Painter Lisa Yuskavage Goes Beyond Undressed Nymphs

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Lisa Yuskavage's work reminds me of an old Castilian adage. A book is like a mirror, the saying goes; depending on who's looking at it, he will see a monkey or the Virgin.

Yuskavage's paintings of erotic Keane kids, stridently old-fashioned in facture yet hotly contemporary in subject matter, burst onto a dry, incipiently greening scene in the mid-90s. Her work virtually invited a fracas. Feminists were, predictably, outraged. While admirers swore by her Pontorno-and Parmigianino-like effects, professionally angry critics like Hilton Kramer saw gorillas in the mist. Others, like Yuskavage stalwart Chuck Close, admitted to being, at least momentarily, confused (a member of a distinguished panel, Close and his colleagues passed up the artist's work for a grant because they could not, essentially, decide whether it was high art or not).

When the smoke lifted, two things were clear: Lisa Yuskavage's scantily clad, pneumatic nymphs stood both as bright, eye-catching visions of cliched titillation and as empathic, populist portraits painted with an unusually accomplished hand. Read flat, like the softcore and cartoon source material that inspired them, Yuskavage's figures held the eye via pendulous breasts, distended bellies, ski-jump noses and delectable baby fat. Given a second look, her lurid, suffused color and sophisticated use of light posed a delightful if slightly embarrassing dilemma: many admirers found it impossible to take their eyes off the paintings' glowing, curvaceous forms.

Half a decade later, Lisa Yuskavage has, despite her youth, turned into one of the leading lights of contemporary painting. Enjoying a peak in her career, she has recently gained the first in a series of important institutional plateaus. Her first solo museum exhibition, organized and hosted by Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, offers a retrospective glance at the evolution of her work over the last five years. A second, concurrent exhibition at Marianne Boesky, the artist's gallery, contains Yuskavage's latest magic trick: a brand-new painterly corpus, the pictures on view representing another advance on one of the decade's most brilliant artistic balancing acts.

A painter at the top of her game, Yuskavage has long been an artist on the lookout for expectations to frustrate. Intensely interested in undermining her own and others' beliefs about art, she has continually chosen the dark, wooded path (the wrong road) over the predictably straight and narrow (the right road). Moving past the easy, subject-laden ironical art of the early 90s?what she today calls "Hah, hah art"?Yuskavage, along with a small cadre of young painters, bucked the reigning cynical art orthodoxy by pumping low popular sources full of high technique. Her purpose was simple: to gain license to paint like a classical master. Screening her deft painting hand with palatable kitsch (reminiscent of Jeff Koons only on its surface), she concentrated on painting not for the purposes of parody or cultural politics but for painting's own sake.

While accessing all the elements of traditional figure painting, such as color, light, space and some six centuries of underused art history, Yuskavage's buxom beauties packed in disturbing, ambiguous content to match their triple-D-cup breasts. Mirroring the values of their confused cultural milieu, the artist's girls exposed themselves in ways that twitted, celebrated and upped the ante on the genre of the female nude (that they did so without resorting to blinkered commentary on the "male gaze" is an enormous credit to their creator). Relying on distortion, caricature and a no less discomfiting sense of color (she once used a Laura Ashley palette to paint an important triptych), Yuskavage distanced her blondes, redheads and brunettes from real live feminine allure, and a balance was struck: the figures, however suggestive of real Penthouse women, remained weird, multivalent and, despite their big-titted, round-haunched exposure, thematically indistinct. They should never, if kept in expressive check, overtake Yuskavage's fine-tuned painting technique.

Her newest suite, made up of six large paintings, nearly threatens to tip the scales. Painted from consciously blurred reproductions of models posed inside a Dame Barbara Cartland mansion, Yuskavage's canvases hint at a dangerous, appealing, nearly irresistible humanism of the sort postmodernists have been warning us about for 30 years. Her new femmes, rendered sadder, less doe-eyed and more realistic, cross a self-locking threshold from ripe girlhood to physically exuberant lady-land. They're more experienced-looking than their predecessors; Yuskavage's expensively draped, bejeweled women resemble nothing so much as young sophisticates (wives, perhaps, since they're all wearing rings) trapped inside the boring, repetitive conventions of softcore pornography (or, alternately, rich marriages).

Posed inside drawing rooms and libraries, placed next to comfy furniture, lazy drapery and rich flower arrangements, Yuskavage paints these girls with their unrecoverable bloom definitively gone. In one painting, a pretty, round-faced girl with her breasts and belly spilling out from beneath her camisole, reclines on a plush green couch. Behind her, a wash of matching emerald light steals through the window, invading the room with a glow that is equal parts low-wattage neon and nostalgic, soft-focus Degas. In another picture, the same model stands in profile dressed in garters and an impossibly small beaded jacket. Bathed by a roseate light that fuses figure and kitschy ground, Yuskavage turns the model's mouth down at the corners, tilting her head to communicate not submission but contemplation, of the unexamined life perhaps (we all know, of course, that it is not worth living).

But it is one picture in particular that signals what may turn out to be a small, but potentially radical, shift in the artist's painting style. Titled Northview, like the other five paintings in the series, this one features a markedly older, less ethereally attractive model friend of Yuskavage's named Kathy with whom the artist has been working for several years. Painted at once more generously and more harshly than the other canvases, the picture describes a realistic version of human wastage, both fleshly and mental, draped inside an elegant, William Merrit Chase drawing room. One of only two pictures to use single-point perspective, the painting also underlines its restrained humanism in the telling details: there's a cushion placed gently beneath the model's feet and, in the rendering of a disheveled mop, a cruel depiction of the woman's dirty roots.

"Lisa Yuskavage," through Feb. 3 at Marianne Boesky, 535 W. 22nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 680-9889.

"Lisa Yuskavage," through Feb. 9 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA, 215-898-5911.

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