"I believe that it is important to be wrong as an artist and even to embrace it". An interview with the American artist, Lisa Yuskavage, on her new body of work at David Zwirner Gallery.
Lisa Yuskavage is renowned for her sexually explicit paintings of female figures with sometimes childlike, manga style faces striking provocative poses. Her work is vibrant, full of bravura, lavish and there is a fine balance between seriousness and playfulness.
As the subject matter of her work the American artist chose misogyny which she considers a subject that is not often depicted in painting. Her representation of women in her paintings has upset people. In this interview, she recalls when she first started to make paintings: nobody wanted them. “Nobody came up to me and said: “I would love it if you started making paintings of girls in a pink environment with their pubic hair showing – wouldn’t that be amazing?”
Now, 30 years later, her work is in high demand and she presents an exhibition of new paintings at David Zwirner Gallery in London. There is much to discover in these paintings as they are incredibly rich in detail. For instance, in terms of the composition, the leg of the girl mirrors the pole of the side table (Lovers); the light seeping through the holes in the wood panels (Lovers) or the reed fence (The Art Students), or witty like the erect nozzle of the watering can in combination with the apples in front of it. (The Art Students)
After the press viewing, I had an animated conversation with the New York-based artist. We discussed her shift in colour palette, a painting that she had to abandon for the show, trying to ‘listen’ to the painting and how important it is to be wrong as an artist.
200%: The hyper-sexualised figures in this show are not depicted in monochrome paintings with a supersaturated palette, but in a more subdued, grey palette. What made you to decide to make the change?
Lisa Yuskavage: Working in a non-saturated palette with grey and colour has become an obsession for me. I worked in those supersaturated palettes because I was not able to work with a grey palette in a way that felt new and fresh to me. After many years of really not knowing how to do it, I feel that I have been able to play with it in a manner that is exciting for me.
It is funny. After we installed the show here I went to view the Picasso show ‘Minotaurs and Matadors’ in London. It was an amazing show and is exactly what I’m interested in at this moment.
In this body of work, Picasso seems to be doing less rather than more. In the paintings he left the charcoal of the drawing exposed and added not so much paint. After 30 years of painting, what is interesting for me, and hopefully for the viewer, is to do less and show more of the process of painting. The paintings in this show are not completely finished and by leaving threads open, I’m creating space for the audience to engage with the paintings.Lisa Yuskavage: What is interesting for me is to do less and show more of the process of painting.
My pastels and watercolours have informed my oil paintings on canvas quite a bit. With pastels you don’t draw on white paper but on a toned piece of paper. The piece of paper is your middle colour, so you use a darker or lighter pastel to tone up or to tone down. Painters usually work straight onto a white canvas, but I thought, what if I put a light wash of colour on the canvas so the canvas becomes like a piece of pastel paper.
In this body of work there is always a section in the painting that has been left unpainted. For example, in ‘Stoned’, the bare chest of a hippie girl is, in essence, bare. It is unpainted except for a very light wash of colour. So nude and bare become part of his body of work. Doing less becomes almost the subject of these paintings and I really enjoyed playing with the unpainted parts on the canvases.
Another example is ‘Nude Bra’. Ladies usually have a nude bra in their wardrobe. The only thing left unpainted in this painting is the bra – everything else is painted.
‘Nude Hippie’ is another example where you play with nude and bare. You have drawn the girl’s knickers just in outline with graphite on the canvas. This makes you wonder whether she is wearing knickers as they are the same colour as her bottom.
Do you find it, in general, easy or difficult to finish a painting?
It is pretty obvious to me when a painting is finished. Usually it is finished when every single thing that I want to do [in the painting] is happening. At this point in my painting life, I’m pretty clear about what I want.
When I was younger, though, I had to fight with the canvas, possibly due to do my own lack of clarity. Now I do something, sit back and wait until I know what the next step is. I really try to ‘listen’ to the painting. I’m very attentive to what I see and what I have done and if something new presents itself I decide whether or not it is interesting.Lisa Yuskavage: Paintings have a mind of their own and I have to ‘listen’ to that. I can’t bully them.
Having said that, there was one painting that was supposed to be in the show that I wasn’t able to finish. It was a red, saturated monochrome painting and it was meant to be the outlier in the show. I started it, but I couldn’t inject any ‘life’ into it – it would not breathe. I was getting nervous, thinking, “Oh my God, I’m supposedly to be someone who knows what they’re doing here”, but I could not pull this one off. Paintings, though, have a mind of their own and I have to ‘listen’ to that. I can’t bully them. That is probably the reason why I like to work alone. If I’m trying to build up a relationship with the paintings, I have to be sensitive to what they are trying to tell me. I was, though, committed to the idea of the painting and I started again. I changed the drawing slightly to give myself a different beginning but the same thing happened; it would not breathe. I had to abandon it. Some people who saw it said, “Come on, that is such a good painting” But to me, it was a corpse.
Is it an instinctual feeling being able to feel if a painting has ‘life’ in it?
Yes. I know when I’m doing something right because suddenly I can ‘hear’ the painting take a breath and I know I’m doing the right thing. Even if every critic and every colleague said – and I have had this happen in my life – “This is terrible, you’re wrong, don’t do it!” My reaction is “But it took a breath and it made me laugh”.
When everyone says you’re wrong, do you feel as though you are on to something?
I believe that it is important to be wrong as an artist and even to embrace it. What I mean by that; let’s look at what it means to be right. You’re right when you put your left shoe on your left foot and right shoe on your right foot. You’re right when you’re obeying the order and you behave normally [in society]. As an artist in your studio, though, there are different rules. If you are doing something right it means it has already been done and you’re performing. Artists have to be anti-social in their studios by doing something that is unwanted. When I first started to make my paintings nobody wanted them. They weren’t objects that people requested. Nobody came up to me and said, “I love if you make paintings of girls in a pink environment with their pubic hair showing – wouldn’t that be amazing? So when I did that, people were saying, “What the fuck are you doing? This is weird! Why would you want to do that?” I believe that if you’re doing your job as an artist, you’re making something that wasn’t wanted but then it becomes an inevitability – it had to be there. The work hasn’t existed before. There is no one doing what you have been doing and now we need it.
Again, this show is an expression of how you love to paint. It is delightful to observe how you painted the light falling on the bodies of the figures, the contrast between dark and light and how you combine vibrant colour with grisaille. Also, the work is cohesive and the shift in the colour palette is an exciting direction in your oeuvre. You were seeking to explore one idea in depth and discover its facets?
Yes, I believe you have to be pretty tough with a painting, it can’t get away from you. It can’t be red, green and blue at the same time. Paintings are about what they’re not about. Make a decision and then really study it and see where it can lead. I think this body of work is really an expansion of one idea and it keeps on going and going and going. At a certain point, you have to decide when are you going to knock it off. I don’t want to repeat myself. I have to assess and see if there is one painting that becomes the culmination of the idea. I have to figure out whether or not that happened here.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
-Déjà Vu, 2017, Oil on linen, 80 x 80 inches (203.2 x 203.2 cm), Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London
-The Art Students, 2017, Oil and charcoal on linen, 80 x 80 1/8 inches (203.2 x 203.5 cm), Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London
-Stoned, 2016, Oil and graphite on linen, 16 5/8 x 15 3/4 inches (42.2 x 40 cm), Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London
-(Nude) Hippie, 2016, Oil and graphite on linen, 48 x 40 inches (121.9 x 101.6 cm), Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London
-Lovers, 2016, Oil on linen, 80 x 80 inches (203.2 x 203.2 cm), Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London