have to admit that the first time I encountered
Lisa Yuskavage's paintings I was taken aback.
Some of her art bordered on shocking while the
rest merely defied explanation. Her female nude
with its soft pastel color backing left an uneasy
feeling. What was she trying to say?
I prepared for this interview, I thought I would
be dealing with the stereotypical feminist—someone
who viewed each painting as a miniature manifesto.
But as I talked with her, she proved to be as
difficult to categorize as one could imagine.
In fact, she often offered baffling responses
to my questions. Why did her painting Blonde
(1995) have no nose? She explained that it was
merely part of a triptych that was based on a
palette of Laura Ashley colors. Well, why do some
of her paintings have obscenity-laced titles?
Besides expressing an interest in the vulgar,
she just likes the way it sounds: "I really
love the way if you're really good at cussing,
it's kind of poetry."
the interview wore on, however, things began to
make sense; she made a good case for her art.
By the time we finished, I understood not only
her paintings, but her emergence as one of the
more important artists of this decade. The following
are selections from our conversation.
said in other interviews that you paint from the
"male gaze," "painting paintings
that take the point of view of a man." You
stated: "I decided to make paintings that
would be the dumbest, most far-out extension of
what I was trying to say [about] male desire."
Is that still an accurate description of your
I said that about five years ago. I kind of regret
it because I've changed what I believe. It became
clear to me that my work's really not about the
"male gaze" but about my own gaze. That
comment has been stuck in my face a lot. People
have made that concept very boring.
I said it I was really struggling. I changed my
paintings at that point. Women had always been
the subject of my work, or in some instances it
was me more but at the time it was hard to do
what I needed to do from the point of view of
just being Lisa. I was taking on another persona.
I was young, starting out and very unsure if what
I was doing was right. So I really needed to be
more definite. If I could rewrite it, because
the "male gaze" has become a bullshit
word, I would say that I was taking on the character
of a very particular man, like Dennis Hopper in
Blue Velvet. I was taking as much
of a character like that and as specifically as
that. I was trying to torture the painting a little
bit and it was actually kind of fun. It was more
fun to do that than to be me because I'm much
more timid and respectful. In a way, it was a
little like a bedroom game. I found this incredible
liberation in doing that, but I don't need to
do that as strictly now. Today I free associate
like the wind. I just bang around. As me, I'm
much more confident doing various things.
I'm not afraid of what the "male gaze"
means. I've gotten a lot of shit for it. If people
don't like what I'm doing nothing anybody says
will make it better. I don't understand why people
can't just look at them as paintings. I always
find it amazing that when as a young person I
looked at paintings of Venus and Adonis, I never
said as a young feminist, "Well, why doesn't
she get clothes?" I just looked at the painting
and was like, "Fuck me, this is amazing."
1995, you painted one of your most arresting images,
Rorschach Blot. It depicts a naked woman with
no nose and her legs spread open. What were you
trying to say with this painting? Was it that
men objectify women?
would have to say no. I don't know what the message
is per se. When I did that painting, I was trying
to finish a body of work that I was doing in response
to earlier work. I had painted these female backs
that were very demure and I realized I had made
this body of work that said, "Don't look
at me." I began to realize that I had manipulated
my audience. In a way, I was so insecure about
what I was doing. I was so unprepared. I was quite
young to be showing in 1990. I truly had mixed
feelings about having a show and, as a result,
I made a body of work that responded to that—one
where I turned the figures around. I suppose I
was protecting myself.
the Rorschach Blot (1995) a few
years later I had continued to work through the
process trying to turn the figure around. It was
the finale of the back. The end of "Don't
look at me." It was the most far out extension
of what I would be afraid to show. And it's not
just the subject of the painting. Lots of people
have made paintings where a woman is standing
with her legs spread. I think what's distinctive
about this painting is that it's in such bad taste.
It's the way it's painted. It's the kind of image
it is. There are lots of messages in that painting
that are about vulgarity. I was trying to put
an end to something and move on to something else.
It was actually my first turnover, and after that
I made paintings like Bad Habits
(1995) that are much more fluid.
was very rigid up until the Rorschach Blot.
I would tell my friends "I feel like I'm
painting my last painting." "Why?"
"Well, look at it. It's awful. It's obnoxious.
It's a ridiculous painting. I'm not even sure
I want to take ownership of this painting."
