A new level of ambition in art by 3 women


Fall tends to be a great time for the New York art world. The weather can be great. There is a buzz at the start of the school year as galleries reopen, sometimes at new addresses, generally with new shows. Even the fact that art fairs are arriving too early this year, during Labor Day week, hasn’t put the brakes on things.

As usual, much of a new season’s buzz comes from gallery solos that reveal individual artists making changes and taking new risks. Going to galleries is, on the one hand, looking for such signs of growth and the cultural optimism they engender.

Three of the most exciting gallery exhibitions currently showcase the latest efforts of well-known artists: Lisa Yuskavage in Chelsea, Mickalene Thomas on the Upper East Side and Alison Elizabeth Taylor at TriBeCa. We can see what’s most important on their minds, as evidenced by markedly different and improved work, fresh out of the studio, often completed during the pandemic. All of this makes them very satisfying to visit and reflect on, especially in the way they treat the lives of women.

I used to respect more than love Lisa Yuskavage’s work. Her eroticized Kewpie dolls and porn tropes shrouded in a monochromatic, sugary atmosphere effectively reflected the male inability to see women as anything other than sex objects, as well as the damage that perspective inflicts on both seer and sight. Yet the points made by the artist often seemed mostly conceptual, and the oily surfaces and exaggerated light seemed artificial, unpleasant.

Without changing much, the more recent paintings from Yuskavage to Zwirner are much better. His style has improved. His paintings are more empty; the objects are still mysterious but there is a bit of kitsch. Color, light and space are more refined and translucent, and sometimes the accompanying shadows add momentary abstractions in the background. The subjects are more mature; we see the women in the studios looking serious. References to European art abound. The same is true of the examples of Yuskavaggio’s earlier paintings, present in the backgrounds of some paintings as markers of his growth.

One of the best paintings is “Yellow Studio”, which depicts a lonely seated woman bathed in yellow light. She looks at the sole of her foot in the pose of “Boy With Thorn” (also known as “Spinario”), the famous Greco-Roman sculpture; on her head she wears a medieval wimple familiar from artist paintings from Bruegel to Vermeer. If the women are scantily clad, the men are naked and especially weaklings.

In the bright green light of “Master Class”, which shows a wonderful abstract painting in the background, there is no doubt that the woman is the master, evaluating the painting of a young man. Even though her breasts are bare and her jeans aren’t zipped (and she can still appreciate something other than painting), she’s in charge.

Sometimes Yuskavage’s anger is quite straightforward, as in “Scissor Sisters”, named after a band as well as a love position. It shows three tall women standing on a grassy slope, armed with short swords or a rifle. They are flexible and topless, but they should not be disturbed. In a much smaller work – whose title cannot be printed here – we only see a woman’s face and the two hands she is holding near him, middle finger raised.

Yuskavage made his paintings much more formally engaging. The four large studio paintings are as much color studies as they are stories. Different shades of the dominant color define the sharp shapes of the furniture and reiterate the color samples glued to the wall. Study the backgrounds on their own; they are, in many ways, breathtaking.

Mickalene Thomas’ show at Lévy Gorvy is her first solo New York appearance in seven years, so a change of sorts was to be expected. She more than delivered. And, in keeping with her independent character, she did not join the gallery.

In a sense, she’s doing what she always has, concocting a clever combination of appropriations and painting, accented with glitter and sequins, to celebrate black women, their bodies and their powerful ways, sometimes. in terms of clothing and domestic interiors. ; sometimes by inserting them into poses of white women or men in well-known modernist paintings (for example, “The Olympia” by Manet or his “Lunch on the grass”). Typically, his earlier work had a definite grandeur in its scale, bright opaque colors, thick surfaces, and opulent patterns. His furnished installation rooms extended these paintings into three dimensions.

Now Thomas had taken his style to new, less hedonistic territory. Leaving the scale and grandeur of her work intact, she stripped it all away, using photography in many ways, emphasizing transparent layers instead of opacity. Each new work begins with a greatly enlarged photograph of a half-naked black woman published in Jet magazine in the 1970s and titled with the month and year of its publication. And each woman gets a certain privacy thanks to the different images and photographic patterns that Thomas sticks on their body, like little shields. Other times the compositions are reduced to lines of carefully applied sequins. The result is a sort of flattened cubism whose architectural clarity and sobriety have an ongoing aspect. In “May 1977” some areas are filled with hand-drawn textures; in “Mars 1976”, certain pieces of the collage seem stuck together. Throughout, scribbled instructions – “Print a screenprint pattern” or “Paint” – appear on blank areas.

In many ways, including their transparency, these works involve the viewer in more complex ways than ever before. They indicate that, for Thomas, the future holds limitless possibilities.

In the past, Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s extraordinary wood inlay paintings seemed interesting primarily for their bravery craft. Working from photographs, mostly his own, and using laser cutting (mostly), Taylor fashioned small pieces of various wood veneers into puzzle-like pieces that fit together to form detailed images. In her early exhibitions to James Cohan, she limited her subjects primarily to wooden objects, be it a stand of trees or the interior of a log cabin. She develops a kind of wood-grain grisaille which becomes monotonous. It was almost as if Taylor loved wood too much to violate it with an unnatural color.

After tentatively touching on color in her 2017 show at this gallery, Taylor dove into a full palette – intense, jewelry-like hues that tend to steal the show. His repertoire now includes painted veneer, lacquered photographs (like the fancy pool curtains in “Midwinter”) and also real textures that have been laser cut from photographs (like the rough stone pool coping). His subject is no longer so rustic, even if it is hardly urban. A small town intimacy scene, “Night at the PS” gives us a view of a student play from the viewpoint of the spectators, showing a sea of ​​contrasting backs and hair.

The images seem more complex than ever. “Statuaire Inc.” focuses on a fascinating peek through a store door towards shelves full of tiny illuminated statues. Only secondarily is the exterior of the store noticeable, a complex orchestration of painted bricks, peeling paint, exposed bricks and graffiti. Another tour de force is “Rock Shop”, which focuses on an exhibition of agates and sliced ​​geodes in colors bordering on artificial – each stone is a small painting edged with glitter. Much of the hilly southwestern landscape through the window is also painted.

It’s great to see Taylor expand her art, but marquetry remains her focus. The largest work in the exhibition, ‘Meet You There’, takes us into familiar territory but with new intimacy, showing us up close a dizzying extravaganza of mostly unpainted wood grains in a forest of trees. and slender branches. Only the pink sky of a declining sunset is painted. Taylor’s art brings to wood what Lisa Lou brought to pearls: a new level of ambition and artistry with a broad appeal that insists on being taken seriously.

Lisa Yuskavage: new paintings

Until October 23, David Zwirner, 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea; (212) 727-2070; davidzwirner.com.

Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Until November 13 at Lévy Gorvy, 909 Madison Ave., at 73rd Street, (212) 772-2004; levygorvy.com.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor: Promise for the Future

Until October 23, James Cohan, 48 Walker Street, TriBeCa, (212) 714-9500; jamescohan.com.

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