Interesting Artworks: Déjà Vu by Lisa Yuskavage
Lisa Yuskavage’s Déjà Vu (2017) is a striking two-metre canvas and centerpiece of David Zwirner London’s current exhibition, Lisa Yuskavage (June 7 – July 28). The collection has an aesthetic coherence that acts to familiarise the viewer with Yuskavage’s visual language. The same colour palettes and models appear throughout the exhibition, though Yuskavage manages to achieve different effects with each reappearance.
Colour is the most noticeable element of the paintings, and is used to delineate ‘emotional spaces’. Heading through the exhibition, the viewer becomes aware of the plethora of ways it is utilized. In Ludlow Street (2017), a couple is portrayed in a green and red that slowly merges across their two bodies creating a unified whole. Whereas Déjà Vu uses colour to isolate. The nude female figure is depicted in saturated colours, distinguished in her brilliance. The neutral tones of the men around her isolate her further, and at the only point of physical contact, her fingertips, they leach her of colour. This makes the emotional distance and unequal power dynamic within the grouping immediately evident.
The distinction between the male and female figures is exacerbated further through a change in style. Exaggerated to the point of distortion, the bloated female figure is far from realistic and there is no attempt to conceal the artificiality of the work or the hand of the artist. Curiously, the men surrounding her undergo no such transformation and remain more lifelike. This discrepancy, though often simplified to a misogynistic view of women, plays an important role in the painting. The caricature-like exaggerations draw the viewer’s attention to the important elements of the image; the swollen breasts and abdomen define the figure as an object of sexual desire. The figure’s forward facing stance works to show her body to best effect, a display that is directed at the viewer. In contrast, her closed eyes leave us unacknowledged and give the impression that she is entirely self-absorbed. This allows the viewer to look freely without having to meet her eyes and thus recognize the agency or feelings of an imagined woman. The viewer’s voyeuristic gaze goes unchallenged, and it is unsurprising that feminist critics such as Amelia Jones have found issue with Yuskavage’s portrayal of women. Yet, the artist has yet to directly engage with these criticisms, leaving us to parse for ourselves why these women are depicted the way they are.
Yuskavage’s approach is hardly a radical departure from existing models in painting. Drawing on the art historical tradition of the nude, Yuskavage is fascinated by the techniques and compositions of earlier artists. Déjà Vu is not dissimilar in subject matter to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, a staple of sixteenth to eighteenth century art. The story is that of a group of voyeuristic elders who try to blackmail the innocent Susanna into their beds. Aspects of the story were given varying prominence over the centuries and the elders can range from accosting the young woman, to comically hiding in the bushes to watch her bathe. These paintings enjoy an unquestioned position in the canon of art history, while Yuskavage is often dismissed, her female figures characterized as ‘bimbos’.1
On the one hand, the difference in reception can be attributed to changing social attitudes. Older images can be acclaimed works of art while their misogynistic elements are dismissed as a result of less-enlightened times. Yet, contemporary paintings of naked women are widely accepted with significantly less controversy than Yuskavage’s oeuvre. Despite the broadening of the term ‘Art’, there is still a demarcation between elegant nudes and crass nakedness. Yuskavage falls foul of this distinction and the label ‘soft porn’ is leveled at her work.2 Despite the lack of explicitly sexual content and more clothing than the usual nude, by borrowing poses from pornographic magazines Yuskavage has alienated many critics. The conclusion of this train of thought seems bizarre, as it implies that the acceptability of a nude hinges on depicting small breast sizes and demure poses. While the female bodies depicted in Yuskavage’s work are distorted, it is not due to a misogynistic impulse. Instead, caricatures such as those in Déjà Vu are used to explore relationships in their entirety, and this includes uncomfortable and voyeuristic dynamics.