September 9 – October 23, 2021
Lisa Yuskavage’s exhibition Wild region just closed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition, in four halls, was epic, with large paintings that interchanged apocalyptic fantasy, exquisite and enthralling brushwork, voluminous bodies, and the artist’s usually stunning color. Went there with my wife and fifteen year old son and then we walked around the museum’s legendary cone collection where I showed him the Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra) (1907). Her response was immediate and clear: “I can’t believe people think it’s better than Lisa’s paintings.”
Matisse, among other Old Masters, receives the full Yuskavage treatment in his exhibition of 14 new paintings at Zwirner, on display in two rooms. The first includes a few small canvases: a prismatic set of six oils on the entrance wall and two quasi-grisaille works on the west wall, including The paint will fuck you (2020), a bust woman with a fiery expression flipping the world over the double bird. On the adjacent wall is the large, vividly brushed Sisters Scissors (2020), with three confrontational partially clad women (one with a gun) in a fusion of charlie’s angels, a photo of a similarly titled duo (2019) and Yuskavage’s hippie photos from 2013. The trio wear a Daisy Duke swagger, but don’t tolerate any bullshit. On the last wall is Bonfire tondo (2021), a rare format for the artist but containing a familiar image: a woman behind a huge fire about to shoot down a long gun on an unphotographed victim. The magnificent blue sky behind the melted glow of the foreground belies the ferocity of the motif.
It is then surprising to note that the large second room has only one large work on each wall. This is a change from the last Yuskavage exhibit here, in which ninety small images encircled the entire space, and unlike the exhibit in Baltimore, with its multiple smaller rooms with numerous works, most featuring panoramic range, deep landscape backgrounds and high skies. Here, the four images all fold into interior settings, with rear walls parallel to the image plane and defined spaces. On the entrance wall Studio Rose (Appointment) (2021) is, at 70 by 77 inches, just slightly smaller than an image made exactly 110 years earlier, Matisse Red Studio at MoMA, its clear predecessor. But while Matisse painted his studio as a quirky crimson display case, somewhat without walls, almost unmulti-colored for his most recent productions, Yuskavage gives us a glimpse of a space with a more utopian spirit, closer to that of the French artist. Happiness of Living (1905-06), the collapsing past and present. An oculus somewhere above produces a ring of light over much of the composition, like the one you feel in the Pantheon in Rome. It lights up an interior teeming with paintings, tools, multicolored globular balls that are either lights, fruits, or those huge translucent spheres resembling grape / fish eggs that women feed on in Yuskavage paintings ( drug addict inspired – colorful dishes at Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights). Lupe and Lola Levenstein, posthumous portraits of her pet chihuahuas, bask on a dog bed, while in the foreground to the right, a slow-motion cigarette smokes in the air. In the background and in the continuation of the orthogonal illusionists of the Albertian concave space, stands a scarlet version of Home (2018), the artist’s outstanding work from his latest exhibition of new images, at Zwirner’s East 69th Street location. Other paintings scattered around mark the long arc of his career, such as Fat blonde with hairstyle (1994) and sorrow guy (2015).
