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On View
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University
September 13 – December 13, 2015
Waltham, MA
On View
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
January 15 – April 3, 2016
St. Louis, MO

In 2015, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University organized The Brood, Lisa Yuskavage’s first solo show at an American museum since a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia fifteen years prior. Elegantly curated by Christopher Bedford, the Henry and Lois Foster Director of the Rose, The Brood was not a comprehensive survey but instead a sampling of works dating from 1991 to 2015. Though a chronological, complete account of the artist’s oeuvre will have to occur down the road, the occasion afforded the opportunity to see twenty-five of her paintings in the (tumescent, voluptuous) flesh and allowed new insights into her work. What emerged was a painter consistently engaged with the art of earlier epochs, an engagement that Yuskavage has used throughout her career to push herself in directions that are rarely predictable or schematic.

Installation view: Lisa Yuskavage: The Brood, The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, September 13 – December 13, 2015. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

The exhibition borrows its title from David Cronenberg’s 1979 cult horror film The Brood, in which an isolated mother undergoing experimental psychotherapy unleashes mutant children upon the world. Yuskavage’s Brood is her paintings, replete with hyper-stylized figures, many with engorged bellies, breasts, and butts, set against brightly hued monochromes or dystopian landscapes. The show opened with her Bad Babies, four paintings from 1991 of single figures set against intensely keyed monochromatic backgrounds. These works, along with her Tintoretto-inspired Bad Habits maquettes, are her prime objects. She uses these original figures as a basis for all subsequent works, like a Renaissance artist working out individual saints in preparatory studies before placing them into more elaborate istorie. These Bad Babies eventually grew up and learned to play with others.

One feat of the show is to reunite the prodigal offspring of Yuskavage’s brood.  Works that comprised parts of diptychs or triptychs are once again displayed ensemble. Early in her career, economic exigencies meant a lack of agency regarding where her works found homes. Take Day (1999 – 2000)and Night (1999 – 2000), created for the 2000 Whitney Biennial. The frontally posed, luminiferous woman in Yuskavage’s golden Day suggests the dawn of an incipient awareness within the diurnal figure peering towards her own breasts, while the main figure in Night, her angular right arm jutting out towards the viewer, conjures up a smoky nocturne in which her flimsy garment, as well as her bracelet, emphasize her nakedness, much like the accoutrements in Manet’s Olympia. Night’s sideways pose, menacing and closed off, contrasts with Day’s openness and relative naiveté. Of course, these paintings each has a degree of independence—Night was displayed solo in a 2014 group showat Brown University. And although the two are presently held in two different collections, they function better in tandem. Seen together, Day and Night join an art historical lineage stretching back to Michelangelo’s serpentine marble allegories in the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo, Florence.

Yuskavage would no doubt recognize that her diptych is the distant spawn of a Renaissance master. A formative experience in her education was seeing Giovanni Bellini’s sacra conversazione altarpiece in the church of San Zaccaria, Venice. Her encounter with the painting, which positions saints from different historical periods in communion with the Virgin and Child in an impossible, atemporal meeting, helped the young artist consider the importance of the use of space. It is a short mental leap from Bellini’s religious works to what Yuskavage calls her “symbiotic” portraits, wherein multiple figures populate a painting without necessarily interacting, or even acting, in narratively cohesive ways.

Lisa Yuskavage, Fireplace, 2010. Oil on linen, 77 1/4 × 65 × 1 1/2 inches. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

Fireplace (2010) presents two women in a dimly lit interior. One bends forward and covers the other’s ears as if protecting her from an external, imminent danger. The latter figure sits in a 180-degree straddle, her pudendum on full display behind the mounds of fruit stacked in the painting’s lower corners. Her body appears cold, marmoreal even, impervious to the heat emanating from the titular fireplace. The room is illuminated from the right despite the lambent flames at the left; the standing brunette’s right knee, nearest to the fire, remains in shadow. The setup is an inversion of Pliny the Elder’s description of a painting of “a boy blowing a fire, which throws a light upon the features of the youth,” or the paintings of Gerrit van Honthorst, known as Gherardo delle Notti, a Utrecht follower of Caravaggio who introduced torches as an artificial source of light to the tenebristic scenes that proliferated in the early seicento. In Yuskavage’s surreal interior, the lack of internal logic between fire and figures corresponds to the uncanniness of the women themselves. 

Even subverted, the early modern period has been a consistent reference point for Yuskavage, an anchor of propriety that prevents her sensational subject matter from becoming unmoored. Marcia Hall’s seminal 1991 Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, in which the author delineates four modes of sixteenth-century coloration (sfumato, unione, chiaroscuro, and cangiante),fundamentally altered how Yuskavage approached color early in her career; Hall later returned the favor by contributing an essay to the artist’s ICA Philadelphia catalogue.

It was a welcome coincidence, then, that across town from the Rose, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum mounted the first exhibition in this country devoted to the Venetian-born painter Carlo Crivelli, active in the Marches region in the late quattrocento.1 The show’s antechamber reunited four of the six panels of Crivelli’s Porto San Giorgio altarpiece, which had been sawed apart in 1803 and disseminated in different collections worldwide. The Saint George panel in Gardner’s collection was the first Crivelli painting in America, purchased on the advice of Bernard Berenson. The simultaneous occurrence of a Crivelli show, reuniting members of his brood centuries after their creation, and The Brood at the Rose, created a synergistic feast for fans of painting in the Boston region. Perhaps just as much as with Bellini’s sacre conversazioni, Yuskavage’s dumbshows share an affinity with Crivelli’s devotional panels, including the inclusion of often-cryptic vegetables, fruit, and other flora as signifiers, but more importantly in the idiosyncratic figures, limbs stretched and exaggerated, that occupy a concurrently remote and immediate position with the viewer. There is an aloofness to their figures, like their emotions and intentions are just outside our ken. The disconnect we might feel with Crivelli’s figures can be explained partially by the centuries between their creation and our reception. For Yuskavage, it is precisely those centuries of history—practice and theory—that imbue her works with a potent brew of familiarity and strangeness.

  1. Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice, October 22, 2015 – January 25, 2016, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA.


Jeff Fraiman


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2016

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