The painter's naughty nudes return as detailed as they are abstract.
Thu Mar 12 2009
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
Photograph: Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery, New York
In his poem "Portrait d'une Femme," Ezra Pound draws a parallel between the tangled mass of seaweed choking the Sargasso Sea and the catatonic inertia of a washed-up London society lady. The poem is seen as uniquely unflattering toward women, casting its unwitting principal as an ornamental and passive dilettante. For her latest show, the painter Lisa Yuskavage has put many of her signature pneumatic nudes within landscape settings—a move that only partially places them within the hoary art-historical lineage of artworks comparing the unpredictabilty of nature to the wantonness of the feminine psyche. And yet the facile analogies to pornography that have always dogged her efforts seem increasingly hard to make with these new canvases.
Yuskavage has stepped up her game, producing a body (no pun intended) of work that reads like an abbreviated questionnaire of our own pleasure preferences, with every element thrown into question. The results are often surprising and, to Yuskavage's credit, derive squarely from the lure of painting instead of the subject matter.
Travellers frames a Brobdingnagian, sand-colored, big-breasted woman silhouetted by the tawny sky of a warm-weather mountain sunset, making a direct connection between body and landscape. On the left, a trickle of spectral tourists trudges across a low wooden bridge that traverses a river cutting through the middle of the scene. They seem oblivious to, or perhaps exist on a different metaphysical plane than, the bouquet-wielding, foregrounded giantess, whose wisps of hair dance and curl before snatches of thin clouds. The tourists could just as easily be walking directly into her eye-level vagina. While deliciously rendered, the central figure is uncomfortably large, deflated and off-putting. She sits slumped and resigned.
In Yuskavage's previous show at Zwirner in 2006, one brilliant work, Persimmons, seemed lit from within. Nearly every painting in this exhibition fits that description. While the hues are slightly more subdued this time, they are worlds more complex than in Yuskavage's earlier work. In this respect, other standouts, besides Travellers, include Snowman and The Smoker. More than most elements in her painting, the successful use of color elicits a visceral reaction, and Yuskavage's astute employment of it makes one swoon even in the face of insalubrious or even neutral subject matter. The impassive features of the titular nude in The Smoker are so slight as to teeter on erasure; yet the deep emerald blanketing the piece evokes a mood, an atmosphere to be penetrated, like walking through the penumbral glow of a rainforest's undergrowth. How often does one see such green in a painting? Similarly, Snowman's icy-gray winterscape is laced with fiery tangerine, but still chills to the bone.
There are other leitmotifs that pop up repeatedly in this show: Naked babies are on the loose, as are the stark branches of bare trees zigzagging across windswept skies. For all these concrete touches, there is a noticeable move toward abstraction, precisely through an increased reliance on the intricacies of landscape. Cairns pile up in towering, precarious monuments that loom with anthropomorphic urgency, and Yuskavage often sets the tone for her outdoor settings with washy cloud treatments reminiscent of Turner's roiling heavens or the calmer swaths of the Hudson River School. When a figure does feature prominently, her countenance is often obscured by a new element—a pie in the face. Human representation is repeatedly thwarted by obfuscation, or overpowered by nature.
Yuskavage's work is undergoing a curious progression that can best be described as following an inverse course. While her compositions are increasingly laden with detail, and the descriptive train each one trails appears longer and longer, it's becoming more difficult to draw a coherent story from her figurations. At the same time, the cinematic quality of her works and the appeal of their color and painting technique is greater than ever. As logic gently separates itself from the skeleton of her narrative structure, it's as if the individual pieces are emerging more crisply delineated from a representational standpoint, while withdrawing into the mysterious alchemy of painting with a capital p.