Lisa Yuskavage

Musings of an Edge-of-Towner

Out on a risky thin limb of approbation was where Lisa Yuskavage had located herself—a choice, she told us, when we talked to her 10 years ago. Tenuous, which felt right. It was at this point in the conversation that she raised the issue of pornography, an aspect of her work—“the benign presence of the devil” was how she identified it, and here the binary pull of the sacred and the profane in art history and in hers, too. She’d said, “It’s a constant theme for me: the struggle between the desire to be right and the desire to be wrong. I think it’s all just wanting to be true. And what is true and correct and right in art is often wrong in the world.”

In this current interview—many major exhibitions and much lauditory critical attention later—Lisa Yuskavage holds to the same position with a heartening consistency. She still says that when you’re an artist, you’re not making art to co-operate, that the artists whose work she admires—Guston and his Klansmen, Hans Baldung Grien’s unlovely crones and Diane Arbus’s cast of outsiders—are characters to be pushed to society’s edges, witches, maybe artists “out there stirring the pot and up to no good in the best way” and not here, she says, to please people. It’s an essential contribution.

Lisa Yuskavage, Stoned, 2016, oil and graphite on linen, 42.2 x 40 x 3.2 cm. All images courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

While the titles of Yuskavage’s works offer suggestions, they don’t provide trackable clues to the meaning of the paintings. What is it we are looking at, how are we to read what we see? For starters, I don’t think a direct line is intended. It is the artist herself, after all, who says about her work that she was looking to see something she’d never seen before. What she painted, then, had to be sourced from her own being—her subconscious, which never failed to provide material, and her imagination. What we see often in colours, which become both the subject and a coherent unity with the subject, is a splendour of the imagination—familiar and at once inexplicable, where scale, nominal objects, accoutrements and dressings, events, alignments and weather have no apparent reason. Except if you take into consideration Lisa Yuskavage’s explanation that being raised Catholic encourages a belief in the supernatural and things you can’t see and can’t prove, which also includes miracles and that immaterial things get made into matter. Painterly transubstantiation is simple: the imagination is made manifest. “Painting, after all,” she says, “is a promise made flesh.” Colour is the primary tool used, with her consummate technique, to convey meaning or intention and tone. She holds close a quote from Philip Guston that she has transcribed onto her wall: “The figuration must be understood as another element layered over and working against the abstraction.”

The Art Students, 2017, speaks itself. Two art students are painting a third, a female figure, into being: the artist as progenitor. A trinity of figures—a triad, as Yuskavage describes them, and behind the three the sky is aglow in what the artist identifies as a supernatural phenomenon. The primary palette of red, yellow and blue is, she says, almost a character in her work. Déjà Vu, also from 2017, is a grisaille work with the five male figures like a painter’s preparatory cartoon in their pale sketchiness. In the foreground stands a young woman; her hippie-embroidered denim skirt is open and has slipped down to reveal an ideal Renaissance torso, round with the promise of fecundity. She lays one hand on the shaggy head of a squatting male, like a benediction, and the other, supported at the elbow by the male figure standing at the outside, slips into his hair at the temple. Her eyes are closed and she is lovely, transcendent, with her porcelain pink cheeks and her angel-like blonde hair, lifted from her face in wings.

Like the young woman in Déjà Vu, the figure in (Nude) Hippie, 2016, could also achieve a certain kind of transcendence. She stands aloft, perhaps on a mountaintop, and below and around her is a Tiepolo sky, such that it could be readily recognized as a chapel fresco. Her eyes are blue, very blue, and we note them as she looks over her shoulder at us, the strain of her swivelled head causing one eye to bulge in a somewhat heightened manner. This could be caused by the torsion or it could be the Rabelaisian amplification Yuskavage highlights in the bulbous, over-large noses she paints on some of the women, or the exaggeration of other body parts—buttocks, breasts, oddly foreshortened legs and feet, attenuated unmuscled arms, like figures from a Mannerist painting. Her hair is blonde, soft and long. If she is transcendent it can be in spite of or as well as our observing that she wears only hippie-patched jeans, which are scooped below her ample buttocks, and there also is the drawn-on, incomplete outline of panties. With this Yuskavage is employing a 16th-century application called imprimatura, a technique new for her, which she describes as a tinted layer below the paint laid over the surface and which affects the tonality of the painting, “giving it a unity and creating atmosphere.” Where the nude appears nude, it is in fact underpainted—a presence rather than an absence. Her drawn line calls our attention to her having painted around the form.

