Rosy and ripe, the pneumatic breasts and butts of Lisa Yuskavage’s female subjects continue to expand. Likewise, the manner in which they’re painted—tickled and licked, brushed lightly and gently smeared—grows ever more teasingly intimate. More surprisingly, Yuskavage’s latest paintings feature complex figurative groupings in panoramic landscapes, sometimes rendered at a scale that suggests academic history painting. At nearly 18 feet wide. Triptych (2011), the show’s centerpiece, summons comparisons with Rubens and Delacroix—and also, more closely, with such decorative mural cycles as those by Maxfield Parrish (whose luminous, Easter-egg palette is unmistakably present in this painting’s sunset pinks and turquoises) and the famous wall paintings by Howard Chandler Christy at New York’s Café des Artists, with their gamboling candy-colored nymphs. Yuskavage, too, likes to stir up appetites.
The central panel pf Triptych is dominated by a naked woman flung over a bench, knees up. Her shaved crotch is, pornlike, the painting’s focus; her body and head are invisible behind. But allegory is also at hand: advancing behind her, down from distant mountains and across sunlit plains, is a troop of sober-faced women in puritanical kerchiefs and ankle-length skits, bearing platters of wholesome fruits and vegetables. These armies of the righteous—surely they speak for political realities both within and beyond the art world – reappear in Afternoon Feeding (2011), marching with impassive determination toward an especially luscious babe. Blond bangs blowing over her face and a toothpick in her mouth, she offers luminous, jewel-toned orbs to a kneeling supplicant.
Languorously disposed in the great outdoors, Yuskavage’s titanic god-dresses invite a different kind of reading than the hothouse subjects of much of her previous work—the newly immersive environments deploy the language of public consumption rather than private relish. The exception, Fireplace (2010), presents two women indoors, the exposed flesh of the central figure dense and waxy white. Amid the pumped-up landscapes around it, this painting feels stifling.
The question of humor has been raised with Yuskavage’s work from the beginning; mostly, it seems to have been a matter of nervous laughter, perhaps now subsiding. It can be argued that the artist has herself contributed to her audience’s shock resistance, although it likely also derives from the unstoppable proliferation, in the public realm, of ever more varied sexual imagery, along with the increasing availability of radical cosmetic surgeries that tend to fictionalize physiognomy (a condition that several artists have explored.) if Yuskavage’s new paintings are not apt to fluster viewers, the do succeed in freshening her own field by opening it to the crosswinds of social narrative.