Lisa Yuskavage - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Lisa Yuskavage
Lisa Yuskavage was born in 1962 and grew up in the working class neighbourhood of Juniata Park, Philadelphia with one older sister. Her father was a pie truck driver, while her mother was a homemaker with inventive sewing skills. The artist remembers "finding" art at around age 12, a skill which set her apart from her academic sister who would go on to become a doctor. She recalls, "I remember sitting at my grandmother's table with a tablet - that's what we always called a pad of paper - and drawing. I always drew naked people, and then I tore them up. I was always only ever interested in people."
As a teenager Yuskavage attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls. She remembers, "I wasn't one of the top students. I was kind of muddling through for a long time." A high spirited and sociable young student, one teacher wrote in a report, "Lisa needs to talk less in class." Academic life failed to sustain her interest, but the diverse girls she encountered in her high school were a source of great fascination. She remembers vividly, "(The girls in my) high school were from all over Philadelphia; everybody was slightly nerdy because you had to be smart to get in. (We had) Ukrainian girls that would come to school dressed in their Ukrainian national garb a couple of times a month, white girls from South Philadelphia that were Italian. It was very multicultural."
At school she was taught by nuns and she initially toyed with the idea of becoming a nun herself, describing them as "the first feminists I met." But after experiencing a sexual awakening she found solidarity instead with the girls around her, who were all experiencing the brink of adulthood together with trepidation and fascination. She remembers, "We were obsessed with Playgirl, and everybody thought we were crazy because we were reading the sexual fantasies in the magazine. We were so anxious to grow up and to become sexual creatures, trying really hard ... to understand what was going on."
As a young adult Yuskavage was mesmerized by the female body, unafraid of examining and playfully exploring the various ways it could be represented without shame or embarrassment. She remembers organizing an alternative art project with her friends which she jokingly titled, The Tit Papers, where everyone would draw their breasts from various different angles; the project later came to influence her paintings Tit Heaven, which she described as "disembodied breasts having adventures."
Early Training and Work
Yuskavage received a BFA from the Tyler School of Art in 1984. During that time, she spent one year studying in Rome, where she was overwhelmed by the high drama and perfection of Renaissance masterpieces. She said, "In Rome, I got even more distracted and ... even more lost, because then I was wandering around looking at masterpieces like, 'I'm never going to be an artist if this is what art looks like, because I'm so bad.' I felt much more diminished." In spite of this, the chiaroscuro and sfumato effects from the great Italian masters including Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini, and Caravaggio infiltrated her subconscious, ready to be released in the years to follow.
After art school, Yuskavage finished her graduate work at Yale, where she met the painters John Currin and Jesse Murry, and her future husband Matvey Levestein. She was taught by Mel Bochner and William Bailey, but they shared differing viewpoints, as she recalls, "I remember once in a critique of my work, my teacher William Bailey was furious that it didn't have enough 'fiction building.' He quoted Magritte: 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe, Lisa!' I said, 'But I want the paintings to be real!' To which he snapped, 'Well, that's not a good goal.'" Yuskavage continued to pursue the "real" throughout her degree, graduating with an MFA in 1986.
In the years following graduation Yuskavage hoped to gain a teaching position in a university, but it proved more challenging than expected. After receiving countless rejections she eventually secured a job teaching adult evening classes in the school of continuing education at Cooper Union, all the while looking for a more full-time position. But as her artistic career developed, the world of teaching became increasingly distant, not least due to the explicit nature of her work, as she explained, "The end result was that the art world was open but the world of academia was shut to my kind."
Yuskavage held her first solo exhibition in 1990, four years after graduating, but it was not the pinnacle of success she had hoped for. She says of her paintings portraying demure women seen from behind, "I did not connect to the paintings once I saw them on the gallery's walls." The work was too reserved and timid for her taste, and she yearned to produce something with more bite. During this time she encountered an exhibition by the artist Jeff Koons which she described as "like getting smacked in the face. It was nasty work, but it was better than what I did because it was affecting me."
She considered quitting painting, taking up film, writing fiction, or taking a year off to think, read, watch movies, and look at art. Around that time, Yuskavage remembered being invited, but then later uninvited to a friend's dinner party, because she was "too much." She decided her art should take on this direct, sparky quality to reflect her true persona. Dennis Hopper's psychotic criminal character Frank Booth from the film Blue Velvet was also influential, and she imagined making paintings seen through his creepy, voyeuristic eyes.
After experiencing a crisis in 1990, Yuskavage returned to painting in 1991 with the drive to produce a more outlandish and confrontational form of art. Before embarking on new work she had a vivid dream which took on great significance, in which she remembers encountering her old high school motto, Vincit qui se vincit, (Latin for "she conquers who conquers herself"). With great bravado, she subsequently launched into a new series of work.