Bonfire, 2013–15, oil on linen, 208.3 x 337.8 cm.

While each of Yuskavage’s paintings is a painting of something the artist hasn’t seen before—hence the impulsion to paint it—she is also mindful of art historical antecedents. I thought immediately of Vuillard, looking at Lavinia with Bob, 2016, and maybe Bonnard, as well. Vuillard is an artist who Lisa Yuskavage says is never far from her mind.

The horizontal banding of the patterned rugs, the detailed vertical woodwork, a large plant occupying the left foreground and two figures being absorbed into the wallpapered background, the standing male figure dissolving, washing into it, the seated female slightly more visible, especially her highlighted green-stockinged left leg. Two horizontal bars of yellow sunlight cross the rugs behind them, enlivening the setting. It might otherwise seem that we are viewing the couple as though through the glass of a dreamy, sparsely furnished aquarium.

Pride and precariousness are two states an artist understands— the pride or confidence necessary to undertake the initial gesture and the risk of not knowing the outcome. Yuskavage must be aware of both. She said, “I constantly doubt myself and question my motives, but, having said that, there is only one thing I stopped questioning: that artistic doubt is a primary asset and integral to the process.”

I think of Lisa Yuskavage’s identifying artists as edge-of-towners, outsiders. We know this is true and both a desired and designated place, and necessary in order to see clearly and, out of that, make art. She has said about fellow art makers and “edge-ists,” “I want to use all of paint, light, colour, form, history, luminosity, touch, edge, line—but, in particular, light, to change their fate, to bring them out of the shadows, away from the edge and into the centre. And doing that feels transformative.” She can be confident that, once there, the view from the centre will rightly find them all seeking the edge once again, where she will greet them.

This interview was conducted by telephone with the artist in her New York studio on June 1, 2017.

Border Crossings: When we spoke 10 years ago you had seen a Neo Rauch exhibition at the Met and you said, “That body of work doesn’t have anything to do with me now but in 10 years it might.” It seems that things sit for a time and then they become functional. Is that still the way you operate?

Lisa Yuskavage: I hope so. I always find it interesting when I think I have emptied out everything I could possibly use from something I saw a long time ago, some movie or book or a painting, and then more stuff surfaces. I think of my brain as an airport where things that I don’t even know about are scheduled to take off and land. Then there is a whole bunch of stuff that is sitting on the tarmac, which I haven’t had a chance to use. These things haven’t taken flight yet; they’re waiting for a destination. They’re still inside me. As per Neo, I am still a big fan but the work hasn’t yet directly informed my work. I still enjoy looking at it.

The Art Students, 2017, oil and charcoal on linen, 203.2 x 203.5 cm.

Are there ways that you can be the air traffic controller of your imagination and actually schedule, or call up things when you want them?

When I need something what usually happens is that my conscious brain makes a request to my subconscious brain. I’m hyper-aware of the ways I can find the answers to problems, either externally or internally, and everywhere I look I see the answer after I’ve asked it. It has to do with being very conscious.

Were it not for you I wouldn’t know about cangiantismo. I knew about grisaille and close tonal values but I didn’t know there was a system of modelling that you could use in composing a painting. Is it something you knew from university or did you stumble upon it later?