The absorbing stillness of the works signals a new intention in this room, though their inviting nature is familiar. In some ways, the need to restrict our individual movements under COVID seems related to Yuskavage’s shift in subject matter to where artists, over the past year and a half, have probably felt the most freedom – the studio. In his previous work, there are very few images of this type: his emphasis has always been more on models, of a sort, the studio has hinted at. Now in the 86 by 120 inches of Yuskavage Evening classes at the Department of Painting and Drawing (2018-20), no more suburban backyards of images such as Art students (2017) have given way to a spacious studio, bathed in many shades of the pink to red spectrum. Two mostly naked female models share space with male boy – he’s got Donatello’s Davidpotty belly of a teenager. He wears glasses and sports a curved Magrittian calabash in his lips that is parallel to his flaccid penis below. On the left, the composition is framed by an impressive stack of audio equipment and wires. At the back, a model with a garland of flowers in her blonde hair is crouched on a sheepskin with her head bowed framed by a canvas on an easel with a bright lemon underlay. She is similar to the woman seen in the artist Braque’s workshop images (2010) and is awash in directed light that contradicts the titular time of day of the image, a diagonal splash of Yuskavagian illumination more conceptual than naturalistic, like that of Caravaggio Call of St. Matthew (1599-1600). On the right, a standing woman wearing only striped high socks and a fabulous turban marked by iridescent blue highlights to match her eyeshadow is also framed by a primed canvas on an easel, here a scene of blue sky with clouds Vaporous. She looks down at the curly-haired man, who runs his fingers gently and deliberately along his ribcage, as a trail of smoke rises from his pipe. In the foreground, a block of wood bears two standing nails, with two more nearby, another reference, perhaps, to Braque, and his Violin and Palette (1909) at the Guggenheim, where the nail of the top wall the painter hung his palette on casts an illusionist shadow, a visual pun against the formal, analytical, faceted Cubist language of the rest of this photo-based workshop. Things are built in the studios. There will be nails. Among other instruments of passion.
In Yellow Studio (2021) a single female figure sits on a draped stool just to the left of the center. She watches her left hand fiddle with her right foot, which rests on her left knee, thus adopting the reverse side of the famous pose of the Spinario, the boy removing a thorn. Dating back to the Hellenistic period, this sculpted genre figure had a surprisingly robust afterlife, known to many Roman copies, then adopted by sculptors and painters since the early Renaissance. This is probably because, like the contemporaries Dying Gallic Trumpeter (Dying Gaul), ancient examples were in well-known collections, and both were easily adapted to model poses in life drawing classes in 17th century art academies, albeit unlike doomed but determined Gaul, the Spinario makes little reference to the larger human condition. Yuskavage nevertheless imbues this common scene with liveliness and humanity. It is perhaps through the example of Seurat, whose grandiose The Posers (The Models) (1886) in the Barnes Foundation artist’s hometown of Philadelphia, also features the pose, modified, in the semi-nude pensive model on the right pulling her stockings. The post-impressionist pointillist gave these working-class women a gravity to match their monumentality, and only one of them seems aware of the artist / viewer of this image. The model of Yuskavage in the Yellow Studio is also oblivious to any other presence in the room. She looks like one of the artist’s familiars nel’zias characters, messy, buttoned-up female spirits that linger in Yuskavage’s imagination in the studio and in the margins or backgrounds of his images, supposed controls of his lowest instincts, but thankfully almost always ignored . Here the nel’zia is unguarded, the image of straightness removed, her hair slipping out of her scarf. With a glowing turquoise towel painted in Michelangelo’s proto-mannerist cangiantism, against the overall mango tone of the image, it recalls a ladder and a pose that combines the muscular ignudi of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with the large sibyls on the sides of the ceiling. His bent left foot, with his pronounced big toe, makes one think of the foot of the Libyan Sibyl, whose sketch is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my favorite drawing in the United States.
Delicious lollipop colors. Divine use of light, a light that caresses. The practice of making fictions that support us. Complexity and retrospectivity. What is Yuskavage looking for in these works, with their relatively reserved pictorial virtuosity and their large flares of almost homogeneous colors? I can only say what they remind me of. And it is so. It sounds like Chelsea’s safest play, as daring in its own way as the astonishing range of images from 1969 to 1979 by Philip Guston (one of her heroes) currently at Hauser & Wirth. Witness the range of Yuskavage references, the mastery of his materials, the scale of the works, the desire to strip his own artwork, complete control of the entire color spectrum, the way these images encourage both absorbed contemplation and aerobic visualization, moving back and forth and back. The thrill of turning around to see them cross the room in the perfection of the natural and artificial light of the Salon Carré zwirnerien. The stories still need to be told. Female bodies carry the cool commandment of Yuskavage, and they disrupt productively, women’s interactions with men remain unclear, power relations are in a jagged way, and the time frame is unspecified somewhere in “l ‘1970s sexual aesthetic,’ according to Helen Molesworth’s assessment. . You cultivate the old and the present. In your inimitable way. Matisse could barely run it now.