On view in Chelsea will be the first survey of the artist’s small-scale paintings, which have been a constant and integral part of her oeuvre since the mid-1980s. In the uptown gallery, an exhibition of eight new large paintings will be shown.
For more than thirty years, Yuskavage’s highly original approach to figurative painting has challenged conventional understandings of the genre. Her simultaneously bold, eccentric, exhibitionist, and introspective characters assume dual roles of subject and object, complicating the position of viewership. At times playful and harmonious, and at other times rueful and conflicted, these characters are cast within fantastical compositions in which realistic and abstract elements coexist and color determines meaning. While the artist’s painterly techniques evoke art historical precedents, her motifs are often inspired by popular culture, creating an underlying dichotomy between high and low and, by implication, sacred and profane, harmony and dissonance. Yet her oeuvre compellingly resists categorization, insisting instead on its own kind of emotional formalism in which characters and pictorial inventions assume equal importance.
Consisting mostly of loans, the extensive presentation in Chelsea of Yuskavage’s small paintings spans key examples from her most important series to date and includes many works exhibited for the first time. Some are studies for large paintings, others revisit the large canvases, and yet others are one-of-a-kind compositions that only exist on an intimate scale. As places for experimenting with color, form, and characters as well as a variety of supports—including stretched and unstretched linen, canvas boards, wood, and paper—they play a remarkably dynamic and protean role within her work and continuously inspire new pictorial developments.
Variously and often concurrently based on the artist’s imagination, maquettes, live models, and found and staged photographs, the small paintings demonstrate Yuskavage’s methodical exploration of how and from where to generate images. In Blonde Jerking Off (1995), a prime example from her early series Babies, a woman’s body materializes from monochrome mist with no counterpart in reality, her hyperbolic features animated by notions of shame and shamelessness alike. Both line and color are further exaggerated in the Bad Habits works from the mid-1990s, for which the artist used sculpted maquettes set on small stages. Her Penthouse series, started around the same period, takes its point of departure in found photographs, at once adopting and subverting expectations of pornographic imagery. Works like Screwing Her Pussy on Straight (1997) epitomize this tension by upending the expected power dynamics between an observer and a nude model. By contrast, the woman depicted in Grey Bedroom (2002) from the Northview series was based on staged photos of a childhood friend, Kathy, modeling semi-nude in a lush boudoir. The impression of solitude is enhanced by the color palette, which is deployed independently of mimetic space. Painted from a combination of found and imagined sources, the slapstick Pieface works, begun in the late 2000s, revolve around a sense of humiliation, but the recipient is unclear. Ultimately, what drives Yuskavage’s experimentation with a variety of processes throughout these series is the fundamental question of what constitutes a model.
A group of new large paintings depicting mostly couples will be exhibited in the gallery uptown, a townhouse space that emphasizes their predominantly domestic and intimate scenes. These charged depictions of interdependent male and female figures developed out of Yuskavage’s series of Symbioticportraits from the early 2000s in which two women were paired to invoke a sense of a dual manifestation of a single personality. In Home (2018), a dilapidated barnyard door complicates an otherwise serene interior, as if representing a gateway between the conscious and unconscious mind, a recurring dichotomy within the artist’s oeuvre. The silver and gold palette gives way to a full spectrum of color in the background, creating an impression of harmony that is further emphasized by the couple’s interlocking hands in the exact center of the composition.
A conflicted atmosphere is suggested in Golden God (2018) in which a pale woman is draped over the shoulders of a man who emerges from the same opaque yellow and violet hues as the background. While the transparent orb around his neck evokes the iconography of religious figures, here it seems to occupy a bridge between real and imaginary worlds. The work can be seen as a variation on the Death and the Maiden theme which recurs within many of Yuskavage’s symbiotic portraits and underscores a parasitical, rather than mutualistic dynamic. In Self Portrait (2017), conversely, dramatic light contrasts enhance the sense of dualism, creating a psychological space in which the two figures appear as both opposites and the same. As Christopher Bedford has noted on Yuskavage’s works more generally, "the formal and conceptual value of color [is] both synonymous and unequivocal. . . . [To] understand the painting is not to understand a story represented, but instead to understand the very means of representation."1
1 Christopher Bedford, "Color Theorist," in Lisa Yuskavage: The Brood, Paintings 1991–2015. Exh. cat. (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015), pp. 13, 15.