Lisa Yuskavage Opens 'The Brood' At CAM Today

By Rob Levy
In Culture

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis begins the new year with a robust group show offering fresh perspectives across several visual mediums. Beginning Jan. 15 and running through April 4, the breadth of these works illustrates CAM’s resolve in presenting invigorating artistic expression to the local arts community.

Included in the spring season are selected works from the preeminent figurative painter Lisa Yuskavage; the kinetic sculpture of Arcangelo Sassolino; new work by Tehran-based artist Tala MadaniArlene ShechetPeter SutherlandNed Vena, and The Propeller Group. This stunning group also features artwork created by through CAM’s ArtReach program.

Lisa Yuskavage

Lisa Yuskavage. Photo courtesy of CAM

Leading the way is “The Brood,” a survey featuring work by the New York-based figurative painter Lisa Yuskavage that chronicles her development as an artist while cementing her stature as a pioneering figurative artist with plenty of moxie.

Creatively, Yuskavage—who presents a wealth of information on the development of art history and movements—has found a kindred spirit in Max Beckman, who lived and taught here at Washington University. She believes her connection to the German Expressionist, and his figurative work in particular, called for her to come to St. Louis. She cites both Beckman and Francis Bacon as motivators for the primness of her work in relationship to the diptychs and triptychs exhibited.

Being known for making canvases loaded with layers that realistically capture the shapes of ordinary women may lead some to think of her primarily as a contemporary visual artist. However, as she is quick to point out, many aspects of her work stem from both a sense of intuition and a belief in how formal her work actually is in relationship to structure and form, creating a psychological paradox. Hence the pictorial relationship it gestates, resulting in paintings that provoke reflection.

Lisa Yuskavage. Photo courtesy of CAM

Lisa Yuskavage. Photo courtesy of CAM

Yuskavage commented on her interplay of contemporary and classical elements against each other and subsequent use of non-glossy, non-traditional subjects, something that may seem boorish to those unfamiliar with her methodology.

“I don’t think of my work as vulgar. But I draw from that as an American. I’m mirroring, in some way, the culture that I observe. America’s a very grand, loud place, yet there’s a lot of room for contemplative thought,” says Yuskavage. “I think my work and in particular this body of work is really about marrying or colliding a lot of different streams of energies and consciousness.“

This stunning effect is achieved by a technique called “symbiotic portraits,” or single-paneled paintings centering on variously posed figures, oftentimes intricately intertwined. Her compositional elements unfold on diptychs and triptychs to emphasize the liaison between the subject and the viewer.

Yuskavage is driven with an unwavering belief that her themes originate from a diverse range of life experiences, which inevitably influence her synthesizing of various motifs and breaking down societal barriers.  She elaborated further on this topic and the exchange it initiates with the onlooker.

Lisa Yuskavage. Photo courtesy of CAM

Lisa Yuskavage. Photo courtesy of CAM


“The way in which a holy painting gets put together with something that would appear to be drawn from something more low—like low culture and high culture—sort of bumping up against each other, is really a kind of a template for who I am.  I’m a girl from a working-class background who went to Yale and was able to be trained as an artist. (Thus) I have an experience of a lot of different things,” she says. “I came from a real city neighborhood and because Philadelphia has this wonderful museum, you can be a kid from nowhere and have a conversation with a great painting and I really think that span of experience is something I’ve always wanted to reflect in my work, which is very true to who I am and I also think to who a lot of my viewers are.”

Although “The Brood” travelled previously to the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, CAM reinterpreted it with the addition several new works, which allowed the museum’s iteration of the show to feel more new and unique. CAM’s Chief Curator, Jeffrey Uslip, believes one of these, “The Big Pile Up,” is a vital advancement in figuration.

“One thing I love about Lisa’s new painting is, for me, her work is always about the transformation of matter and here it seems like it’s about weight and gravity paired with this feeling of moving on from this world,” says Uslip. “There’s this real sense of transformation from life into death in this particular painting.”

Uslip expounded on why her new work is so important. “Every time I see a Lisa Yuskavage painting I feel a sense of urgency that they absolutely have to be made and I always think about the world that made these paintings possible. And I ask myself ‘what does feminism look like and what does patriarchy look like?’

From 1990-2016, that’s looked different and I feel like Lisa’s paintings allow the viewer to think through that world: the balance between misogyny and feminism.” He adds, “A lot of people put this on Lisa and ask ‘why is she doing this?’  I put it back on the viewer and I think each of these paintings says more about the viewer and the world you live in than necessarily Lisa. Lisa, for me, is an artist who is a conduit for who we are in this world and she has created singular visual vocabulary that lets us think that through.”


Although Yuskavage hasn’t been the focus of her own American museum show in over a decade and half, she continues to garner acclaim at home and abroad by continually pushing the boundaries and challenging tradition with her astute creative vision.

“The Brood” also presents a cogent argument for figuration’s importance and promise. Her bold and insubordinate body of work represents the human physique as a vessel for empowerment that retains sensuality while expanding her innovative work in the medium of contemporary portraiture.

CAM hosts Lisa Yuskavage for an artist talk at 11am on Saturday, Jan. 16.

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