WALTHAM, Mass. — However vulnerable and exposed the subjects (mostly women) in Lisa Yuskavage’s work appear to be, they radiate such concentrated power and insouciant integrity that they have become iconic markers in not only the culture wars, but in the artist’s personal (and interior) catalogue of women different from herself. These richly composed portraits of ideas, knee-deep in art historical data and arrangements, are combustible depictions of not only personal information, but the varied contortions of an artist looking out into the world as well. The looking part, which is intrinsic to Yuskavage’s method, might pause upon the torturous, twisting distortions of Francis Bacon before somewhere else stopping to reflect on the more placid refinements of Paul Cézanne. These distinct characteristics of her work never feel forced or tacked on but rather are the very linchpins which hold the ferocity of her intentions together. This sort of appropriation of device and technique is part of the compositional intensity with which Yuskavage confronts the viewer. That, and the loaded iconography of the nude female figure lolling about or staring off into the distance, utterly uninterested in what you may think of her, or indeed, the figures around her. Crotch-watching critics have called the work everything from outrageous to pornographic and Yuskavage hasn’t always helped her cause, occasionally saying things that are needlessly provocative — all of which has served to muddle the debate about the work itself. Sometimes, focusing on the obvious is a mistake.
This survey of Yuskage’s paintings, the first in 15 years, is an expertly wrought look at the last 25 years of her career by Rose Art Museum curator Christopher Bedford. The exhibition, airily staged in the wide open Foster Wing of the museum and consisting of fewer than 30 large paintings spaciously hung, is centered around a stunning mediation on both the landscape and figure. “Triptych” (2011) is a gaudy and cerebral work by an artist who wants you to look at everything, everywhere. A big sky (are those jet contrails?) spreads across three panels and beneath it an unholy cluster of people range across the side of a hill (shaped like a breast) just behind a series of what look like newly planted trees. In the foreground, a woman lays upon a table with her legs spread open. Underneath the table is an array of objects, some cutting tools. And despite the position of the woman on the table, it is the arrangement of objects below her that draws you in — the art historical data, again. Yet here it becomes the fulcrum upon which the entire painting rests. Off to the side, a woman lays in the grass looking off into the distance. She is available for nothing and lost in her own thoughts while idly sucking a lollipop, her ass as contoured and shaped as the mountains around her. This pastoral, gently colored work, muted as it is, hides as much as it reveals. It is the type of painting you could write a book about.
At root, Yuskavage is a portraitist. And while detractors still summon up the provocations in her work, focusing on the perkily carved breasts and openly displayed genitalia, those aspects are only a single, thin veneer atop the subjects she paints. The bare skin and the settings (mostly richly saturated color fields) are conceived to make you look away at first. The forthrightness is both political and personal. This isn’t akin to the signage in a titty-bar but rather a look at the interior lives of both Yuskavage and the women she paints. Take, for example, the two figures in the paintings “Day” and “Night” (both 1999–2000), which are typically lavish in their depiction of the female body. Both figures are all crazy curves and sensually mussed hair, yet there is a real quietude in each work, too. It is here, in the moment of reflection, that the subjects come alive. This isn’t about the wholly exaggerated perfection of each figure but rather something else. Perhaps it is the natural calm that pervades each figure’s self-evaluation, calmness as a public act of defiance.
It could be argued that Yuskavage and Amy Sillman are the two most interesting painters working (in figuration and abstraction, respectively) today. In Yuskavage’s case, you wouldn’t know it because a lot of what has been written about her stumbles over the perceived lewdness of her work. It is an important point to make, certainly, and an intentional characteristic of most of her paintings, but it hardly begins to take into account the richness of this astoundingly strong body of work.