Rebellion, Relevance, Texas, and Lisa Yuskavage

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In 1989, The Guerrilla Girls created an iconic poster that asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” They explained that less than 5 percent of the art in the modern sections of the museum was created by women, but 85 percent of the nudes were female. This information wasn’t shocking, but presented a stark gender bias against women as creators and objectified subject matter.

For millennia, male artists have depicted nude women as goddesses, allegories, Biblical martyrs, and historical figures, and these works of art have been exhibited in museums and palaces and churches as pinnacles of high art. Although this is not typically discussed, these images have also functioned as sexual fantasies, created by men for men. The women tend to be young and beautiful, but the nude is such a common historic trope that, despite puritanical laws governing women’s bodies, the tradition of the naked female body in art is rarely controversial as long as the context around the image follows societal conventions.


Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989, Guerrilla Girls, purchased 2003, Tate UK

Especially within the tradition of classical painting, images of nubile flesh, thick curves, impossibly round breasts, and buttocks like stone fruit have been used to illustrate historical, moral, and mythological stories designed to educate and enlighten, but they also seduce and titillate. We forget this out of familiarity and the stodgy, institutional settings where these paintings are displayed and the tradition exists, at least in part, because women haven’t been allowed to be artists. Hence, the “male gaze” has been ubiquitous within the history of art and the bodies of young women have been treated as objects to satisfy a dominant Western male perspective.

Fast forward to my lifetime. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a handful of female painters challenged the tradition of nude figure painting and the male gaze through monumental, ecstatic canvases filled with subject matter deemed inappropriate, specifically female sexuality. Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown, and Tracy Emin all gained prominence in the global art market for their depiction of women’s bodies from the perspective of a woman, imbuing these visions with a casual “Fuck You” to male artists and viewers who prefer more submissive, demure, or conventional-looking bodies.

Within this new context mirroring the primacy of white feminism in the 1990s, Lisa Yuskavage’s porn-inspired, rainbow-hued paintings of women sucking lollipops and lounging around in nothing but tall striped socks found a devoted audience and eventual representation at David Zwirner. Her work was recently featured at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Wilderness, a survey show co-organized with the Aspen Museum of Art, on exhibit in Baltimore from March 28 through September 19, 2021, co-curated by Heidi Zuckerman and Christopher Bedford.


Landscape Painting, 2019, Oil on linen
Reclining Nude, 2009, Oil on linen

For Yuskavage, the allure of the forbidden has always beckoned like a drug. When the red flag of “NO” is brandished, she charges headlong into subjects deemed offensive, obscene, anti-feminist, and misogynistic, specifically focused on the overt visual language of 1970s soft-core pornography considered too low-class for fine art. Yuskavage relies upon a classical rendering technique to translate a sexualized white female body into a painting style inspired by the great Italian masters—painters like Titian and Giorgione, whose work inspired her as an art student studying at Temple in Rome in the 1990s before she attended Yale for an MFA.

I remember seeing Yuskavage’s paintings in the early 2000s after finishing an undergraduate degree in painting where I was taught exclusively about male figurative painters who regularly painted nude women (Diebenkorn, Matisse, Picasso, Bischoff . . . ), and found her pictures to be shocking, original, and liberating. They were impeccably painted, but offered the same impact on the brain and body as pornography, creating a physical buzz and a healthy circulation of blood flow.

As Helen Molesworth described her experience of Yuskavage’s paintings in an inspired catalogue essay for Wilderness, “I’m not sure I’d ever been so embarrassed in my life . . . Embarrassed by the feeling between my legs when I looked at these pictures. Pictures that any reasonable post-ACT UP, abortion-rights-supporting, self-regarding feminist with a PhD in art history and a decent job should rightly dismiss out of hand. This parade of sex dolls, an endless supply of white women, each with three holes, open and wet.”

For some artists and arts professionals, these pictures can be disorienting, but they expose the longstanding hypocrisy and oppression of the male gaze, bulldozing a wide arena for women to express themselves, including overt references to sexual taboos in their work. In Yuskavage’s paintings, the combination of the model’s pose and exaggerated features—tan lines, impossibly large and/or perky breasts, full bush, gumdrop nipples, glistening labia—offers a shock that grabs your attention. But the artist also neutralizes what could be a one-dimensional encounter by placing her female figures into invented landscapes with luscious, painterly surfaces and cartoonish faces, clearly designating them as allegories and fantasies, but whose and for what end?

