Searching for Lisa Y

MadFriend and artist Erika Takacs touched upon an interesting topic in a recent post,  Weird search engine terms.  It’s fascinating to consider what visitors are looking for that leads them to our blogs, and to contemplate just how those linkages are made.  Even more so, it’s intriguing to learn which topics are of significance to those who search.

Nana by Lisa Yuskavage (2005)

Nana by Lisa Yuskavage (2005)

Recently, the fourth most popular search phrase used on various search engines to find MadSilence has been “Lisa Yuskavage.” I find this surprising since Yuskavage is only mentioned in one MadSilence post,  Still Searching for That Special Gift?,  which featured a plastic shower curtain decorated with a Yuskavage image.

What is the appeal of Lisa Yuskavage?  I decided to find out.

Yuskavage, like her colleague John Currin, is a contemporary figural painter.  She graduated from Temple University and earned an M.F.A. from Yale University.  Yuskavage paints the naked female form, “color-infused paintings of naked sloe-eyed girls with melon-like breasts, erect nipples and contorted bodies.

Lisa Yuskavage from PostMedia

Lisa Yuskavage from PostMedia

Her distinctive figures are grotesque young sexpots with bloated stomachs, described as “disturbing, repulsive, enticing, beautiful.”  Her painterly skills have been compared to Vermeer, Raphael and Bellini.  It is said that she has responded to her success by being “mildly naughty” and “using her exceptional facility to produce knowingly dreadful paintings.”  Could this explain her popularity as a search term?

When you look at a Yuskavage painting, you aren’t sure if you’re supposed to feel titillated or offended, or if the proper response is to rush to your desk and write an essay on the eroticizing tendencies of ”the male gaze.”  Unable to decide, you shrug your shoulders and conclude that the paintings are gorgeous to look at.  And that is always enough.  –Deborah Solomon in The New York Times, Art Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

“Gorgeous to look at?”  Perhaps.  And if beautiful to behold, would “that always [be] enough?”  I’m not so sure.  I find Yuskavage’s paintings offensive and pornographic, her exaggerated images of the female form disturbing and off-putting.  Her images are pornographic in that their purpose appears to be the titillation of the male viewer, offensive and disturbing in that they exaggerate and distort the female human form.

But does my reaction reveal more about the viewer than the artwork?  Is there some puritanical guilt in my voyeurism?  Does Yuksavage have some hidden message or meaning that eludes me?  Or am I, by nature of my gender, inflicted with ”the male gaze” that blocks the discernment of an ironic feminist message?

I’ve always enjoyed the female form in art, obtaining a great deal of aesthetic pleasure from such images, whether classical or modern, Vermeer or Picasso.  Is their a proper way to represent the female form?  An appropriate use of sexual imagery in art?  Does Yuksavage address this puzzle in her artwork, or is she indeed “using her exceptional facility to produce knowingly dreadful paintings,” having stumbled upon a formula that appealed to the market?

Ken Johnson, writing in The New York Times, claims that “pornographic imagery is ubiquitous in art today.”

In the early ’90s Lisa Yuskavage’s erotic fantasy pictures of nubile half-naked young women made their debut, and not long after that John Currin moved from painting yearbookish images of anonymous girls to painting outrageously goofy pictures of women with ridiculously oversize breasts.

So-called pornographic imagery is ubiquitous in art today. Hilary Harkness’s lesbian S&M narratives, drawn and painted with old-masterly refinement; the photographer Thomas Ruff’s pixelated pornographic imagery, downloaded from the Internet; Mr. Currin’s own recent X-rated paintings.  A recent exhibition of montages by Richard Prince featured much-enlarged images of naked women from trashy vintage pornography and fragments of de Kooning paintings and drawings of women.

The fault line running through all this involves the question of the “proper” use of sexual imagery in art. Do we ever allow it as an end in itself, or must it always be redeemed by some aesthetic, social, moral or ironic purpose? Can pornography be high art? Indian and Japanese artists raised it to that level in pre-modern times; literature is loaded with great erotica, from the Marquis de Sade to “The Story of O.”

On the other hand, whether because of aesthetic convictions, prudery or politics, the modern art worlds of Europe and America have not appreciated the idea of art made for sexual arousal. But why should that be any less worthy an aim than, say, trying to inspire religious feelings?

The “search for Lisa Y” leads me to confront an uncomfortable question, for which I have no easy answer.  Readers, can you explain the appeal of Lisa Y?


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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. erikatakacs
    Apr 20, 2009 @ 23:23:01

    After reading this very interesting post, I was 100% sure that I would hate Yuskavage. To my surprise I got totally under her spell, I couldn’t resist looking over and over at her paintings.

    Yes, she’s walking on a razor’s edge, there’s always a risk that she might end up with nothing more than pornography, but in all the paintings I looked at, she came out a winner. If you think Schiele and Klimt was all about pornography, then Yuskavage will turn you off. If you can look at Klimt and Schiele with admiration, then you’ll love her art. I especially enjoyed her pie-faced paintings, they’re definitely not about attracting the “male gaze”, they’re about a woman discovering/exploring her own sexuality. That’s what I sense as a woman.

    p.s. thanks for the link, I’m glad that little fun post made you go on and find out more about this talented lady. I didn’t mention it in that post, but Dale Chihuly’s name kept coming up in my search engine terms a lot, and that’s how I found out about him.


    • MadSilence to&w
      Apr 22, 2009 @ 19:45:28

      That’s exactly to the point, Erika! Yuskavage is very much “on the razor’s edge.” You’ve selected two artists for comparison that highlight the question of sexual imagery in art: Schiele and Klimt. My reaction to Schiele is similar to LisaY. My reaction to Klimt is a bit different: I find Klimt too effusive, too organic, just too much.

      I find your sculptures of the female form attractive, being more abstract. Maybe I find LisaY too much “in your face” like Klimt. I just don’t like the manner in which Yuskavage & Currin distort the female image.


  2. erikatakacs
    Apr 22, 2009 @ 20:14:39

    Yes, she’s “in your face”. I read an interview with her, she talks about anger and agressivity, that could be the clue to her provocative imagery.


  3. artistatexit0
    May 10, 2009 @ 10:36:22

    I’m a bit late in sending in a comment, but recently came across a Currin article as well. Having seen examples of both artists’ work…in the so-called “flesh”…I feel they are decent illustrators…that’s about it. It’s the high contemporary art world’s discovery of porn (a bit late in the game) and holding it up to say “look at this…we think it’s cool and dripping with irony”. It’s strange how an artist like Norman Rockwell starts to look more and more radical and interesting……….artistatexit0


  4. madsilence
    May 18, 2009 @ 06:41:54

    Al, there’s no doubt both Lisa Y & Currin have the technical skills. As for the nature of the final product, auction sale prices have been declining for both artists, perhaps money does talk.


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