Review by Josephine Breese
Seemingly far from subtle, Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings on show at Greengrassi initially blast the viewer with undeniably enticing hooks. Warm saturated colours, tactile brushwork, curvaceous lines, highlights and lowlights cloyingly seep into your vision, operating with enjoyable kitsch. I am shocked by how taken in I am by the easy visuals, like a magpie. It is the subject that makes me check my reaction - scenes of girls arranged and splayed, provocatively draped over each other in hyper-extended, faux-naïve and knowingly sexualised poses.
Taking on the subject of woman and the entrenched tradition of objectification in art is no mean feat. The highly politicised subject of the female figure and her representation in art has been re-hashed with varying degrees of originality regularly over the last hundred years or so. Nevertheless, set against the most formidable and original of these seminal women artists and critics, Yuskavage’s work sits comfortably within the higher echelons of this tradition of critique. Her remarkable achievement lies in participation in the discourse without overt visual reference to, or outspoken statements against, it.
The artist’s unique formula turns voyeuristic treatment of woman in on itself, resonating with greater poignancy as a female artist herself. Stepping into Yuskavage’s world is like entering into a fairground funhouse of mirrors. Distortion yields glossily engorged breasts, languidly enviable limbs, unnaturally bouncy curls and comically manga-esque, upturned noses. In-jokes are dotted throughout the exhibition, as in the series entitled ‘Braque’s Studio’. The small scale and outdated tacks holding the canvas to its support parody the tradition of painting en plein air or outside. Twinned with an easel, the comic inclusion of a vase of sunflowers (arranged à la Van Gogh) and the sitters’ authentically pastoral ivy headdress herald a tacky academicising. Yuskavage hands the viewer clichés in thick layers that undermine any earnest reading of such a tableau, forcing her viewers to reshuffle the priorities on offer.
Flimsy accessories - cardigans, knee-high socks and dangly jewellery - suitably decorate Yuskavage’s protagonists, removing them yet further into to the fantastical. Shag-pile rugs spill from beneath these girl-women, painted to the same effect as grass and other foliage, all arranged with teasing tactility but also absurdity.
Amid these works at Greengrassi, disturbing features lurk conspicuously. Disembodied limbs emerge from piles of rubber, feet morph into a single toe, reflective and pink like a cartoon condom. Just indecipherable on the horizon line, silhouetted figures queue and kneel before dominant figures. Elsewhere a stomach, breast and head assume perfectly spherical and uniform shapes, exactly the same proportions as a stack of marbles nearby. Many faces are cast in shadow, mask-like and obscured, with dark tones and hair flicked across them while other body parts gleam.
Once attuned to these elements and over-exposed to the saccharine colours of Yuskavage’s paintings, however, repetition of pose, costume and soupy settings become grating, losing their glimmer to glamour as we now know it. The artist triumphs over her audience, flipping conventional enjoyment of art and norms of engagement, successfully leaving viewers happily bristling against her work instead.