lisa yuskavage joined grindr to prep for her new show of rainbow nudes
As her new exhibit of stunning trippy-hippie paintings opens at David Zwirner in New York, Lisa Yuskavage gets into the playful gender bending of her inspirations.
For the past 25 years, Lisa Yuskavage has painted women. Cartoonishly voluptuous, hypnagogic, usually nude women that seem aware of the viewer's presence, recalling Barbara Kruger's famous feminist work, Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face). "It's weird, only painting women, right?" she laughed last week at the gallery. Though recently, men have been moving from background figures in her paintings to main subjects. In her latest exhibition at David Zwirner, the painting Hippies, showing an array of multicolored characters fanning out behind a female deity, is the center of a show that features both male and female hippies, as a tribute to the community of adults she was surrounded by as a child. "I try to never edit anything out of my work," Lisa said.
This is the first time men are prominently featured in your paintings. Why did you feel like now was the right time?
It's the first time they're stars in my paintings, but men have been in my work before. 25 years ago, I made paintings to go along with my "Bad Baby" painting series, the first paintings I ever showed. I recently pulled out these two paintings of boys that I had started 25 years ago and remembered how I was tempted to paint them. But when I think of the boys I painted back then compared to the ones in the show now, there wasn't as much empathy.Towards men?I have plenty of empathy towards men. I meant there wasn't as much empathy towards those images. They just weren't as good. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I didn't grow up with any brothers, or maybe it was just that I didn't have this insight I kind of needed. Over the years, the men that popped in my work were always very specific characters, like travelers, and that made me happy. I thought of them as journeymen, and over time they journeyed to the front of the canvas.
So it was a subconscious journey.
There's an emotional narrative that runs through the work over a long period of time. I was listening to many more male vocalists. Ordinarily I would listen to Nina Simone or Billie Holiday or Melody Gardot. Then I was listening to Johnny Cash one day, "Hurt," the Nine Inch Nails cover, and I started to feel like I was in his body, channeling him. And then more things started to happen. I made a Grindr account, because I thought it was so amazing that men could do that. I'm very committed to my husband, but I love my gay friends and I love their liberty. I totally get why gay marriage is important to those who want it, but I also have some gay male friends who are like, "Yeah, but we love being able to be promiscuous." I've always found that wild character, the kind that would show up in a Caravaggio painting, very interesting. I was preparing for this work and trying to inhabit it with more emotional fullness in order to do it in a way that would be satisfying to me. Some of that involved being an actress and playing a man.
I feel like a lot of people would call your work dreamlike, but it's actually not at all.
Well, "dreamlike" in the sense that it doesn't make sense in this world. Although I think we can get to a different consciousness in real life. I'm not a drug-user—I'm more of a wine-drinker—but I think there are these moments in life when things do get intense and trippy for real, even naturally. I don't want to make surrealistic paintings that are deliberately weird.
I love the idea of animus, that anything can take on persona. That was always really amazing to me, that formal language could take on persona. I think in order to paint well, you have to believe this stuff could be enchanted, that the color gray could be an enchanted thing. It's not just paint—you have to believe in can turn into something.
I can't tell you how many times I was told this is not the right thing to do. As a twenty-something, as a thirty-something, as a forty-something, there was a lot of resistance to my work.
Did they think it wasn't serious enough?
All kinds of things. You'd have to ask them, but in terms of identity politics, they thought I wasn't the "right person" to be making this work. I got the whole, "You better be gay." A lot of people feel that their experiences aren't valid enough.You can't ask for permission to be an artist. That's probably one of the ways that coming from a working-class, tough neighborhood in Philadelphia—Juniata Park—helped me. I think that if I was a proper girl who came from a proper place, I wouldn't have been able to withstand the "no"s. I had the desire to not make my art about giving people a tray of buttermilk biscuits just to feel yummy and then they could just forget about me. And I often felt, as a younger artist, there was this constant fight to not be pushed into, "Why don't you just make nice paintings?" Because I could paint well. "Why do you have to put this ugly content in? You're so talented!" And I'd say, "I'm willing to be broke, but I want to do what I want to do. I don't care if you don't like what I do—I wish you did, but I don't care."
Wasn't there a period where you tried to be more demure in your paintings?
Yes, I was deeply depressed. I almost killed myself. It was my Anna Karenina moment. Except I managed to rip away, I didn't go under the train.
That one year you took a break from making art—in 1990—how did you support yourself?
I lived in a railroad apartment with my boyfriend at the time, now my husband. That was like $500 a month and we had a studio in there so I didn't need a lot of money. And we ate at home all the time. We were doing the 1990 version of what people do in deep Brooklyn now. Ludlow Street was like Bedford-Stuyvesant. It changed really quickly after that but we had mice and rats and bugs. It was pretty gross. I was like, "This is hell." I thought if things did not change by the time I was 40 then I was going to leave New York. Not that I would've stopped being a creative person, but you don't have to be a creative person in this place. Creative people are everywhere.
Text Hannah Ghorashi
All images, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner