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Lisa Yuskavage

by Emily Nathan
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Lisa Yuskavage and her signature women are back, in all their lopsided, voluptuous glory. Perky breasts meet bulging bellies, meaty thighs in sexy stockings join wide, sensuous hips. As perverse as ever, the women crouch and splay their legs towards the viewer, or turn away, offering their bodies in profile, titillating, youthful and fresh. It seems that the unrelenting painter of unsettling candy-colored sirens won’t be put off by requests that she “just stop,” made over the years by her family, friends and even strangers, who beg her to “cease and desist.” No -- Yuskavage is still at it, as evidenced by her newest body of work, on view in David Zwirner’s airy 19th Street space, Sept. 27-Nov. 5, 2011.

“The beauty of being a painter is that I get to create a world, and you don’t have to buy it. What matters is that I buy it, and that I stick to it,” the artist explained during a walk-through of her show last week. Indeed, despite her masterful skills and enviable market success (her auction record is $1,384,000), her status as Post-Feminist poster girl remains a difficult one.

In Edge of Towners, which measures 4 x 5 ft., a dusky, pink sky illuminates the enormous torso of a young girl, who seems to be literally rooted up to her ribcage in a lush green plain. Her huge breasts swell in front of her, wisps of hair obscure her eyes and a thin, green shawl frames her shoulders, its contour recalling the tiered boughs of a pine tree. She rests a rosy cheek idly on her palm, elbow supported by a stack of large books, while the other hand clasps an apple. Is this gamine meant as an earthy symbol of knowledge, a carnal wellspring? Or perhaps she is Yuskavage’s personified Tree of Life, an Eve suffering ennui, alone in the Garden of Eden with neither serpent nor Adam. 

Fertility is the artist’s eternal theme, after all, and it comes to bear in every one of the seven canvases in the show. Outskirts, which stretches 10 x 6 ft., pictures a mountainside suffused by an almost blinding yellow light -- the last rays of hot sun before dark. In the foreground, two half-dressed women frolic together on a soft plateau. One of them is on hands and knees, and the long stems of several flowers seem to bloom from her nether regions; the second woman is perched on top of the first’s upturned derriere, her silken bolero blown open to reveal swollen breasts that cascade down her torso like teardrops. Further back, a male traveler has stopped in his tracks and leans against his walking stick, presumably thrilled to have happened upon such a scene.

Yuskavage claims that she began the painting with only one idea in mind: the flower-in-ass, derived from a detail of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510). “I wanted to start from somewhere ridiculous,” she said. “In Bosch’s painting, you see people enjoying their bodies like children, and even though I don’t know what that meant to him during his time, I say the body is the body, and play is play.” That enjoyment, embodied in the union of the two women’s forms as they are bathed in the painting’s golden heat, has apparently produced life. At their feet is a heap of apples (again) which melts into a tangle of lush flora; butterflies mingle with daisies, and a pair of young twins sits peacefully nearby, silhouetted against the light.

In Triptych, whose three panels are almost 18 feet wide, a disconcertingly emerald-green sky -- the most fecund of colors? -- meets layered mounds of verdant hill whose sensual, cresting forms are echoed by the naked female body in the foreground. She lies on her back on a short bench with her knees cocked, displaying her sex to the viewer -- that particular shot in soft-core pornography which, in Yuskavage’s words, “feels innocent because it almost looks like a baby.” Scattered by the hills in the background is a group of characters new to her canvases: giant peasant women in long skirts and headscarves who stand straight and still, their faces obscured by distance.

“I work from intuition,” the artist noted, “and these towering women suddenly appeared in the painting. I call them ‘nezyas’, which is a Russian command that means ‘don’t’. When I was in Russia for my honeymoon years ago, women kept saying that to me. I finally asked my husband, ‘don’t what?’ and he said, ‘just don’t’.”

It’s easy to imagine that these peasant-like sentinels are not random at all, but represent instead Yuskavage’s projection of that unreceptive, censorious part of her audience, a kind of superego to her artistic id. She is, after all, the first to acknowledge that some find her work “annoying,” and admits that she takes perverse pleasure in hearing that it might initially repulse.

“I like that this bright green sky gives you a hard time,” she said, when asked about her color choices. “It’s inappropriate; it’s in the wrong place. In this show, nearly all the paintings have titles that suggest people living on the fringes of society, characters that might seem up to no good.” On the fringe, it would seem, is the right place for Yuskavage’s hybrid women, Earth Mothers whose supple bodies unite the unaffected innocence of a Botticelli Venus and the hyperbolic sex appeal of a Playboy Playmate.

Nowhere does this seemingly paradoxical combination come to life more vividly than in Afternoon Feeding, which offers a tight close-up of two bare-breasted young girls. One of them, a blonde with erect, gum-drop nipples and choppy bangs that fall in her face, crouches on the tip of her toes before a brunette who sits passively on a grassy knoll in panties, the soft flesh of her hips pooling above the elastic. The blonde holds a bunch of oversized, multicolored grapes -- they look like a bouquet of balloons -- to the lips of the brunette, who willingly submits to the feeding. In the painting’s hazy background, several of those giant peasants stand watching in their grim kerchiefs, hands clasped in front of them or resting on their waists.

In another context, their disapproving presence might seem maternal, but here the role of care-taker is performed instead by the young, sexy protagonist, who nourishes and satisfies more than adequately. In Yuskavage's world, the dour nezya in all of us is given form, free to silently condemn the vixen's allure and the untrammeled sensuality of this afternoon feeding -- but it is confined to a faceless blur in the background, helpless to intervene.

“Lisa Yuskavage,” Sept. 27-Nov. 5, 2011, David Zwirner Gallery, 525 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y., 10011.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email