A Painter Who Wants Art to Shockon February 13, 2020 at 10:05 pm
The painter Lisa Yuskavage, who grew up a truck driver’s daughter in what she describes as the “hardscrabble” Juniata Park neighborhood of Philadelphia, now lives in Midtown Manhattan with her husband, the artist Matvey Levenstein, and their cockapoo, Phillip. But for the past 10 years, Yuskavage, 57, has made the daily journey to a quiet corner of Gowanus, Brooklyn, where she keeps her studio, a cavernous 4,000-square-foot space in a low-rise brick building that she has cleaved down the middle with a 40-foot-long wall. She compares the two sides to the two halves of her brain. In the back room, spare and suffused with northern light, Dionysian Lisa lets her “id run amok” on the canvas; in the bookshelf-lined front room, Apollonian Lisa — “rational, logical, organized” — tends to the big business of being a successful contemporary artist. “I have to be pretty un-self-conscious when I’m working,” Yuskavage says one January afternoon. “And then later I become extremely conscious.”
If you’ve seen her outré canvases, you understand why she has to shed her inhibitions. Yuskavage, a masterful colorist, makes lush, luminous, intentionally — and delightfully — gauche paintings that unsettle facile notions of misogyny, femininity and the female gaze. Her “Bad Babies” series, Technicolor studies created in the early ’90s of plaintive Manga-like pubescent girls depicted naked from the waist down, earned her a reputation as a provocateur when she was just a few years out of Yale’s MFA painting program. Another early work, “Rorschach Blot” (1995), encapsulated Yuskavage’s psychosexual shtick in a single image: a cartoonish blonde, knees splayed, reveals the entirety of her nether regions, rendered by the painter as a sort of lewd exclamation point. For a later series done in the late ’90s and early 2000s, she mined Bob Guccione’s ’70s-era Penthouse pinups for source material, a choice she says she may never live down (it’s a sticky fact people tend to associate with her: “‘Isn’t she the chick that does the Penthouse paintings?’” she mimics). The market for her work is robust, and many critics are in her corner, but detractors tend to be vitriolic. A 2007 headline in the Washington Post framed the debate in no uncertain terms: “Lisa Yuskavage: critiquing prurient sexuality, or disingenuously peddling a soft-porn aesthetic?”
Her latest show, then, is a bit of a plot twist. In 2018, Yuskavage mounted an exhibition of small paintings at New York’s David Zwirner gallery, and on a lark, included some landscape studies she had made over the years and stuffed away in a drawer. That show led to her latest museum exhibition, “Lisa Yuskavage: Wilderness,” a survey of the artist’s little-highlighted landscape practice, which goes up this month at the Aspen Art Museum before traveling to the Baltimore Museum of Art in September. The show includes a few seemingly earnest “Sunday painter”-style sunsets, but most of the other works openly toy with rigid notions of genre. There’s a series of early watercolors, “Tit Heaven” (1991-1994), in which Yuskavage camouflaged female body parts into dreamy deconstructed still lives so that breasts and noses rise like landmasses from surreal jumbles of flowers and fruit. She’ll also show a number of more recent large-scale paintings in which, inspired by the freewheeling cartoonish tableaux made by the abstract expressionist Philip Guston late in his life, she’s liberated her subjects, once trapped in tightly cropped close-ups, to wander in acid green fields and misty clearings. These can be read as mindscapes as much as landscapes, seemingly populated by elements of Yuskavage’s psyche: Her id-like nymphets bump up against censorious, finger-wagging brigades of peasant women and occasionally men — hapless tourists who have wandered into the wide shot. The survey’s newest work pulls back further: “Landscape Painting” (2019) depicts the interior of a room where a small framed pastoral scene hangs behind a busty woman, her nakedness amplified by her dangling necklace and lurid tan lines. She’s giggling, as if to say, “Don’t confuse this for a landscape painting!”
Yuskavage, ever mischievous, calls it “a shot across the bow.” Dressed in black, her hands smeared with paint, she sits in a dingy white armchair in the rear of her space, gazing at the canvas she’s been toiling over. Very large, very red, it depicts a studio scene, in which a shadowy naked male artist figure attends to a spot-lit female nude, possibly molding her into existence. The picture just clicked after months of giving Yuskavage trouble. “Painting isn’t like ice skating, where I’m trying to figure out how to do a triple axel,” she explains. “I have to make up a new step and then figure out how to land it.” As the elevated F train, almost close enough to touch, rumbled by her window, Yuskavage answered T’s artist’s questionnaire.
What’s your day like? How much sleep do you get and what’s your work schedule?
I sleep more or less eight hours and wake up around 7:30. We have this enjoyable routine where Matvey gets up first and makes us espressos, and my dog, Phillip, who sleeps at the foot of the bed pretends to keep sleeping. Then Matvey gets back into bed and Phillip — surprise! — wakes up. He runs over to Matvey and kisses him on both cheeks. It brings me so much joy.
We spend a little bit of time reading the newspaper. I do my exercise first thing in the morning, or I won’t do it. Pilates twice a week and yoga. It keeps me from hunching over, which I need because I stand to paint.
I come to my studio every day I can and want to. I almost always feel like it, even if getting over here is a bit of a psychic schlep. I might come for as little as three to four hours if that’s all I have, but I prefer to have longer because there is such a long period of warming up. There’s a shyness that I have about being around my work, where I need to get connected to it again.
How many hours of creative work do you do in a day?
Eight to 10 hours if I can sustain it. But I often solve the problems of my work when I’m not in front of the paintings. You never know when something’s going to click. You can’t force it; you have to hold it like a bird, gently.
What is the first piece of art you ever made?
