When I was little I was obsessed with fantasy. I even had an encyclopedia for everything fantasy related. On the busy crosstown bus I would explain to my mother the difference between a dryad (tree nymph) and a hamadryad (nymph of an individual tree), as well as what characterized a nereid (a sea nymph) and a naiad (a river nymph). When I was eight I started crying when I found out fairies weren’t real.
So it’s no surprise that I absolutely fell in love with Lisa Yuskavage’s ethereal, otherworldly paintings at David Zwirner. While her figures do not fall specifically into the categories my encyclopedia outlined, they are reminiscent of nature spirits. One can see the resemblance in their upturned noses, windswept hair, and at times, otherworldly skin coloring. Their nudity is a part of their existence as well, rather than a reflection of a moment during which they are unclothed. What makes these images most fascinating to me, however, is the moments of reality woven into the ethereal. A scarf, a rain boot, or even evidence of conflict ground these fantastical paintings in the contemporary.
Here is a striking painting entitled “Bonfire” (2013-2015).
The painting has been completed on two separate canvases hung next to each other. The same, or a similar-looking, sprite is pictured on each canvas, facing opposite directions. Her upturned nose, perky breasts, and rounded belly emphasize fertility and give her an earthy, fairy-like quality. Her skin is tinted green like the trees, grass, and sky. On the first canvas on the viewer’s left, buxom creatures behind her celebrate together. Some grasp hands and dance, while other’s embrace. A thin yellow light peeks through a thick green cloud. It looks like some kind of pagan ritual. On the other canvas, the image of the sprite is merely flipped over, but behind her, the voluptuous creatures yield swords and axes. An orange flame leaps out from a pile of sticks. It is not entirely clear what these creatures are doing, but the representation of fire and weapons creates a fearsome mood quite opposite the celebratory one in the first panel. A moon hides behind the tree, emphasizing the contrasting nature of the two scenes. The title of the entire painting is “Bonfire,” which makes me wonder if, perhaps, it is a person who will be going into the bonfire. The crude, fantastic, perhaps pagan, nature of this world do not rule out this possibility. The result is an ominous painting that presents a different world that plays by a different set of rules. It is both tantalizing- the naked, fertile sprite draws the eye all over her body- and scary. Yet even this fear is thrilling. It is as if we are watching a fantasy film play out with oil paint.
This is “My Rainbow Scarf” (2013), another stunning painting from the exhibit.
This figure also appears other-worldly because her silver-beige skin matches the coloring of her surroundings, a quality of camouflaging nature spirits. Her hair is a mess of grey curls, dotted with flowers. Her pubic hair is thick, emphasizing her wildness and also her sexuality, both also characteristics of fantasy elves. She cradles a piece of grass between her fingers in a teasing motion, echoed by the look she gives the viewer. Her eyes are half-hidden behind masses of curls, but she still gives us a sideways smirk with an upturned lip.
Behind her, white-clad people work the land. They similarly blend into the background. Is this a commune? A cult? A fairy circle? One’s imagination can swirl like the bits of brown and grey smoke lifting this painting up, and yet something brings us back to the present: this figure’s colorful scarf. It is yellow and flecked with green, red, blue and orange, draped stylishly around her neck and sashaying out of the corner of the painting. The scarf looks contemporary and out of place with the rest of “My Rainbow Scarf.” In a very fantastical interpretation, this nymph has found the scarf dropped by a human and decided to wear it, and is giving the viewer and impish smile that says “I stole this from you.” But there is also a possibility that Yuskavage meant something deeper when she placed this scarf on her protagonist. Perhaps it is meant to lend humanity to the figures, and suggest something else about people in general: We are all part of the earth, no matter how much we try to separate ourselves from it.
“In the Park” (2014) provides a similar idea.
This girl bears features from this world and another. Her bikini tan line is a product of contemporary social norms- a fairy would not be wearing a bikini. Her green rain boots are also manmade products. Her stance, a little pigeon toed- is impish and young, in a way that doesn’t match her developed body. But it gives her an otherworldly air in that it makes her seem like she is trying to inhabit things that don’t belong to her. She is not a child trying on her mother’s shoes. She seems like a creature, a pubescent one at that, who is playing pretend with human garments and norms.
Her wispy blonde hair and red puffy cheeks also create a youthfulness that is uncomfortable given her physical development. It is uncomfortable to see someone who looks so young seem so fetishized- perhaps that is why I am choosing the interpretation that she is merely a nymph, a creature who always looks childlike. Yuskavage’s choice to keep this figure’s representation on the line between child and creature creates discomfort that is very likely intentional. It makes one think about the sexualization of young girls and how the media- even fantasy genres- reinforce this phenomenon.
“Dude of Sorrows” (2015) is a little different from the other paintings.
For one thing, it features a man, not a woman. Other paintings in the exhibit featured naked men in a way that sexualizes them just as much as women are in the previous paintings. But I want to focus on this one because it really drew me in. I was struck by the contrast between his charcoal skin and his rainbow beard. The necklace around his neck looks like a string of dog tags to me, which could loosely identify this man as a soldier or veteran (feel free to argue with me on that one). His right eye is extremely swollen. He could have been injured in a fight or battle. The naked and sexualized quality of these figures could also mean that syphilis has affected his eye. Regardless of the reason for his discomfort, it is clear that this “Dude of Sorrows” is indeed very sorrowful. The grayness of the canvas emphasizes this. And yet, his bears and tufts of his hair are incredibly colorful. Is this the manifestation of hope? Is the painting in transition from gray to rainbow? Or is the transition going in reverse. Will all of his hair slowly turn gray as well to match the rest of the canvas? We are meant to wonder. I am left thinking about his future, and whether the joyous pink near his cheek will be enough to help him pull through. Yuskavage uses color to emotionally connect with her audience. Without the color gradient, this would just be another painting of a sad man.
This exhibit closes June 13th. I highly recommend it. Yuskavage appeals to the child and the adult in all of us… keep an eye out for Hippies (2013) which inspired the whole exhibit. Does that make you curious? Head down to David Zwirner to see for yourself!!
xoxo, Chloe <3