'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Monday, 17 May 2010

I’m struggling to understand what it is I find so moving about Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings. This Sunday afternoon I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about her work, I’ve trawled my reserves of art historical reference points, I’ve gone through the obligatory writers pass time of staring at the blank computer screen for hours followed by calling around all my friends and wondering what to cook for supper, but still I don’t know what it is about them that speaks to me so vitally. Given their subject matter, I’m finding my response to them even a bit concerning. Until eventually I remember that the way in is always through the wound.

The truth is I see something of myself in these paintings. That’s what I’m wanting to avoid - the unpalatable conclusion that these women remind me of myself. Bizarre, hyper-sexualised, uber-boobed girls, innocently playful and agonisingly destructive at the same time. Their devil may care performed immodesty; the coquettishly dishevelled hair; the complete absence of balance; the sense of nihilism and confusion and the fact that, however you dress it up, it always comes back to the same thing. And of course, those socks. Everybody mentions the socks. What is it about the socks?

Contemporary painting involving the female nude usually makes me want to poke my own eyes out. Centuries of male dominated art history, followed by decades of feminist backlash have rammed it, as a source of painterly inspiration, well and truly into the back of a very tricky pigeon hole. Many have tried to resuscitate it. Many have failed. Some dismally. Most don’t have the first idea what they’re grappling with. Yuskavage on the other hand, certainly does. Which makes this ballsy stuff.

Despite the fact that her canvases now sell for hundreds of thousands, she hasn’t come out of it completely unscathed. Controversy abounds. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Controversy in art, contrary to how it’s commonly understood, is not a sign of childish attention seeking, but of presenting things in a way that rejects delusions we’ve collectively and silently agreed to adopt in order to ease our trajectory through what would otherwise be a hellish traumatic existence. When you challenge people’s dearly held delusions they tend to get a bit cross. The more they see you might have a point the crosser they get. Ergo everyone loves to hate contemporary art.

Over and above the brilliantly managed subject matter and the ability to describe disconcerting truths about humanity and femininity, the other thing that stands out about Lisa Yuskavage is that she’s one of the extremely rare breed of twenty-first century painters who know how to paint. There’s no reason why artists these days should know how to paint. They’re not taught how to paint. Which is not necessarily such a bad thing as it might sound. Removing the default opens up possibilities. As a result we’ve got this wonderfully rich multi-disciplinary creativity going on, wherein nothing is beyond investigation. In creative terms it’s a very life giving place to be.

But of course there’ll always be people who want to paint. For them the absence of painting from the art college curricula generally means having to make a feature of painting badly. Which is well enough but it does leave a gap in the market. A gap that Lisa Yuskavage, and one or two others, have been able to fill. It also means that when one does stumble upon contemporary painting that’s technically skilled it’s a joy, despite the awareness that that joy is largely driven by a sense of the unexpected inherent in the discovery of painting that doesn’t need to make a deliberately confusing bluff-cum-double-bluff performance of its own lack of proficiency.

Bluster, feminist and otherwise, is thick on the ground. Her work has been described as everything from a “critique of prurient sexuality” to a “disingenuous peddling of soft-porn”. Yuskavage herself has been heard to remark: “I only load the gun.” The weapon with the most powerful ammunition though is not the female form, but that of the darkest recesses of the female psyche. The place few of us are prepared, with such honesty at least, to go.

Lisa Yuskavage
until end June 2010