Walking along 11th Avenue against the wind last Thursday night, I could feel the hopes and dreams of New York blowing by me, leaving the specters of my fellow New Yorkers in their wake. I was heading from David Zwirner to Sperone Westwater, drifting amidst the new work of two veteran painters from two more hopeful down eras, Susan Rothenberg of the 1970s and Lisa Yuskavage of the ‘90s. Their new work offers up two kinds of decay appropriate for this anxious moment, a wasting pleasure versus dry dessication.
Echoing Inka Essenhigh's controversial use of unicorns and other fantasias in her recent work, Yuskavage has sunk her erotic smurfs into a lime green never-never land that veers a little too close to the juvenile tastes of Michael Jackson's Ranch Art collection, about to go up for auction. Little people journey into the forest past giant Cabbage Patch dolls with pulsating clits. Some of them have come on their faces , or perhaps it's whipped cream.
The color coordination is dismally nauseating, but the undeniable sexual thrills which Yuskavage summons forth are undiminished, if more pedophiliac than ever. Leaving the show, I required not only a brisk wind, but a more mature painterly vision, and I found it in the new Rothenbergs, which examine a very different vision of childhood, the one which molders in the attic.
Alarmingly, Susan has channeled her husband Bruce Nauman's broken limbs as her subject. They are those of a marionette, a defenestrated Pinocchio stripped of the formerly human. They are very much not alive, but through Rothenberg's superb impasto paint handling, they remain animated.
The two mournful head paintings, a kind of serious response to Baselitz, are especially moving in their dangling mortality. Other limbs, orange or fleshy or cerulean blue, dangle from hooks and ladders, as if a child God had thrown his creations repeatedly down the stairs. These two shows demonstrate two kinds of courage from their mature creators: the not-so-innocent experimenting of the girl child and the fearless recognition of the older woman who has actually lived. Speaking for myself, I prefer the latter.
Lisa Yuskavage, Feb. 19-Mar. 28, 2009, at David Zwirner, 525 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Susan Rothenberg, Feb. 19-Apr. 11, 2009, at Sperone Westwater, 415 West 13th Street, New York, N.Y. 10014
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).