Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Lisa Yuskavage

True Blond Draped, 1999
Oil on Canvas 38 x 29 inches

Not Seen

I first encountered the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage at the “Galleries” show at the Royal Academy in 2002. The subjects of the paintings were all women, some with extremely large pendulous breasts and all with improbable 'ski slope' noses. My curiosity was aroused as to why she would invest so much time and effort in making a caricature by emulating the grand tradition of painting. The only difference between her chiaroscuro and that of the masters is that she uses soft hues, not the browns of Caravaggio.

Her classic approach is described by Marcia Hall; “... craftsmanship is as important to her as any painter of the Renaissance. She prepares a composition with numerous drawings, in the same way as masters in the academic tradition. As part of her laborious preparation, in imitation of sixteenth century painters like Jacopo Tintoretto, Yuskavage makes three-dimensional models of her figures…and uses them to study light. She photographs the models; then she may draw from the photo in ink, or pencil, or pastel.”[1]

The overall colour is a deep red with the figure merging with the spatially indeterminate ground in places. The figure is realistic yet almost implausible, sat in a three-quarters pose that reminds me of photographs in the windows of high street photographers. It is the style of a commercial portrait, complete with tight cropping and a plain studio lit background. This language conveys the impression that the model has been deliberately posed like this for another intended viewer's gaze, that of the buyer (probably a clothed male). As John Berger explains this passive nakedness is “not an expression of the model's own feelings it is a sign of her submission to the owner's feelings or demands”.[2]

The hair is painted blonde and I can only assume that she is a true blonde, and that the title of the painting is not ironic, ensuring that she becomes an object of envy as well as being burdened with expectations of femininity and sexuality. The girl is looking out of the canvas at the viewer with a very guarded and weary expression. In fact the eyes are deep in shadow, almost accusing the viewer. The 'trade mark' ski ramp nose makes the face look almost like a caricature. The face looks young and old at the same time and may signify that she is extending her adolescence and the weary look is the strain of trying to extend the blonde myth or from having to live with it.

The breasts are natural, large and pendulous, and this deliberate exaggeration in the painting could connote several things. However, in this pose without the aid of the glamour photographer’s tricks, her breasts look more of a burden than an asset. In actual fact "True Blonde" isn’t from an old soft porn magazine, but stems from a photograph that she took of her friend from her school days after the birth of her baby. She just happens to have the upturned nose that has run throughout Yuskavage's work since the beginning.

I read the painting as surveying the burden of her own femininity; contrary to the nudes of traditional European painting, the nakedness is an expression of her own feelings, not a sign of submission to the viewer or buyer.

[1] Hall, Marcia B. Painterly Paradoxes (exhibition catalogue “Yuskavage”), ICA University of Pennsylvania 2000 p26

[2] Berger, John Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books 1972 p52

©blackdog 2009

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