Exhibition Review: Yuskavage and Kannemeyer

Posted on November 2, 2011


Lisa Yuskavage. "Outskirts." 2011. Oil on linen.

Two of the more provocative painting shows currently on view in Chelsea, those of Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner and Anton Kannemeyer at Jack Shainman, seem at first to have little in common. Yet Yuskavage’s sex-hungry girls and Kannemeyer’s direct illustrational take on post-colonial fallout in Africa share more than the unsettling nature of their subject matter. Both Yuskavage and Kannemeyer are highly conceptual painters: their ideas precede the execution of their work. In an open-source art world in which imagery and styles are borrowed freely, the choices each painter makes about visual language expose the benefits and pitfalls of such an approach to painting.

Those who know Yuskavage’s work will find themselves in familiar territory. In the half-dozen or so paintings on view, the painter’s pink fleshy nudes occupy center stage in fantastical acidic landscapes. Leaning, sitting, kneeling, squatting and lying on each other, cushions, a bench, and on verdant hills, their flesh pressing into these various means of support, Yuskavage’s girls are the objects of desire as presented by the standard porn rag. They are posed in such a way to let oversized breasts swing free, vaginas part, and, in one case, an anus play host to a bouquet of flowers. Some look at us directly. Those who interact with each other do so not out of mutual interest, but for the benefit of a third-party audience. They are the embodiment of sexual availability.

What separates this work from pornography, those images that will never enjoy pride of place on Zwirner’s walls? The answer should lie in the successful marriage of Yuskavage’s paint handling with her subject, thus creating a tension between the highbrow and the low.

Marked by easy facility, bold color, and fast and loose brushwork, Yuskavage’s work is commonly understood to be “painterly.” The reality is that this method of working is little more than an illustrational style of its own. True painterly language is developed hand in hand with an artist’s developing objectives. Thus did the Impressionists pioneer a style that reduced objects to the optical registration of their chromatic parts, Cezanne redefine the use of line and planes in an attempt to depict the phenomenon of perception, and the Cubists develop a language that sought to contain the essence of things by rendering them as the sum of their variously perceived parts.

Something we’ve lost in the contemporary art world is the chief criterion by which a work of art used to be understood: as an aesthetic object that holds its own meaning. Unmoored in our critical thinking, we have largely reverted to a juvenile understanding of painting in which the aforementioned “painterly” style is equated with sophistication. It is this misunderstanding of the language of paint that has given painters like Yuskavage their moment in the sun.

Lisa Yuskavage. "Triptych." 2011. Oil on linen.

Reliant upon her work’s ability to embody the tradition of painting, but aware that her language has precluded it from doing so, Yuskavage finds herself in a bind. In an implicit acknowledgement of such, she has resorted to the ultimate hedge on her bet, filling her works with innumerable art-historical references. The girls come from Courbet, by way of Balthus. The landscapes, Northern Renaissance and Hudson River inspired vistas, take their single chromatic note from Peter Halley or Wolf Kahn. Secondary figures, taken from Courbet, Chardin, and Caspar David Friedrich, populate the scenes. The massive Tryptich, the largest painting on view, cribs its central crotch shot from Courbet’s Woman With White Stockings or Duchamp’s Etant Donnes. The landscape could be Bellini: a vast flat plane that leads back to an improbable cluster of hills. As for the source of the stern peasant women who watch from afar, take your pick between Homer’s Americans, Gauguin’s Bretons and Malevich’s Russians. Rather than propping up the painter’s art-historical bona fides, of which much have been made (a blurb on the show in The New Yorker references Vermeer, Pontormo and Manet as touchstones), the glut of references becomes self-defeating. The works reveal themselves to be mere illustrations, defusing the sought after tension between art and smut, sophistication and obscenity.

Anton Kannemeyer. "A Black Woman." 2011. Lithograph.

The work of South African Anton Kannemeyer, on view at Jack Shainman, is notable for an entirely different visual language. Offering an unflinching take on the violent legacy of colonialism, Kannemeyer’s work lives or dies by his tuning of variously employed illustrational styles to the right pitch. He’s not always successful in doing so. One large painting, B is for the Beauty of Military Life, is a flat comic rendering of an Abu Ghraib prison abuse photograph, in which a smiling American soldier flashes a thumbs-up as she poses with the corpse of a murdered detainee. A look at the original reveals layers of horror that Kannemeyer’s comic loses in translation.

In other works, however, he’s found effective language for his desired critique. A number of Herge-inspired paintings take the Belgian’s ligne claire style, using it to turn paternalistic notions of the benefits of imperialism (espoused in such books as Tintin in the Congo), squarely on their head. In Very Very Good, a white man stands behind a stereotypical Herge-inspired black man who is seated at his painting easel, brushes in hand. Leaning in with a smug smile, he offers this pronouncement of the work: “Oh, no! I’m not just saying it because you’re black. I think it’s really very, very good.”  In such works, Kannemeyer’s ability to lay bare the implicit absurdity of political correctness lies in his deft appropriation of blatantly stereotypical imagery.

Anton Kannemeyer. "Black Gynecologist." 2008. Acrylic on canvas.


Black Gynecologist, a large, brightly illustrated canvas, shows the doctor in question working between the stirrup-spread legs of a white woman. Is the look on his face one of necessary concentration, or of barely contained anger fostered by centuries of subjugation? The ambiguous answer to this question is particularly jarring in relation to the crisp illustrational style of the painting. Kannemeyer’s conceit works in such cases where his language is in tune with his ideas.

In the end, both Yuskavage and Kannemeyer tell us something about our relationship to conceptual painting. Yuskavage, understood by many as an exemplar of painterly mastery, masks her conceptual approach behind the veneer of style. The results speak for themselves. Kannemeyer’s work, on much clearer conceptual ground, is far more successful in its employment of appropriated style.