The nude female figures in Yuskavage’s paintings are sexy and soft, but also self-absorbed, intimate, and confrontational. They are blithe and vaguely flirtatious, sometimes acknowledging the viewer with direct eye contact and other times ignoring them to focus on their own bodily pleasure, displaying a freedom from the male gaze and making it clear that they were painted by a woman. These subjects are not posing for you. They don’t need your attention.

Yuskavage envisions fantasy worlds with juicy painting and color-saturated imagery. Once she has drawn you in, it’s obvious you have entered “No Man’s Land,” also the title for one of the paintings in the exhibit. Viewed as a group, this work presents a world where men are not just unwelcome, they barely exist. It’s a clear “Fuck You” to male artists, misogynists, conservatives, prudes, and the religious right, but it also acknowledges that a lot of people are unnervingly attracted to the women she depicts, especially those threatened by their power.


detail from No Man's Land, 2012, Oil on linen
detail from The Verdigris Farm, 2012, Oil on linen

After spending time this spring with Wilderness at the BMA, visiting multiple times and reading the catalogue essays, I was plagued with doubt about the longevity and evolution of rebellion against sexual taboos as an impetus for an art career, questioning whether this specific form of white feminist resistance was still relevant. I started half a dozen essays attempting to articulate my ideas, and talked to the artist on the phone thinking this would focus my reaction. But I felt more and more confused about the meaning and purpose of these paintings in 2021, as opposed to thirty years ago when Yuskavage’s career took off.

What is the point of continuing a revolt in a world that has changed to create space for it? How much does an artist making deliberately reactionary works need to evolve, as representation becomes more inclusive and feminism more intersectional? While depicting the sexual liberty of white women was shocking and powerful in the late 1990s, this taboo has become less potent in the 2020s, an age where Pornhub and OnlyFans are a part of mainstream culture. For an artist whose primary focus is rebellion, how do you keep shock value fresh and relevant for decades? We only have so much cortisol, and the internet has changed the way we view nude bodies on a regular basis and in public spaces.

I assumed that this quest for reinvention was why the artist and curators selected “landscape” as the theme of the Wilderness survey, in order to reinvigorate her work with a new context, but without being too provocative or challenging the tradition of the female nude in classical painting. Ultimately, I was unable to write something coherent and constructively critical in the way that I wanted to, feeling that if the artist and curators were looking for a new way to reorient the work, the concept of allegory, art historical misogyny, and the taboo of the aging female body would be a more relevant approach for Yuskavage’s complex, disturbing, and physically powerful paintings in 2021.


Lisa Yuskavage: Wilderness at the BMA

Instead, the tradition of landscape painting feels like a safe way to approach these pictures full of bulbous tits and open vaginas and women doing whatever the fuck they want, a way to reinvent but also tame them, a way to talk about them without feeling uncomfortable. Attempting to view this work through the lens of landscape made me wonder: What is the statute of limitations on shock value which feeds upon a certain kind of novelty? How long can an artist continue to make work that is overtly revolutionary without making radical changes?

Just before Wilderness is set to close at the BMA, Texas delivered a clear answer to my question, an unfortunate reason to realize that Yuskavage’s paintings are as relevant, necessary, and revolutionary as they ever were. With the passage of Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB8), the most restrictive “heartbeat” abortion ban in the nation, it became clear that all women’s bodies are under assault in this country, and any illusion of freedom of movement, sexual liberty, and personhood that women-identifying people have enjoyed is as precarious as the makeup of the Supreme Court. Suddenly, the combination of sexual agency and a casual ambivalence to the male gaze that Yuskavage depicts, this quintessentially American dance—a few steps forward, a few steps back—where the white male desire to control female bodies is teased and thwarted, was reinvigorated with urgency. This has everything to do with our cultural and political landscape—but not the tradition of a classical painted one.