A painting, “Once Transient” (1983), that I made during college at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. I made art before that but I was fulfilling assignments. That was the first time I broke away and made a small thing that surprised me. I think making art is creating your own riddle. You create your own idea of a society, the way things will work, hierarchies. The utter freedom can be paralyzing. You have to create limits for yourself. Each artwork cannot be everything.
What is the worst studio you ever had?
Around 1990, Matvey and I lived on Ludlow Street. We call it the bad old days of Ludlow Street. I used the living room as a studio. Every day at 4 o’clock, which even now is when I really get going, the woman below us would start cooking. She used rancid cooking oil, and the smell was so overwhelming. I didn’t know what it was until later but it became the smell of my own anxiety. I also hated working at home because I had no privacy. I like to work alone. I don’t want anyone to see what I’m doing unless I want them to see what I’m doing.
What is the first work you ever sold and for how much?
I had a B.F.A. thesis show at Tyler and it did extremely well. My dentist came and bought a big painting. I was kind of amazed. The painting is of a girl sitting at the bottom of some steps with her legs spread, and you can see her underpants. In the distance is a man sitting on a couch, and the pattern on the underpants and the pattern on the wall behind the man’s head are the same. My dentist said, which I had not considered, “the guy looks like your father and that looks like you.” I turned bright red and then he handed me a check for $350.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
That is always changing because I don’t have a formula for how I work. That’s what keeps it interesting, and that’s what keeps it difficult.
How do you know when you’re done?
I know I’m done because the end is so much fun. I’m just tightening things, loosening things, and then suddenly there’s nothing left to do.
How many assistants do you have?
I have a number of people who work on my database and on my website remotely and part-time. And I have two assistants who work part-time: Lisa D. and Julie. Lisa D. was washing my brushes for seven years. In order to get this kind of color, you have to go through a lot of brushes. She got sick of it and was probably going to quit, so I said I’ll hire somebody to do the things you don’t want to do. I call Julie Lisa’s assistant. I don’t know when Julie will get sick of washing brushes.
Have you assisted other artists?
I worked for one afternoon for a sculptor named Maryanne. My husband had the job and he got sick, so I showed up. I hated it. She was a nice lady, but I thought her work was terrible. I was outside uncoiling the stuff they use for suspension bridges. I was getting hurt, I was freezing cold. Meanwhile, I could see her puttering around in her townhouse. I was like, why aren’t you doing this?
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
I think it was when I started to have to pay taxes. Early on, one of my art dealers said to me, “What a great thing to have made money and to have to pay taxes!” That was probably around ’96 or ’97. But I think I truly felt like a professional when I got my first museum show at the ICA in Philadelphia. I really believe in showing in museums, because it was important to me to wander into museums when I was growing up. The randomness of seeing certain things that way changed my life.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
I’m not a vegetarian, but I like to eat like a very small vegetarian lunch. I call it my stupid vegan soup. I learned that if I eat protein in the middle of the day I don’t have as much energy to work.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
I have a toilet paper cozy in my bathroom, which is essentially a Barbie doll stuck through the middle of the roll with a hand-crocheted skirt that goes over it. I guess it keeps it warm?
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
I read The New York Times online a lot, but I had to curb that habit because I was getting way too anxious. Now, I do the crossword puzzle on my phone. I also love to watch Johnny Carson YouTube videos. He was just so funny. Johnny Carson with animals? Highly recommend.
What is the last thing that made you cry?
I went to get a massage at a place that I’ve been going to for years. I was having some tightness in my painting arm. The masseuse used her elbow, which is apparently a big no-no, and she crushed my radial nerve. My hand was just drooping and not responding. It took three full months for it to come back. It was like a lesson from the universe about how precious our bodies are and how quickly everything can be taken away.
What do you wear when you work?
I have a coat that my friend who is an oncologist gave me when he left Memorial Sloan Kettering. It’s his doctor coat. He’s a lot taller than I am, so it covers me really well. I have also learned that I can only wear these really flat Adidas sneakers, otherwise my feet and legs get tired. It’s a very unattractive look.
What do your windows look out on?
I have a 360-degree view. I like that I can see life going on: people riding the subway, a traffic jam on the Gowanus freeway, the air traffic coming in to LaGuardia, which looks like a string of pearls. There’s a tree that I’ve watched grow and that is now probably on its way to die. I’ve seen Downtown Brooklyn spring up. It wasn’t there; now it is. I get to see things but also be left alone.
What do you bulk buy with the most frequency?
Bounty paper towels. They’re a big part of my process. My watercolor students — early in my career I taught continuing education classes — used to laugh because they would try to buy another brand and I would say, “No, it really is the quicker picker upper.”
What is your worst habit?
Picking at my cuticles.
What embarrasses you?
I’m not easily embarrassed. I’ve worked really hard on that. I try to embarrass everybody else. It’s part of my job description. But my struggle with my weight has been a source of embarrassment. Over the years I’ve dealt with it and focused on staying healthy, but people are very unsympathetic to the disease of obesity. I was very overweight for a while, and I know how shallow people are because I saw how they were suddenly nice to me when I was lighter.
What are you reading?
I’ve known Cyrus Grace Dunham since they were a little kid, and now I know them as this fully formed, amazing adult, and I’m completely blown away by their memoir, “A Year Without a Name.”
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
When I was a little girl, I happened to wander into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and see “Étant donnés” by Marcel Duchamp. I thought the girl in the work was me because I had a weird thing happen to me as a kid in Fairmount Park where I came across a serial killer and got away. I would say that piece was ground zero for my sense of shock about art. I always want to feel shocked by art, or to make art that people feel on their toes about.
This interview has been condensed and edited.