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Art's Next Wave

Today's Artists are Creating Distinctive and Thought-Provoking Works, and Making a Name for Themselves in the Process
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 2)

Around 40 years ago, the idea that people should dredge up their nightmares, rather than try to bury them, became popular. Talk shows have made millions helping their guests confront their demons to the glee of voyeurs across America. One artist, 35-year-old Lisa Yuskavage, isn't content confronting her fears and concerns. She wants to confront yours as well, and she does it with beautifully painted images of Kewpie-like figures in rather open poses. "Rorschach Blot" has a naked blonde figure in an open squat. The pose is symmetrical, and her genitalia take the shape of an exclamation point. Talking about the painting with artist Chuck Close in a 1996 interview published in the catalogue of her work put out by the Boesky Gallery in SoHo, Yuskavage said that the work and some of her previous paintings were "about coming out toward making things completely explicit to myself." What is the painting about? She said, "Telling the viewer, 'Eat me.'"

Yuskavage's work isn't pretty. The women are flawed temptresses, uncomfortable with being sexually desirable. In "Good Evening Hamass," a woman with a large rear is shown with it scored like a ham. It is a commentary about appetites.

Another artist working with unsettling images is 39-year-old Gregory Green. His work showcases such items as a commissioned computer virus on a disk encased in plastic; missiles; pipe bombs lacking only a detonator; and an open nuclear bomb with a baseball where the plutonium should be. The tools of the terrorist trade are easy enough to come by, as Green shows in his nearly functional works.

Is there beauty in a pipe bomb? Actually, the response is more a combination of curiosity and horror. The objects are mesmerizing, triggering not explosions but an awareness of fragility and mortality, and, of course, a worldwide society where these things are easily accessible.

For pure visual pleasure, Green's "Untitled (22 Blade Wall Piece)" is a set of circular saw blades mounted on motors stuck on a wall. At rest, their teeth are menacing. In motion, a glimmering sheen makes them appealing and hypnotic. And that is scary.

Not every hot young artist paints horrific images. Take 33-year-old Elizabeth Peyton. Most people couldn't name a contemporary portraitist since Andy Warhol, and he's been dead for more than 10 years. So it's a surprise that Peyton paints influential figures from Napoleon Bonaparte to Kurt Cobain to Princess Di. Peyton, who grew up in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, turns out small, dreamy paintings, visual biographies of her heroes and friends. The paintings click because she has a great sense of color and of editing images--what to include, what to leave out. Her younger subjects (some of them are friends) have a wan, washed-out look about them. There's no judgment or harshness, how-ever: Peyton is tender and adoring, enamored of her subjects and their flaws. Her works are vividly colored, heavy on washed pinks and purples. They have a lovely, fresh feeling to them, verging on the innocence of uncritical love.

Juan Uslé takes pleasure in paint as well. His work is abstract, with occasional grid-like patterns or organic biomorphic forms floating in a sea of color. At times, it feels as if some of the shapes are going to come into focus and become something figurative, like ideas that won't quite formulate themselves clearly enough to be articulated. But Uslé isn't interested in recognizable images: he seems to love the feelings generated by color and ambiguity. His works are fluid, sensuous. Critics talk about his work in formal terms, but Uslé, 44, could care less about academia. He has said, "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else. I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on."

While some artists look back in anger, 38-year-old Maureen Gallace seems to revere the kind of quiet, dreamlike imagery that suggests a weekend escape from the city or a simple childhood scene. Small houses in small paintings, stone walls with snow, the lush green of a New England summer's day, the stillness of a frozen lake--all are subjects of Gallace's paintings. Although her work appears serene, it does have an edge. There's no screaming or chair-throwing, but there's a slight awkwardness in the presentation. The perspective on the houses is slightly skewed, and most of them have no windows. They suggest sanctuaries that are less perfect than we remember them, but cherished just the same.

In the world of contemporary art, which tends toward the overheated at times, Luc Tuymans is a perverse player. The first shock of his work is its flat, nearly colorless palette: grays, whites and gray-greens are predominant. The American flag, which was turned into an art icon by Jasper Johns in the 1950s, is drained of color and appears listless. In another piece, Mount Rushmore is a slightly abstracted monument. Tuymans's work is striking and outrageous for its restraint and subtlety.

And, at times, for its content. Tuymans takes a deadpan approach to disquieting images and notions. What could be more earthy than a factory worker? The subject seems mundane until you realize that he's wearing a chemical mask to try to keep himself alive while earning a living. These images seem banal, but are, in fact, ghostly and haunting.

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