Within this new Texas context, it’s easy to imagine Yuskavage’s paintings being banned or burned by the bonnet-wearing throngs of judgemental figures she depicts in the backgrounds of many of her paintings, a version of The Handmaid’s Tale now made flesh where suspected abortion abetters can be persecuted by bounty hunters emboldened by $10,000 in state-taxpayer dollars. Suddenly, the illusion of progress has been erased by the possibility that our country could become a theocratic, fascist, white supremacist regime where women’s rights are criminalized.


Lisa Yuskavage: Wilderness at the BMA
Afternoon Feeding, 2011, Oil on linen
Yuskavage's paintings question the toxic impact of the male gaze, clarify the hidden relationship between art and pornography, illuminate the influence of sex workers throughout the history of art, and confirm the sexual freedom of women.
Cara Ober

Seemingly overnight, the need for artists breaking all kinds of taboos on museum walls has become acute, and my original desire for more nuance and evolution in this work has been superseded by the need for blatant resistance to the religious right, right-wing politics, and all those who fund them, especially those sitting on museum boards. The reminder that bodily agency for women is precarious means that we need art that offends and challenges the movement conservatives who desire to take personhood away from all historically marginalized populations. With the passage of SB8, and the restrictive future it portends, the artistic freedom to thumb your nose at the misogynistic haters and naysayers is everything, now and again and perhaps forever.

At the BMA, a sign was posted at the entrance of the contemporary gallery where Wilderness hung that read: “THIS GALLERY CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT.” After my last visit over the summer, I texted the artist a photo of the sign and we had a laugh about the prudishness assigned to nude paintings of women by a woman. She pointed out that the museum has plenty of paintings of nude women by men in other galleries, but none bearing a warning sign. At the time I found this humorous, but now it’s sobering. Why is a painting of a nude woman by a woman offensive, but not one by a man? I realized I had become complacent, conditioned to see the world in a way that was actually not in line with reality.

In the mid-1990s, Yuskavage grabbed national attention by painting sexually liberated nude women inspired by pornography. Unapologetic, crass, and sexy, these pictures challenge the limits of feminism, pushing back against its sometimes puritanical attitudes. More importantly, her paintings question the toxic impact of the male gaze, clarify the hidden relationship between art and pornography, illuminate the influence of sex workers throughout the history of art, and confirm the sexual freedom of women. Yuskavage’s “translation” of an art historical canon chock full of nude women painted by male artists gives us an opportunity to reframe our understanding of what and who these kinds of images are for, to understand the patriarchal power structure that continues to objectify, shame, and erode the bodily agency of women.

After thirty years of making deliberately provocative paintings, Yuskavage, along with many other women artists and activists, has managed to create a more inclusive and accepting space for women—as artists, as sexual beings, as muses, as individuals. Regardless of what’s happening in the world, her primary focus remains on her personal desire to make these kinds of paintings over and over again, and maintaining the freedom to do so. In addition to the BMA exhibit, Yuskavage opened New Paintings at Zwirner on September 9, 2021, where two bodies of work function in tandem: one which explicitly considers the intimate and predatory relationship between artist and model inside the studio and another where she reimagines her earlier “Bad Babies” series, depicting young women in adversarial poses, holding toy weapons and flipping the bird.

“She made pictures about women looking at themselves, of women looking at other women,” writes Molesworth in the Wilderness catalogue. “And all these images had the DNA of six centuries’ worth of paintings made by men for men of means that were about looking at women, that were designed to be looked at in well-appointed rooms like libraries and museum galleries . . . [but she made them] for those of us who are entranced by the intricate ways our fantasies, desires, and memories are both personal and public.”

We all benefit from a more inclusive and intersectional feminism, as well as criticism within and across feminist and women-centric organizations, communities, and ideologies. The new anti-abortion law in Texas is a stark reminder that the freedom women have claimed is fragile. As a society, as artists, and as museum patrons, we still require evolution, reinvention, and nuance. However, a clear “Fuck You” to anyone who wants to subjugate women is still squarely in vogue, relevant as long as the political, racial, socioeconomic landscape of a democracy sliding backwards provides the context.


The Fuck You Painting, 2020, Oil on linen, from New Paintings at David Zwirner Gallery
Scissor Sisters, 2020, Oil on linen, from New Paintings at David Zwirner Gallery

Header Image: Walking the Dog, 2009, Oil on linen (detail)

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