A Painter Who Wants Art to Shock

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The painter Lisa Yuskavage, who grew up a truck driver’s daughter in what she describes as the “hardscrabble” Juniata Park neighborhood of Philadelphia, now lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with her husband, the artist Matvey Levenstein, and their cockapoo, Phillip. But for the past 10 years, Yuskavage, 57, has made the daily journey to a quiet corner of Gowanus, Brooklyn, where she keeps her studio, a cavernous 4,000-square-foot space in a low-rise brick building that she has cleaved down the middle with a 40-foot-long wall. She compares the two sides to the two halves of her brain. In the back room, spare and suffused with northern light, Dionysian Lisa lets her “id run amok” on the canvas; in the bookshelf-lined front room, Apollonian Lisa — “rational, logical, organized” — tends to the big business of being a successful contemporary artist. “I have to be pretty un-self-conscious when I’m working,” Yuskavage says one January afternoon. “And then later I become extremely conscious.”

Her latest show, then, is a bit of a plot twist. In 2018, Yuskavage mounted an exhibition of small paintings at New York’s David Zwirner gallery, and on a lark, included some landscape studies she had made over the years and stuffed away in a drawer. That show led to her latest museum exhibition, “Lisa Yuskavage: Wilderness,” a survey of the artist’s little-highlighted landscape practice, which goes up this month at the Aspen Art Museum before traveling to the Baltimore Museum of Art in August. The show includes a few seemingly earnest “Sunday painter”-style sunsets, but most of the other works openly toy with rigid notions of genre. There’s a series of early watercolors, “Tit Heaven” (1991-1994), in which Yuskavage camouflaged female body parts into dreamy deconstructed still lives so that breasts and noses rise like landmasses from surreal jumbles of flowers and fruit. She’ll also show a number of more recent large-scale paintings in which, inspired by the freewheeling cartoonish tableaux made by the abstract expressionist Philip Guston late in his life, she’s liberated her subjects, once trapped in tightly cropped close-ups, to wander in acid green fields and misty clearings. These can be read as mindscapes as much as landscapes, seemingly populated by elements of Yuskavage’s psyche: Her id-like nymphets bump up against censorious, finger-wagging brigades of peasant women and occasionally men — hapless tourists who have wandered into the wide shot. The survey’s newest work pulls back further: “Landscape Painting” (2019) depicts the interior of a room where a small framed pastoral scene hangs behind a busty woman, her nakedness amplified by her dangling necklace and lurid tan lines. She’s giggling, as if to say, “Don’t confuse this for a landscape painting!”

Yuskavage, ever mischievous, calls it “a shot across the bow.” Dressed in black, her hands smeared with paint, she sits in a dingy white armchair in the rear of her space, gazing at the canvas she’s been toiling over. Very large, very red, it depicts a studio scene, in which a shadowy naked male artist figure attends to a spot-lit female nude, possibly molding her into existence. The picture just clicked after months of giving Yuskavage trouble. “Painting isn’t like ice skating, where I’m trying to figure out how to do a triple axel,” she explains. “I have to make up a new step and then figure out how to land it.” As the elevated F train, almost close enough to touch, rumbled by her window, Yuskavage answered T’s artist’s questionnaire.

What’s your day like? How much sleep do you get and what’s your work schedule?

I sleep more or less eight hours and wake up around 7:30. We have this enjoyable routine where Matvey gets up first and makes us espressos, and my dog, Phillip, who sleeps at the foot of the bed pretends to keep sleeping. Then Matvey gets back into bed and Phillip — surprise! — wakes up. He runs over to Matvey and kisses him on both cheeks. It brings me so much joy.

We spend a little bit of time reading the newspaper. I do my exercise first thing in the morning, or I won’t do it. Pilates twice a week and yoga. It keeps me from hunching over, which I need because I stand to paint.

What is the worst studio you ever had?

Around 1990, Matvey and I lived on Ludlow Street. We call it the bad old days of Ludlow Street. I used the living room as a studio. Every day at 4 o’clock, which even now is when I really get going, the woman below us would start cooking. She used rancid cooking oil, and the smell was so overwhelming. I didn’t know what it was until later but it became the smell of my own anxiety. I also hated working at home because I had no privacy. I like to work alone. I don’t want anyone to see what I’m doing unless I want them to see what I’m doing.

What is the first work you ever sold and for how much?

I had a B.F.A. thesis show at Tyler and it did extremely well. My dentist came and bought a big painting. I was kind of amazed. The painting is of a girl sitting at the bottom of some steps with her legs spread, and you can see her underpants. In the distance is a man sitting on a couch, and the pattern on the underpants and the pattern on the wall behind the man’s head are the same. My dentist said, which I had not considered, “the guy looks like your father and that looks like you.” I turned bright red and then he handed me a check for $350.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

That is always changing because I don’t have a formula for how I work. That’s what keeps it interesting, and that’s what keeps it difficult.

How do you know when you’re done?

I know I’m done because the end is so much fun. I’m just tightening things, loosening things, and then suddenly there’s nothing left to do.

How many assistants do you have?

I have a number of people who work on my database and on my website remotely and part-time. And I have two assistants who work part-time: Lisa D. and Julie. Lisa D. was washing my brushes for seven years. In order to get this kind of color, you have to go through a lot of brushes. She got sick of it and was probably going to quit, so I said I’ll hire somebody to do the things you don’t want to do. I call Julie Lisa’s assistant. I don’t know when Julie will get sick of washing brushes.

What do you wear when you work?

I have a coat that my friend who is an oncologist gave me when he left Memorial Sloan Kettering. It’s his doctor coat. He’s a lot taller than I am, so it covers me really well. I have also learned that I can only wear these really flat Adidas sneakers, otherwise my feet and legs get tired. It’s a very unattractive look.

What do your windows look out on?

I have a 360-degree view. I like that I can see life going on: people riding the subway, a traffic jam on the Gowanus freeway, the air traffic coming in to LaGuardia, which looks like a string of pearls. There’s a tree that I’ve watched grow and that is now probably on its way to die. I’ve seen Downtown Brooklyn spring up. It wasn’t there; now it is. I get to see things but also be left alone.

What do you bulk buy with the most frequency?

Bounty paper towels. They’re a big part of my process. My watercolor students — early in my career I taught continuing education classes — used to laugh because they would try to buy another brand and I would say, “No, it really is the quicker picker upper.”

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