“Making a painting is being alone in a room with a very sensuous object, and making a painting is a very sensuous experience.”
Lisa Yuskavage

In Sick Clown from 1999, a half-nude female subject is pictured from above, nestled into a plush red velvety cushion. Her face is dark and contained within the shadows, while the real emphasis is placed on her protruding breast and illuminated naked torso. Her breast is cartoonishly perky, and the slender curvature of her belly calls to mind certain Mannerist canvases of Parmigianino, or the cheeky nudes of Yuskavage’s fellow contemporary John Currin. The girl’s pose here is specifically reminiscent of certain iconic nude portraits that have been canonized throughout the history of painting—especially Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s ensuing Olympia that invoked controversy and fascination surrounding the female’s coy display of self-pleasure. Here in Yuskavage’s Sick Clown, the viewer becomes a witness to the figure’s sexual enjoyment. This slippery slope of voyeurism is further complicated by the title, which alludes to ‘sick’ fantasies or the dark undercurrent of provocation. In painting this illicit and racy moment, Yuskavage guides us as viewers into a dark corner of the female psyche, juxtaposing desire and attraction to call into question the act of wanting, and the act of being wanted.

While the content of Yuskavage's work is provocative and sometimes disturbing, the formal qualities are enticing and masterfully executed. She manipulates paint in a style that synthesizes abstraction and representation and skillfully quotes from a wide range of art historical genres. Rendered with the airbrushed perfection of a soft-porn magazine, her classical compositions nevertheless contain an utterly contemporary feel. Artificial color and forthright sexuality is characteristic of her oeuvre, as is the journey from high to low culture within a seamless whole. Her highly polished, immaculate surfaces perfectly conceal every trace of the artist's hand. Each inch of her large canvases is calculated in advance; she makes multiple small scale drawings and studies, as well as three-dimensional models, in order to scrutinize the fleeting, transformative quality of light and reflection. Like Yuskavage's great Venetian forbearers, the masters of luminescence, she finds in light the power to transform the visual image. Sick Clown is a stunning display of Yuskavage's mastery of light and firm command over the nuances of the human body. Through bathing the sexualized nude in this ineffable and transcendental quality of light, we as viewers are enraptured by the charm of Yuskavage's painterly aesthetic—and it is within this context that the 'grotesque' is irresistible and beautiful.

The Classical Nude Throughout Art History
  • 1534
  • 1814
  • 1863
  • 1866
  • 1989
  • 1999
  • 2001
  • Titian, Venus of Urbino
    Venus of Urbino is one of Titian’s most famous works and it depicts the emblematic figure of a young bride about to be dressed to take part in the celebration of the ritual known in Venice as “il toccamano”. It was a ceremony held in the home and not in church, during which a young woman whose hand was requested in marriage would touch the hand of the groom to express her consent. Titian takes this as his inspiration for a seductive Venus, using an iconography that began in the early Renaissance, inspired by the ancient depiction of the “Venus pudica.” The girl, lying naked on a bed with crumpled sheets, gazes out at the onlooker in a flirtatious, allusive manner, while hiding her pubis with her left hand and holding a bunch of roses, the emblem of Venus and of the pleasure and constancy of love in her right. Credit: Uffizi Museum
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  • Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque
    Ingres transposed the theme of the mythological nude, whose long tradition went back to the Renaissance, to an imaginary Orient. This work, his most famous nude, was commissioned by Caroline Murat, Napoleon's sister and the queen of Naples. Here, Ingres painted a nude with long, sinuous lines bearing little resemblance to anatomical reality, but rendered the details and texture of the fabrics with sharp precision. This work drew fierce criticism when it was displayed at the Salon of 1819. Credit: Louvre Museum
  • Edouard Manet, Olympia
    With Olympia, Manet reworked the traditional theme of the female nude, using a strong, uncompromising technique. Both the subject matter and its depiction explain the scandal caused by this painting at the 1865 Salon. Even though Manet quoted numerous formal and iconographic references, such as Titian's Venus of Urbino, Goya's Maja desnuda, and the theme of the odalisque with her black slave, already handled by Ingres among others, the picture portrays the cold and prosaic reality of a truly contemporary subject. Credit: Musee d’Orsay
  • Gustave Courbet, L'Origine du monde [The Origin of the World]
    Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein. But in The Origin of the World he went to lengths of daring and frankness which gave his painting its peculiar fascination. Thanks to Courbet's great virtuosity and the refinement of his amber colour scheme, the painting escapes pornographic status. This audacious, forthright new language had nonetheless not severed all links with tradition: the ample, sensual brushstrokes and the use of colour recall Venetian painting and Courbet himself claimed descent from Titian and Veronese, Correggio and the tradition of carnal, lyrical painting. Credit: Musee d’Orsay
  • Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 Guerrilla Girls null Purchased 2003 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78793
    Guerilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?
    Surveying the works on display in the museum's nineteenth-and twentieth-century galleries, the Guerilla Girls tallied the number of female nudes versus the number of male nudes and counted the number of works by female artists versus the number by male artists. Their findings were startling: not even 5 percent of the artists represented in the modern galleries were women, while fully 85 percent of the nudes in those same galleries were female. The image they made to expose this discrepancy features a reproduction of the sumptuous nude in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, with her face hidden by a gorilla mask, the Guerrilla Girls' signature disguise. Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • The present lot
    Lisa Yuskavage, Sick Clown
  • ©John Currin
    John Currin, Nude on a Table
    In his depictions of the female nude, John Currin mines a number of distinct pictorial styles from art history; his figures have exhibited the frilly ruffles and peachy skin tones of French Rococo paintings, as well as the distended anatomies and distorted proportions of Northern Renaissance and early Mannerist works. The faces, makeup, and hairstyles of Currin’s women, however, are always borrowed from contemporary magazines and advertisements. Ultimately, the artist’s fusion of high and low source materials produces distinctly beautiful, often disturbing, works that are equal parts homage and parody. Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago