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.
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.”
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?