zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







about zing


8 poets making it new
generation z
lutwidge finch
the back of beyond
lisa yuskavage: greengrassi; london, england







Lisa Yuskavage, true blonde on a mountaintop, oil on linen



Lisa Yuskavage’s Feminist stance impresses the stamp of parody on the character of her work. A painter whose nude portraits of young women are full of sensuous, but ultimately mocking, hyperbole are, to say the least, oblique in their approach to reality. Yuskavage takes a stereotype and distorts it, so in her earlier work, a cute chick became a mutant “Cabbage-Patch” doll, the victim of a souped-up sentimentality with all that saccharin-sweet demeanor redolent of the mawkish greetings-card. In her more recent work, she emphasizes the pseudo-sensuality of the soft-porn image, which creates that paradox of sexually available bodies that aren’t, exposing the mendacity of their indexical claims. These images invite the viewer into an emptiness of a two-dimensional fantasy. The irony here is concealed beneath a veneer authentically laced with intoxicating shots of the lascivious, which is symptomatic of the pornographic, as against the erotic image.
In the four paintings shown at greengrassi, the slant is more “soft-porn” than the grown-up Mabel Lucy Atwell demeanor of her earlier work. The two models for these portraits (three paintings of one, and one of the other) are both well endowed in the boob department, although the goods are somewhat unevenly distributed (these babes probably talk with a lisp and walk with a list—to port, not starboard). The veracity of these painted portraits is also somewhat asymmetric. Caricatures, which abbreviate the truth, they nevertheless pay uncharacteristic attention to the shortcomings and disharmonies of these bodies, which fall short of the stereotypical “girly-pic” physique. Yuskavage is sending mixed messages here: on the one hand, there is something sexy and desirable about these women, but the seductive edge is blunted by their over-amplified girl/woman-next-door qualities, something, which says to the average male, “you’re being duped here”. Full of hyperbole which does not titillate, but rather extinguishes expectations with their less than subtle satirization of the generic pin-up image, her paintings, transform the “fantasy upon which fools drool” into damning travesties of the lascivious dream.
Lisa Yuskavage exposes that misogynistic abuse of the female body—as the currency of commerce. In true blonde, the model, semi-reclining on a plush sofa, covers her sex with her hands in a gesture of mock-modesty, her eyes are cast downwards to avoid the viewer’s gaze, epitomizing that mode of soft-porn image, where the reticent but vulnerable chick—who you know is really waiting for it, aching for it—can only be reclining there for you. Here fantasy and fallacy are intertwined, battling for dominance. This inherent ambiguity in these images de-stabilizes them as they oscillate between soft-porn and its spoof. The painterly technique of these works is accomplished but banal, an expedient documentary mode, where style or process is not allowed to intervene between the viewer and the subject. In another image, true blonde on a mountain top, there are no signs of climbing ropes, cagoules, ice-axes, crampons or other mountaineering paraphernalia, instead our blonde babe clad only in beaded thong and less-than-vestigial blouse, poses casually, thrusting forward her finest asset into the crisp, bright sunlight, not an erect nipple in sight (they could at least have applied some ice). Here parody verges on the ludicrous, Yuskavage’s critique, stretching plausibility to the limit, launches an attack on the whimsicality of male sexual fantasy.
On one level, Yuskavage’s paintings seem to be pushing the bounds of belief as an exposé of male vulnerability to sexual fantasy and artifice. At another level, she hints at the looming crisis of female identity, entangled in confusion and uncertainty in the face of the media-enforced double-edged sword which brings both sexual liberation and sexual exploitation—who is in control of a woman’s sexual identity, and, as in other realms of western culture, is her choice being slowly withdrawn? Provocative on more than one level, these paintings have a critical depth, which is initially obscured by the simplicity and direct emotive punch of their images. Yuskavage seems to be having fun juggling the ascendencies of medium or message, whose balance would ultimately deprive
her work of its acerbic edge.

Roy Exley

East Sussex, England