The recent show by Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner in New York consolidates her work over the past ten years or so, underlines certain personal limitations in subject or theme but more generally suggests a loss of momentum or stagnation to a wider trend that arose in the mid 90s.
Yuskavage, along with Yale classmate John Currin emerged as part of a swing away from Neo-Expressionism to a more refined, less bombastic painting. Work dealt less with ponderous metaphor and allegory than with satire upon the iconography of everyday pictures, upon stock genres of portrait, fashion display, romance illustrations and soft porn. Unlike Pop Art the work was not concerned with the way printing influenced such pictures, but with aspects of pose, facial expression, setting and props. The project for painting here was really to point to these elements through the resources of painting, through caricature, parody and pastiche.
Partly the excitement came from this new direction for painting, a recovery of pictorial resources and a new way of treating the genres we encounter around us, and partly from a more light-hearted, more sophisticated approach than preceding styles. The down-side quickly became a focus on virtuosity or versatility every bit as crippling as the Neo-Expressionist’s indifference or brutality toward painting. The temptation was to flaunt traditional technique in the service of banal genres, to tease differences to the trivial or to just repeat the same joke more heavy-handedly.
So Yuskavage’s passive and voluptuous dolls remain imprisoned in their comfortable homes, at leisure or isolated in a pastel mist. Similarly, Currin’s more versatile drawing settles for the domestic good life of advertisements or dramas, dresses them with old master finesse and renews them only so far as these sources remain vivid. Currin initially seemed to take a cue from Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings in the early 90s, a collection of naïve works that often reworked just such genres with amusing insouciance. Currin effortlessly supplied that in composition and proportion, alongside deft and knowing detail. In many ways these are still his most testing works. Shaw, surprisingly, is content simply to collect such specimens, his own work remaining more narrowly focussed on sub-cultures. But the point remains that neither the resources of painting technique, nor the extent of genres is necessarily exhausted by these applications.
In other words, after ten years the formula is looking a little stale, and while every artist is entitled to limitations, to confine and consolidate their achievements, the focus upon the private life, on pleasure and leisure is puzzling given the range of genres in advertising, dramas and other information. So the style more generally is in a rut. While Yuskavage and Currin trade in techniques the envy of a commercial illustrator, others have settled more perfunctorily for converting the figure to child or doll-like proportions, an enormous head and especially eyes, retaining a mature if diminished body, often provocatively conflating adult and child, as in some of the 90s work of Rita Ackermann, Nicky Hobermann and Robin Lowe. More recently, Takashi Murakami’s anime-inspired figures take up graphic variants and the mannered figures of Brian Calvin trade in similar proportions although ignore overt sexuality for adolescent narcissism. And currently, Liu Ye at Sperone Westwater offers demure variation.
None can quite plunder painting’s traditions any further, nor address other genres we take for granted. The style answers some questions for painting, only to raise others.