They preen, groom, lounge, caress each other, and frequently pose—at the window, in the bedroom, on the couch, or at the top of the world, scantily attired—as though training for a role they have yet to fully understand, much less attain. The at-home culture Yuskavage paints for her (mostly) underage angels is faceted with rich, color-drenched decor; simple acts of indulgence (playing out fantasies); and the high art of doing nothing. Doing nothing, that is, except striving to be perceived as flawlessly beautiful—which is exactly the moment that doubt creeps in. (What kind of subject for painting is “girl culture” anyway, if that’s what this is? What’s up with all those gravity-defying tits? Is this what “postfeminism” looks like?) Yuskavage’s feminine characters endlessly provoke and rehearse these moments of doubt—which are ours as well as theirs.

Most of her girls are both “blessed” and “challenged.” In addition to their abundant charm and beauty, they must manage with one or another physical flaw: thunder thighs, misshapen breasts, sunken eyes, bad bone structure, general homeliness—a veritable laundry list of deformities and “shades of plain” interrupt their apotheosis into babedom. And yet there’s one in every group who sets the bar for perfection. She turns up in Couch (all paintings 2003) as a reinvented Olympia. Here, the elegant and self-possessed Victorine has been recast as a very well-developed, laid-back teenager with attitude. Less worldly courtesan than girl next door, she’s forbidden candy in her baby-blue bedroom and wide-open play top. Flanking her is a pair of portraits, which seem to represent the nubile teen herself.

Throughout the exhibition of eleven full-size paintings and a handful of small studies, we saw Yuskavage drawing on previous works, rehearsing the perky tits and big butts of earlier little-big girls as a means of further inscribing her paintings’ spaces as feminine. In Curlie G., a golden-haired teen-woman alone in her Cinderellalike bedroom gazes at a nude figurine that features all the usual Yuskavage attributes but is also an image of Curlie G. herself. This doubling gesture occurs again, twice, in Lupe & Lola II, in which one woman in pink garters tenderly touches another in black garters. Off to the side, isolated on the empty plane of a tabletop, sits another statuette, which symbolizes all Yuskavage’s girls, no matter their age or preoccupation: She’s a little bit cute, a little bit sexy, a little bit ugly, a little bit abject, a little bit lovable. What’s more, this gnomelike creature never grows up, gets over it, or goes away.

Yuskavage’s use of miniature paintings and sculptures to amplify her girls’ inner lives and to underscore their pedigree suggests a tautology of feminine values. These girls-teens-women are obviously in love with themselves and with one another: Indeed, self-love constitutes one of Yuskavage’s most persistent inquiries. So far, the world she depicts remains exclusive of any masculine presence. It makes you think about Sue Williams’s paintings of fighting femmes from the late ’80s and early ’90s and appreciate the difference between that artist’s militant critique and the abiding affection Yuskavage demonstrates for her own vulnerable, precocious pets.

Jan Avgikos