Throughout the 1990s Yuskavage painted pert, busty, and naked young women in idealized or exaggerated forms, seen against monochrome backdrops through the hazy lens of soft porn. This included the series Bad Baby and Big Blondes. Her intense, single color backdrops played on the language of Color Field painters that were so popular with many of her contemporaries. Although she was greatly inspired by the Renaissance masters including Caravaggio and Tintoretto, she searched vintage issues of Penthouse magazine for modern day muses, in a Koons-like move to elevate "tasteless" imagery into high art. She remembers, "It was considered pretty incorrect for me to be using these images, but I was intrigued." Such work secured her place as a major force in figurative painting alongside others including Neo Rauch, Chris Ofili, Marlene Dumas, and John Currin, making her one of a generation engaged in reinventing the modern figure for contemporary art.
Along with great success came an onslaught of criticism, particularly from Feminists, who saw Yuskavage's sexualized female figures as derogatory and objectifying. Critics were divided; some saw her work as deeply misogynistic, but for others her hypersexual, overblown sex objects were seen as a cynical reflection of the misogyny latent in contemporary culture. For Yuskavage, her paintings had simpler roots, as she explained in an interview, "Paintings of nudes have been done, so I asked, 'how can it be done differently?'"
In 2007 The Washington Post published a special report titled Lisa Yuskavage: Critiquing Prurient Sexuality, or Disingenuously Peddling a Soft-Porn Aesthetic?, where scholar Amelia Jones discussed the complex arguments Yuskavage's paintings raise about the representation of women today.
Recently Yuskavage has been more outspoken on the issues her paintings have raised, saying, "Misogyny is so rampant, extreme and insidious... I've experienced it personally from so many, and I can therefore assume that because I live in this society I must have absorbed it too.... I admire (Philip) Guston and Diane Arbus and (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder because they show a myriad of internal conflicts. That's what art is - a struggle filtered through the self. That is how it becomes generous."
Today Yuskavage continues to live with her husband Levestein in New York, where she has a large studio and is represented by David Zwirner Gallery. The notoriety surrounding her work in the 1990s has been the key to her success, with her paintings now in worldwide collections. In the past few decades she has also held a number of major international solo exhibitions, with another scheduled for 2020, co-organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Aspen Art Museum. Today, her paintings enjoy celebrity-like status, with one recently selling at auction for more than $1 million dollars and another, the painting Half Family, featured in the Emmy nominated television drama The L Word.
In the last few decades Yuskavage's paintings have become increasingly complex; isolated girls and women have expanded into group arrangements, set in back gardens, hotel rooms, and vast, barren landscapes, or nestled amongst over-ripe fruits that are ready to burst. She has become a rich storyteller, weaving together mysterious, sexually charged narratives featuring wanton young women as playmates for each other and their male lovers. More recently she has also painted Jesus-like men as free-loving hippies.
Critics have highlighted the duality of her work, which weaves the seductive and the unsettling together, entangling sexual desirability with body dysmorphia, a conflict familiar to many women. Danger lurks in the artificial lighting, post-apocalyptic settings, and ambiguous faces that could suggest ecstasy or fear. Gary Garrels, chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has said, "The images are extremely seductive in terms of color and ... light. They are very haunting ...poignant ... brave paintings."
The Legacy of Lisa Yuskavage
Yuskavage is part of a generation of conceptual, figurative painters that emerged in the 1990s. She is often compared with other so called "bad girl" painters who explore transgressive territory related to the human body including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown, and Marlene Dumas. Infused into Yuskavage's paintings is a clash of high and low cultural references that sets her apart from her peers; the technical mastery and glowing light of Renaissance painting is populated with references to lads' magazines and soft porn. Writer Jane Harris has said, "...bawdy girl meets society's uncompromising mirror ... (which) seems closer in spirit to the films of Russ Meyer and John Waters." This postmodern fusion of references is akin to the Neo Pop art of Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, while both she and her friend John Currin occupy similar territory, distorting and exaggerating the idealized female form.
As a Conceptual painter, Yuskavage's transgressive subjects have become part of a Post-Feminist debate, particularly potent with the rise of the #MeToo campaign, and they continue to raise contentious issues relating to the portrayal of women, ideas which have influenced subsequent generations of artists. British artist Tracey Emin has explored her own body as a complex site of desire, vulnerability, and strength with an unflinching eye, while sculptor Rebecca Warren's strident, bulbous forms exaggerate and caricature the female form.
Interactions between characters in Yuskavage's paintings have also proved influential for many; Iranian artist Sanam Khatibi echoes this witty interplay in her highly detailed depictions of women as both vulnerable and predatory. Much like Yuskavage, her paintings occupy what she calls, "the thin line that exists between our fears and desires." Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum paint teens in bleak settings together, drawing attention to the angst and longing that permeates so many of Yuskavage's paintings.