Contributed by Peter Malone / A twelve-inch canvas included in Lisa Yuskavage’s exhibition at David Zwirner had the effect of upstaging the entire show and much of the work the artist has exhibited to date. Titled, The Fuck You Painting (2020), it depicts an incensed young woman projecting two raised middle fingers toward the picture plane. Its impressive realism is an outlier for an artist who prefers painting cartoonish nymphs. It is also an outlier in that unlike the typical Yuskavage tableau, it addresses the viewer directly. And yet what’s most fascinating about it is how its narrative candor is muddled by adjusting the syntax in the title.
In four words, the artist confuses the immediate empathy established by a thoroughly believable and apparently sentient figure breaching the theatrical fourth wall, with a title that aligns the work with the Bruce Nauman invective-toward-no-one-in-particular mode of obfuscation. Instead of giving it a title placing the epithet in the mouth of the figure, i.e. Fuck You, (rude yes, but narratively justified) Yuskavage objectifies the panel itself, calling it , The…fuck you painting, which nimbly implies the canvas is sui generis, an authorless event, a thing found and passed on to the public.
I know I’m asserting a rather pedantic gripe. But is worth exploring because this diminutive canvas is visually more honest and more compelling than any Yuskavage work I’ve seen, including the paintings in this show. With little fuss, the artist has achieved a marvelous visualization of emotional exhaustion. The figure’s unresponsive eyes, her slightly disheveled hair, the numbed facial passivity together suggest a coda to a fierce domestic imbroglio. In strictly visual terms, its veritable power implies Yuskavage may be dipping her toe into serious painting.
And if so, that title suggests a mitigating effort to avoid the conventionality the painting so effectively employs. Hence, the Bruce Nauman’s faux antagonism tactic, a tactic meant to keep a viewer off balance, a tactic unfortunately interpreted by sympathetic critics as depth. How it works is simple. Most viewers confronting Nauman’s 1985 Shit and Die for instance, are rarely offended. They are instead baffled by the inexplicable hostility of the message. It is both aimed at them and not aimed at them. Slyly disingenuous, it merely resembles depth of feeling.
Prior to this exhibition, the Yuskavage métier was images of young women — sometimes young men, sometimes children — distorted and inflated into sexually provocative avatars. Within the parameters set by such imagery all sort of variations can be found. More recently, Yuskavage has merged her sex dolls with a sentimental greeting card aesthetic. But set aside the mass culture tropes and her canvases sink to little more than the sum of their brazenly equivocal transgressions. Young women given exaggerated breasts, shrunken heads, big hair and mindless faces preening in rooms lit with an eye-candy palette never rise above gratuitously salacious caricatures surrounded by superficial nonsense. Then, out of nowhere, comes this little canvas punching above its weight class. Despite its manipulated title, the lack of substance in the artist’s earlier work is now substantially challenged.
Within the Yuskavage catalog of fantasies, a lampoon sensibility had always hovered nearby, but its target was forever elusive. That’s because there is no target. Until now, the artist had toyed with provocation while keeping those provocations insulated with a measured dose of questionable humor. For those willing to look past the cloying color and pretentious guile of the figures, what remains begs for a satirical reading, if only to rescue the entire body of work from what one may imagine to be the fevered dreams of the late Jeffrey Epstein and his many still breathing cohorts. But a satirical reading proves impossible to realize when the artist hews so closely to the refuge of the big tease. We know now that this strategy was purposeful. This little twelve-incher demonstrates that Yuskavage could, if she wished to, abandon the Maxfield Parrish/Anime porn formula and earn the celebrity her talent deserves without pandering to collectors, both private and institutional, who will likely remain hungry for more deniable lewdness.
“Lisa Yuskavage: New Paintings,” David Zwirner Gallery, 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through October 23, 2021
About the author: Peter Malone is a painter who writes about art. He is currently represented by the Silas von Morisse Gallery in New York.
Lisa Yuskavage on the long, slow read (2010)
Charlie Finch on Yusavage and Rothenberg: The not-so-innocent girl child vs. the older woman who has actually lived (2009)
Another Yuskavage show in NYC