To answer that I have to address your first question. I found out about it from a book called Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting by Marcia Hall, a Renaissance expert who teaches art history at Temple. Oddly enough, when I was at Tyler School of Art, which is the art campus for Temple in Philadelphia, I didn’t take her class because I heard she gave a lot of reading homework. Later, everything that she had written became extremely interesting to me and I regretted my early decision. So I wrote a fan letter to her and I’ve never written a fan letter to any living soul. I told her she was like a rock star to me and that I would be honoured to meet her. I’m so much of a fan that recently I was in my studio and was thinking about interesting ways to conjure new things into existence. I asked her, if she was writing anything else, could I be an early reader? She was delighted and sent me some pages from a new book she was writing called Color. Materials. Making. Marketing. Meanings. that covers the 15th century to World War I. Last summer the New York Times asked me to give a list of 10 books I would take to a desert island and her book was one of them. In Color and Meaning, I came across the four modes of colouring in the Cinquecento: sfumato—the smoky mode based on Leonardo—and chiaroscuro—the theatrical light and dark, which most people associate with Caravaggio. There were two more that involved bright colour. Since I was making paintings with bright colour at the time, I was fascinated to learn there is more sunshine and light in southern Italy, so there is more light-in-shadow, and painters reflected that in their work. That light, called unione, has to do with structuring brighter colour in the shadows and is connected to Raphael. Then cangiantismo, a rainbow effect of colour, which used to be shown on angel wings, has always represented the presence of the supernatural in art. Michelangelo ended up using it in the Sistine Chapel, where typically he employed it to create volume. Instead of going from a lighter to a darker version of red in the shadow, he would use a different colour, go from blue to orange, say, which was obviously not naturalistic. In other words, it was supernatural. Lately I have been using it as a way of structuring a painting, but I have always been very interested in the supernatural because I find the idea that life is just bricks and mortar to be too boring. The supernatural is very handy because you need to be able to imagine that there are things beyond this world.

You have always been involved with the relationship between figural representation and picture making. You painted multiple figures and used them as a way to investigate colour and close-valued tonalities. So, when you were doing colour-wheel paintings and the grisaille works, the figures ended up being props for a kind of painterly theatre. Is your tendency to fold subject matter into questions of methodology and technique?

I don’t know another way. I have made paintings in the past where I tried to do things without following the old idea that content and form are of a piece, an idea that goes back to the beginning of art. At Tyler I studied with Stephen Greene, one of Philip Guston’s students, and he taught me a lot about Guston circuitously, even though I was not an abstract painter. I knew that trying to paint the way Guston did would be like a sailor listening to the sound of the Sirens; you have to have cotton in your ears or you’ll crash and drown on the rocks. The best lessons you can take from Guston come from reading his many lectures. I have had a Guston quote hanging on the wall of my studio for 30 years. I wrote it out by hand on a dry erase board where I keep quotes because I didn’t want it to be buried. The quote is: “The figuration must be understood as another element layered over and working against the abstraction.” In other words a head, for Guston, whether a Klansman’s head, the lima bean head, or Nixon’s head, was a shape and it had colour and it had a particular place as a painted thing. In a lot of contemporary figurative painting people have pretty good technique, they can make space and they can tell a story, but so much of the work is illustrational.

You refer to the “unbroken history of artmaking,” a history of which you’re now a part. More and more critics are arguing your highly significant role in the establishment of a new figuration. Does that put pressure on you in the studio or don’t you care about it?

I feel a bit in between. I think that getting a lot of smoke blown up your ass can really unhinge an artist. If you start to believe you are that good, it’s actually like negative drag in swimming or in running: it slows you down. You mustn’t let it get into your mind. Having said that, you’re running a race—and I am running a race against my own death—I’m 55 as of my last birthday and I’ll probably be able to stick around for a while. But a couple of years ago someone paralyzed my painting hand while giving me a massage and it was one of the most devastating days of my life. It made me realize that within the blink of an eye, what matters to you most could be taken away. Fortunately, it was only a crushed radial nerve. I tried to stay calm about it and the hand came back within four or five weeks, but it was a reminder that we are all here very briefly and that everything is a gift. I’m aware that we might be somebody today, but being somebody whom anyone cares about tomorrow isn’t something you can be sure of.

You have talked about your place in the tradition of “juicy American figuration.” Were you aware that you were carving out figurative territory for yourself?

I don’t know about the juicy part but, yes, I was aware of that. I wasn’t so much looking for the kind of attention I got as I was looking to see something that I had never seen before.

Lavinia with Bob, 2016, oil on linen, 33.3 x 28.6 cm.

You have remarked that what interests you about contemporary art is its wrongness; if you were writing a novel it would be called The Incredible Wrongness of Being a Painter. Do you still approach the making of art with the idea that it is better to do it wrong than to do it right?

It has to do with the definition of “wrong,” or actually the definition of “right.” To be right means you are following a script. When you’re an artist you’re not making art to co-operate; you’re making art as a form of protest against what has already existed, while at the same time embracing what has already existed. You have to come out of something but your job is not to repeat it. You have to do something wrong enough that you are creating your own path.

…to continue reading the interview with Lisa Yuskavage, order a copy of Issue #143 here, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 36, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #143, published September 2017.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.