In recent years, the artist has expanded her practice to include paintings of couples; her use of ‘emotional formalism’, in which colour and other interventions are applied to the composition to insinuate expression, finds new material. Yuskavage is widely associated with the re-emergence of the figurative in contemporary painting, drawing on pictorial traditions and conventions in order to both expand and subvert them. Her women in Déjà vu (at David Zwirner’s London gallery) are flagrantly nude and naked, oscillating between identities as sexual objects and agents respectively. I’m calling them Girlfriends and Goddesses.
It might feel surprising to discover that these pornographic paintings were made by a woman artist if their style wasn’t so iconic, echoes of them called up by Yuskavage’s name alone. But this isn’t a cut-and-dry case of WOMAN ARTIST REAPPROPRIATES MALE GAZE, or RECLAIMING FEMALE SEXUALITY. It’s more complicated, and a little darker than that. The exhibition’s title image, 'Déjà vu', features a classic Yuskavage figure, her posture and lighting indicative of a kind of preternatural vitality. In perfect technicolour, eyes closed, she stands at once poised and relaxed, loosely resting her hands on the heads of grey, spectral men around her. Is she dreaming them into being? She’s certainly not afraid; however ghostly they appear, they don’t seem to pose a threat. Rather, their grey hue denotes their supplementary status, and makes her all the brighter by comparison. Think of lighting, prominence and power, and move from this goddess to the woman depicted in ‘Housewarming’. She’s smiling blithely, posed like a pin-up: bare chest thrust forward, head cocked and toes pointed at the end of dangling legs, swinging off the counter top of your new kitchen and welcoming you home. If this were a photo, we’d say the lighting was off. The garden, visible through the window behind her, is flooded with colour, while she sits in shadow, catching only glints of sunshine on her left side. It feels like the result of a private photoshoot, an image a man might make of his girlfriend to keep in his wallet, mortified if anyone else ever saw.