Sometimes you have to make certain paintings as
a way of honestly moving through your work. You
have to make it to get to the next thing. I didn't
really want to make that painting. It sounds goofy,
but I really had to finish with as much clarity
as possible. Clarity is what ultimately saves
a painter. Because we live in such a smoky world,
you've got to make your thought processes as concrete
as possible. So that's why I did that.
of your art—whether because of its style,
subject matter or titles—demands a response
from the viewer. What reaction are you looking
for? Aren't you making some kind of moral statement
in these paintings?
love Greek myths, fables and fairy tales, and
they always have a moral. I'm sure everything
does have a moral. What's great is that sometimes
the morals are really twisted. You can take a
moral out of anything. The morals of my painting
are whatever any particular viewer would see in
it. I believe in the intelligence of my viewers.
Whatever they think the painting is, that's what
it is. Part of the reason I called that painting
Rorschach Blot is because I fully
believe that when you look at a painting, you
see whatever you want to see. It's not a passive
object. It's an active object and made active
by the viewer. I leave lots of treats in my paintings
that have gone undiscovered by myself and unexplained
by myself for my viewers because that's the kind
of painting that I most want to do. They have
a sense of drama and humor, and they would never
attempt morality. There's no finger wagging.
there may be the sense that this whole thing started
by a failure of morals. I really hate art that's
whatever you want it to be but, in a sense, I'm
trying to say something without making it sound
like that. A lot of people are afraid to relax
with my paintings, have fun looking at them and
think whatever they want to think. But I say,
how the toothpick got in one of my paintings,
Blonde with Diapers and a Toothpick (1994),
I don't know. I thought it was kind of funny when
I saw it. For some reason that struck me and I
did it. And because it's a figurative painting,
I had to decide what it was. So I said, "Is
it a cigarette? No, to me it looks like a toothpick."
What do diapers and toothpicks have to do with
one another? I have no idea. People could come
up with the dopiest explanation for it or the
richest explanation for it and they would probably
both be right. I don't really know why I put it
in there. It just seemed right.
do you respond to viewers that read a feminist
statement in your work?
think that there's a lot of insidious power and
pride in these women. As to the whole feminist
question: I certainly believe in it as far as
I believe in any civil rights question. I want
these things to seem powerful and women are really
powerful in some way. I want them to be powerful
rather than victimized. Now somebody could throw
a painting up to me and say, "What about
this one that looks like a sad sack?" Well,
when I was doing that I was trying to victimize
her. I'm speaking now from the point of view of
1998. I've always worked from a really particular
point of view at any given time. I'm speaking
from the point of view of what I'm doing now.
most recent painting is called Good Evening
Hamass (1997). That's a freaky painting.
You tell me what it means. I moved my studio and
it looks out over the Hudson River. I see the
sunset every single day and that's as much as
I know about it. The sunsets over New Jersey with
all the pollution are just magnificent and I wanted
to paint a painting with a sunset. So that's where
the painting came from; the desire to paint a
sunset. Everything else came out of those sort
of associations. I don't know where her big ham
ass came from per se. It was just a vehicle for
the sunset to reflect on. That's how she got a
ham ass. Because it looked like a ham ass. It's
like a psychology test. What does it look like?
It looks like a ham ass. I thought that was funny
because there are people who have ham asses. I'm
probably one of them. Someone said these just
seem to be visual spectacles, and I think in some
way it's true. Especially with that one. You just
look at it going, "What kind of thing am
I looking at?"
recent years, people have tried to hold art accountable
for particular crimes. For instance, John Grisham
sued Oliver Stone over a friend's death supposedly
caused by Stone's Natural Born Killers.
Even though you deny a specific moral message
in your work, are you concerned that someone would
apply meaning to your art that could lead to the
objectification of women or merely provide titillation?
have to be completely honest here and say that
painting no longer affects anybody's morals any
longer. Because of things like MTV, painting is
so colorless in our society right now. Besides,
the number of people that are actually going to
see my paintings is low. So on one level, I dismiss
the question of whether or not I'm going to turn
anybody around or give anybody bad morals based
on what I do. I very much approach painting with
a lack of self-importance.
a good reason why some artists are turning to
movies. They know that's where the public is.
