Magazine article Artforum International

Blonde Ambition

Magazine article Artforum International

Blonde Ambition

Article excerpt

Call it the mind/body problem. If I were preparing a slide comparison for class, I probably wouldn't pair Jasper Johns and Lisa Yuskavage. He is a notably cerebral artist who traffics in reflexive visual puns and sets up intricate perceptual conditions. She is all T&A, turning to cultural flashpoints to make her trademark fleshpots. But, just as Johns reveals erotic subject matter on closer examination, a roomful of Yuskavages reveals what you would more likely expect from Johns--meaning of a deeply hermetic sort, much of it linked to formal features. Despite the fact that she is often saddled with some variation of the "bad girl" title--a mantle she shares with Cecily Brown and Sue Williams--Yuskavage has traced and played with a more complex set of issues that bridge the material, the personal, and the art historical.

In the wake of the harsh reception of Yuskavage's 1990 solo debut, figures such as that in Bad Baby, 1991, personify the paintings' vulnerability before our prying eyes. She pouts, wide-eyed and underdressed, a parody of submission. The body of work from the first part of the decade, characterized by the apparent exposure of figure, painted object, and, by extension, the artist herself, culminates in the much-reproduced Rorschach Blot, This doll-like figure flaunts herself, asking for it, spreading her legs and opening a hole in the flat yellow canvas simultaneously. The represented erogenous zone intersects with a literal painterly hot spot, playing at showing everything and making us into voyeurs, willing or not. Unsurprisingly, this exploitative direction dead-ended--not only because it courted an endless escalation of titillating imagery, but because the painter overcame her own youthftil thin skin (as much as any artist ever does).

As attention-getting as these images were, the genesis of Yuskavage's interests is quite conventional. As a student at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and Yale, she drew avidly from life, looking admiringly to the European representational tradition. In the art-school milieu, Degas's images of women (which she loved) seemed suspect, even a bit kitschy. Somehow, like forbidden sex, the fact that they were in questionable taste (at least in terms of art-school fashion) just reinforced their desirability; the pastels and monotypes and drawings of bathing women were beautiful and masterfully realized, and now they were naughty, too. Still, it's difficult to draw and paint the nude today without looking like an academic hack. Yuskavage married her interest in the great art of the past with authentically declasse contemporary taste and the vulgar sexuality of popular culture. Bad Baby is "bad" not in its overt sexuality, but in mixing genres (representational painting and kewpie-doll cuteness being equally suspect). The figure emerges from the deep, smoky space of sfumato, but a sfumato that is an inappropriately hot hot-pink.

Even after the frustrations expressed in her early-'9os work, Yuskavage's attachment to her subject made it difficult to leave behind. The details of how she moved on are worth looking at. Late in 1995, she made a group of small maquettes, female figures rendered in Sculpey. The five figurines exaggerate the mannerist distortions of earlier work--the bloated bellies, the elongated necks, the giant butts; in fact, some of the figures are lifted directly from her previous paintings. After she had finished with each figure, Yuskavage (who talks to her art, although she is quick to point out that it doesn't talk back) wagged her finger, chastising the little sculptures as, variously, "asspicker, foodeater, headshrinker, socialclimber, motherfucker." After the fact, she began to associate each, by virtue of physical or assigned behavioral characteristics, with specific people. These figures may be as far from kitsch (which never lacks propriety) as any of Johns's iconic signs, but they move in the opposite direct ion, toward the emotionally and sexually charged and away from Johnsian neutrality. …

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