Evening At the Improv
I recently found myself engaged in a mild argument following the slide lecture and informal interview with renowned painter Lisa Yuskavage at the Brooks Museum. The issue: Yuskavage's refusal to engage in a discussion of gender issues raised by the racy content of her paintings.
The artist presented images of work dating from the early '90s to the present -- heaving bosoms and pursed lips of lounging seductresses cast in a soft-porn afterglow, which inflamed lust, cynicism, or dry wit from those present. A moderated interview that was supposed to follow the lecture never got off the ground. Instead, Yuskavage drifted into a protracted shtick of self-deprecating banter and intimate disclosures, punctuated by several well-timed gags from giddy audience members. But for anyone desiring a full-frontal reckoning of her use of negative stereotypes, the artist dismissed the subject with impunity.
The unapologetic explicitness of Yuskavage's canvases follows a current in culture and criticism that invokes the notion of women as libidinous, albeit sovereign, beings. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Tracey Emin's stained and disheveled My Bed, or the popular HBO series Sex In the City present gendered themes which are perhaps antagonistic to patriarchy but are more confessional than confrontational. Yuskavage's stereotypical blond bombshells, sporting baby-doll pouts and tan lines, are portrayed with tender empathy or, more importantly, in the words of University of Memphis painting professor Beth Edwards, "without irony."
"She gets such impish joy from pushing your buttons," says Darla Linerode-Henson of Yuskavage, referring to the artist's painted sexpots gazing banally into the eyes of the viewer, her eye-popping primary-color schemes, and even the artist's public demeanor. Yuskavage gushed about how her "fancy" art dealers, critics, etc. were obliged by their professions to repeat titles such as The Asspicker and Motherfucking Foodeater "over and over and over." Likewise, she projected a Vermeer alongside pages from a '70s-era Penthouse to mumbles and nervous giggles, asking viewers to recognize the "Dutch light" in Bob Guccione's cheesecake photos.
Of course, subversive behavior is infectious, and one fellow, sensing slackened mores, caught the artist off-guard with the compliment "Your tits have gotten a lot better over the years." Then a quavering voice behind me trumped that, to riotous laughter, with "When you're older, do you think you will still paint such perfect breasts?" Such was the tenor of the evening.
But a young woman's inquiry regarding pornography received a terse "I smell theory in that question" from Yuskavage consistent with her attitude of leaving ideology to the critics and not being pigeonholed by gender-rooted interpretations of her provocative imagery. And her position is fundamentally legitimate, barring one objection. The artist, brought to Memphis by the U of M art department with the generous aid of Delta Axis' Dr. James Patterson, asked as a condition of her visit that Dr. Katy Siegel accompany her to conduct the interview. Siegel, former faculty member at U of M, critic, and contributing editor of Artforum, is one of Yuskavage's ideological proponents and wrote the essay "Local Color" for the artist's monograph, which was published concurrent with her retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last year. For many, by not addressing the question she dared the audience to pose ("Why are you so obnoxious?") while courting her critic, Yuskavage seemed to be denying the elephant in the room.
Among the many attending the floor act at the Brooks was Allana Clarke, local curator of "Venus Envy," an event opening March 30th in both Memphis and St. Louis featuring visual art and performance created exclusively by women. The annual "celebration" began in 1999 in St Louis with a conviction that "women are primarily responsible for perpetuating culture and strengthening the arts in our world," says "V.E." founder and chairwoman Mallarie Zimmer. Memphis is the first satellite city to observe the event, and organizers plan to expand into other metropolises in the future. "V.E." in Memphis promises to be a treat, given the impressive lineup: Elizabeth Alley, Danita Beck, Brenda Fisk, Jean Flint, Anastasia Laurenzi, the aforementioned Linerode-Henson, Carol Harding McTyre, Annabelle Meacham, Leslie Snoke, Mel Spillman, Amanda Wood, and Nanci Zimmer.
Clarke assures that, despite the "mature audiences" disclaimer in the literature, the art in "V.E." is "not as provocative as Yuskavage's body of work." However, with the hoopla over the public art at the entrance to the new library and the Memphis-Germantown Art League's ridiculous hand-wringing over a nude, Clarke, a recent graduate of Rhodes College, wouldn't be surprised if some were "offended by the tampon cross or bra-wearing feline." Linerode-Henson's Emerge, exhibited at U of M's juried student exhibit earlier this year, is an anachronistic choice for the gender-conscious theme: a writhing length of articulated pipe, tipped by an orange glass bulb, dangling flaccidly from the wall.
Otherwise, says Zimmer, "V.E." doesn't have any axes to grind, insisting that the enterprise cannot be reduced to any "political, religious, or sexual [huh?] identity." Clarke adds, "Some of the work has strong feminine content, some work could be interpreted as sexual, and other pieces do not seem to relate to women at all, except that a woman produced them."
Such broad criteria beg the question: Does "Venus Envy" designate a theme so ubiquitous as to dilute any urgency that the provocative moniker implies? Go find out for yourself.
"Venus Envy," 960 S. Cooper (at the corner of Cooper and Young), 7-9 p.m. Saturday, March 30th.