Lisa Yuskavage: Babie Brood: Small Paintings 1985-2018

Installation view, Lisa Yuskavage, Babie Brood: Small Paintings 1985-2018. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Lisa Yuskavage
Babie Brood: Small Paintings 1985-2018
November 8 – December 15, 2018
David Zwirner
533 West 19th Street
New York, NY 

By DAVID AMBROSE, December 2018

“I wondered what sort of ecstasy there was to be had without shame to incite it.” - Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen 

The painter Lisa Yuskavage takes over two spaces of the David Zwirner Gallery this November with a survey of small works and a group of new large scale paintings. The effect of the two exhibitions allows the artist and her gallery to look simultaneously forward and back as Yuskavage’s new paintings christen the gallery’s new uptown space in a brownstone in the Lenox Hill neighborhood just off Madison Avenue.

Babie Brood is meant to open a window into the artist’s private studio practice from her career’s inception - and it certainly does.  However, these paintings feel less like windows and more like peepholes – stolen glimpses of thought and process, search and solution. The exhibition is made up of 91 intimate, small-scale works and private studies that ring the four walls of the 19th Street gallery and a second cube within a cube. The arrangement rhythmically mirrors the walls and colonnade of a cloister yet the abundance of flesh and the sexually charged subject matter seem to have more in common with the private habits of the excommunicated.

And “peephole” seems to be a very apt term for Yuskavage’s work no matter the scale - since it is hard to imagine two words more at odds with her practice than “private” and “intimate”. In truth, Yuskavage has built a career by pulling back the curtain to reveal the private moments of her subjects. Viewers are more voyeurs as the women, girls and eventually men who occupy these paintings inhabit a space Yuskavage has carved out from the lacey fringes of society. Her “habit” - a term she might enjoy in regard to her work – stretches its meaning from religion to obsession and back again, as she is as comfortable referencing a pose from Penthouse magazine as she is from a predella panel of an altarpiece. 

The show opens with a small, chalky painting White Light (1985) made while Yuskavage was a graduate student at Yale. In it, three isolated and encrusted figures settle around a corner of a room. The paint appears to have been applied with a palette knife by blending, spreading and chopping it. Only the first female figure with an oversized head located in the middle distance has any definable features while the two anonymous forms in the background calcify like Lot’s wife into pillars of granular pigment. In a way, the figures act as sibyls; foreseeing the arc of the painting career that was about to take place and in the end, they pay the ultimate price for that vision. 

We get our first acrid taste of the Yuskavage we know with paintings like Study for Blonde Jerking Off, Squeeze and Relatives - all three from 1995, where color and subject matter begin a three decades long investigation of the nude figure. In each, a single, gravid female nude echoes the shape of a woman’s reproductive system. In the two pendant paintings, Squeeze and Relatives, framed oval portrait heads hover on the wall like ovaries. The allusion to pregnancy haunts many of the works as they reside in a razor-thin space somewhere between innocence and sexual flowering. In Sweetpuss (1996), a semi-nude kneeling blonde woman holding a cup is wedged into the bottom edge of the stretcher frame like a drawn bow as her arrowhead nipples stand erect and point aloft. With a single dark iris, she peers down upon the viewer through windblown golden curls from what seems like several stories above us. A confetti-colored panty anchors her place while two tiny, shy, demure female figures dressed in white rise from the heel of her striped sock in the background.

Yuskavage’s color at times resembles the saturation and intensity of stained glass. It generates an atmospheric aura beyond optics. It’s as if her colors come in flavors or scents working to arouse or repel the other senses. In the Schiele inspired lime green Wee Smoker (2008); a partially nude figure cradles her rolled blouse around her right arm as if it were an infant. Her pubic region nestles between her thighs like a golden, furry chalice. Smoke trails exit her parted lips to bond with the wallpaper pattern in the background. Naturalistic color highlights push rounded body parts and wisps of hair forward as the whole has the feel of a Jell-O fruit cup.

In virtually all of the small works, Yuskavage’s choice of ground is in effect the first character to enter the scene. She explores her painting ground as a way to set a mood and create a narrative thread. In Little Striped Scarf (2013), a transparent wash of viridian shadow falls over and through a buxom female with downcast glance and a Minnie Mouse white glove as the painting shifts from naturalism to cartoon character. Visible pencil lines map out her abdomen while crescents of light define flower petals, curls and a nipple like a flock of scattering birds.

Lisa Yuskavage, Little Striped Scarf, 2013, Copyright Lisa Yuskavage, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

As her career advances, the paintings become more crowded. In Northview Afternoon (2000), a borrowed space creates a tense, psychological setting just shy of home invasion. The three female actors, in degrees of undress, manage to occupy a sunlit room and yet somehow stay isolated; the only conversations between them being their play of hands like a form of leisurely sign language. In Pile Up (2008), a grisaille group of female and male figures moves to the out of doors. A collection of oval heads float like balloons, unfurling like the windblown mast of a tall ship. The painting is anchored by a bulbous, female bowhead figure bound in place by a blonde rope while a lone, timorous figure fondles her breasts from behind. To her right, a rather banal landscape of pine trees and puffy clouds is interrupted by a rainbow - colored river reflection. To the left, a volcanic eruption of tart reds, oranges and yellows backlights the figural bouquet leaving a bitter aftertaste in the mouth.

Lisa Yuskavage, Northview Afternoon, 2000, Copyright Lisa Yuskavage, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner 

Lisa Yuskavage, Pile Up, 2014, Copyright Lisa Yuskavage, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

The tone shifts in new large scale paintings at the uptown space. The male gaze becomes the male presence as couples interact both before and after sex. In Bedheads (2018), a young man in the foreground of a bedroom slips on (or perhaps off) his trousers while his bedbound lover satisfyingly gazes out at the viewer. Her glance creates an invitation. Our presence more expected than unwanted, yet the scene is virtually sexless. Candles blow in the wind and crystal chandelier rocks - perhaps the result of our opening a door. The shame we should be feeling, the consequences of faith and conscience, have somehow escaped us. Perhaps they left us with that breeze? WM


David Ambrose

David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.

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