The public is not in art areas. The public is
not looking at things.
true. Artists have a limited audience.
not only a limited audience. I love painting but
I also go gaga in a movie theater—even a
bad movie. When you're sitting there, it's such
an amazing experience. It's power. If I was doing
what I do in the movies, I would take your question
more seriously. But I think people look at a painting
and know that it's a handmade thing. How many
kids would really want a handmade Christmas present?
It has a very different presence in the world.
There was a time when painting could make people
believe there was a God. That really doesn't exist
any longer. The hoopla caused by what I do always
surprises me because painting seems so ineffectual.
The reason I do my work is that I always expect
it to be private. Some people say, "Why do
you show it?" Well, because there's a sharing
involved in making work. You do want people to
look at it.
not Andre Serrano. The difference between a photographer
and a painter is that a photographer has to put
that crucifix in the pee-pee in order to take
a picture of it. A photographer has to ask a woman
to spread her legs and then take a picture. That
person was there. Painting, on the other hand,
is fiction. It must be understood like that. I
know, of course, that there are people who don't.
The kind of fiction that has rock music attached
to it is much more powerful than anything I could
ever do. When somebody looks at a video on MTV
or a movie, it's pretty clear what's hitting them.
With my stuff it seems so mixed up. It's intended
to be. It might sound like I'm a little bummed
out about the lack of power in painting, but I'm
not. I've always known you don't change the world
through painting. I think that's part of the reason
why I allow myself to take such liberties.
artist is influenced by the painters that have
come before them. What painters have influenced
and Manet: the two impressionists/realists. They
were the most intellectual painters of their time.
And I always liked the bad boy aspect of both
of them. You could always sense their rebellion.
I always liked how Degas seemed conservative and
yet was really twisted; I was also very affected
by his misogyny. I never really thought of them
as misogynistic until I was told they were misogynistic.
And I'm not a hundred percent sure they are. You
don't paint something for years that you hate.
The monoprints that Degas did of prostitutes are
so weird, wild and gross. There were girls douching
and men watching them—all this kind of deviant
loved these things and I wonder what they say
about me. It pretty much affected how I became
interested in what I was doing. It told me that
it was okay. I question what I do all the time.
I used to ask friends of mine that were professional
feminists, "Is there such a thing as misogyny?"
Misogyny means woman hating. I'm not a woman hater.
There are certain women I hate and certain men
I hate and certain children I hate. I guess that
sounds like a misanthrope, not a misogynist. What
does it mean if a woman wants to paint through
that same lense, to do a form of female misogyny?
This woman I knew once said, "Well, so many
women hate their bodies and hate themselves. They
walk around saying 'Oh my God, I need a facelift.
I need this. I need that. I'm not beautiful. I
weigh too much. I weigh too little.'" We
talked about how that kind of self depreciation
is so common with women. A lot of women are just
too involved to admit it. How many women do you
know that love their bodies openly? They don't.
Men don't think about it as much. When they get
a tire they just go to a gym. There's no self-flagellation.
Women flagellate themselves something fierce.
I think that's internalized misogyny, a self-hatred.
I was very interested in that at one time. I don't
really think about it any more.
painters that influenced me the most were Giovanni
Bellini, Giorgione and the Venice School. They
were magnificent with their use of light, color
and atmosphere. I love Italian Renaissance painting
and Northern Renaissance painting. I have such
impeccable bad taste. I grew up in a blue collar
neighborhood. I know all the trash. That's why
I included some of the bad language in my work.
I want to marry both aspects of myself: poor white
trash girl loves Italian Renaissance—something
as stupid as that. I've looked at zillions of
paintings. Those are the ones that drive me the
most. There's the legend of Giorgione's The
Tempest (1508). It's the first painting
cited historically that had no known content.
You'd be asking the same questions of Giorgione
that you've been asking me. "Well, what's
the moral here?" In The Tempest,
you have a naked lady breastfeeding
her baby and there's a tempest coming with a thunder
clap in the background, and there's this soldier
that seems alien to her on the other side of the
river. What's he doing there? What does it all
mean? How does it all come together? I've done
a lot of research about that painting and there's
a lot of speculation. Before that, paintings always
had very particular morals, very particular stories
to tell: Christ was crucified. Christ rose from
the dead. Or a very particular allegory. This
painting had none of that which was very interesting
and important to me. It's like a dream—you
don't know why but it's compelling. That's really
where I get my permission from.