The bright yellow background in Rorschach Blot, painted in 1995, speaks of sunshine and sweetness, an atmosphere completely dispelled by the strange and haunting figure dominating the centre of the picture. A girl squats impossibly before us, a discordant clown-like look about her that creates a sinister echo of the world of the child and the circus within this highly sexualised context. Her features are as distorted as her pose, with the mouth and vagina in particular reminiscent of some strange genetic experiment to create some form of sex-object-person. In the disquieting blurring of the lines between human and inanimate, the subject in Rorschach Blot is a precursor of the strange figurines that Lisa Yuskavage would create from just after this period, based on the characters in her paintings and subsequently serving as models for other paintings.
It is precisely this strange ambiguity and impossibility-- the sense of the uncanny-- that fuels Yuskavage's paintings. She is not painting real life: "I only let things happen in paintings that can only really happen in painting. They touch on the real world, but they are not the same as the real world" (Yuskavage, quoted in K. Segal, 'Local Color', pp. 15-21 in Lisa Yuskavage, exh. cat., Philadephia, 2001, p. 20). This is true in many senses, not the least of which is the simple fact that she exclusively painted from her imagination during this period. Later, she would come to paint from her figurines, from photographs and even from her friends, themes that would focus more specifically on the distortion of reality. Here, though, we are confronted by the product of a strange, modern Hieronymus Bosch-like vision that has one foot all-too-evocatively present in the real world, but one placed firmly within the realm of the impossible.
This impossibility does not place the subject in Rorschach Blot at a fantastical distance, but is instead used to highlight some of the realities of our own world. Even the composition heightens this effect: the discord between the bright and golden, sun-kissed background-- perfect for advertising-- and the twisted image that disrupts its effect tricks and traps the viewer while also heightening the atmosphere of unreality that Yuskavage has so carefully conjured. The fact that the yellow is so bright means that Rorschach Blot demands our attention in the same way that a billboard would, inviting us into an ambush. And in this ambush, we are confronted by a bold, squatting woman with all the attributes of a hallucinatory sex-toy, facing us, addressing us, appraising us.
Like many of Yuskavage's other paintings, Rorschach Blot concerns sex and sexuality. The painting is a full-frontal affront on our sense of taste, on our temerity, on our notions of decency both within and without the realms of painting. We are confronted with something reminiscent of the work of Bellmer or the Chapmans, something raw, something visceral, an unsettling portrayal of woman that owes more to the vagina dentata than to concepts of the feminine. The weirdness of this cross between a sex-doll and a clown forces a nervous giggle that itself points to the intense power of the picture, a power that we are afraid to face directly despite the fact that Rorschach Blot forces us to do precisely that. It is a moment of embarrassed and awkward recognition both in terms of the distillation of the target of the 'male gaze' into a sex object and in terms of Yuskavage's demand that the female viewer seek some recognition in the work.
Because crucially, this painting is not the product of male fantasy or male anxiety (though it may tap into those forces), it is not a pure result of or assault on the 'male gaze', but is very much the product of a woman. Yuskavage is not objectifying the strange character in Rorschach Blot, but is instead voicing her solidarity with her, identifying herself as a part of the same tribe: "I don't work from an elevated place looking down; if they are low, then I am in the ditch with them, and by painting them, I am trying to dig us out together" (Yuskavage, quoted in C. Gould, 'Screwing It On Straight', pp. 9-13 in loc.cit., 2001, p. 10). In these terms, Rorschach Blot can be seen as a celebration, as the depiction of a woman who has, in a phrase repeatedly used by the artist, her 'pussy screwed on straight'. This strange character knows what she is. She is raw and utilitarian and completely unafraid to display it.
In choosing this as a subject matter, Yuskavage has unleashed a major assault on notions of taste. Her pictures are strong and visceral. Aesthetics are twisted and slaughtered, feminine ideals deliberately insulted and exploded in order to confront the viewer with something that is intensely and unarguable 'woman' and yet that does degrade the subject. And by extension, the painter is degraded, the viewer is degraded; be it in the attack on the objectifying 'male gaze' that has long been a concern of various feminist thinkers and artists or on the role that women play as viewer or as viewed. This picture is personal, and it prods the personality of the viewer as well as reflecting the personality of the artist. Just as beauty is cited as being in the eye of the beholder, so too the reactions to Rorschach Blot are intensely subjective. The reactions that the viewer goes through are a reflection on his or her morals, tastes and psychology, a fact reflected in the title:
"Part of the reason I called that painting Rorschach Blot is because I fully believe that when you look at a painting, you see whatever you want to see. It's not a passive object. It's an active object and made active by the viewer. I leave lots of treats in my paintings that have gone undiscovered by myself and unexplained by myself for my viewers because that's the kind of painting that I most want to do. They have a sense of drama and humour, and they would never attempt morality. There's no finger wagging" (Yuskavage, quoted in J. Whitehead, 'What Kind of Thing Am I Looking At? An Interview with Lisa Yuskavage', Gadfly, 1998, reproduced at www.gadflyonline.com).
Yuskavage cites Rorschach Blot as a pivotal work, as the moment that the characters in her paintings turned around. While this is a slight exaggeration (as there are several examples predating Rorschach Blot of subjects facing the viewer), it certainly marked a new level of accomplishment in terms of content, of composition, and of execution. Prior to these works, Yuskavage had painted many pictures of women with their backs to the viewer, an act of concealment, of discretion. The subjects were timid, hiding from the prying eyes before the painting. This reflected the artist's own timidity, both in terms of herself and in terms of her role as a painter gaining more and more attention of which she modestly felt unworthy:
"I had painted these female backs that were very demure and I realized I had made this body of work that said, 'Don't look at me.' I began to realize that I had manipulated my audience. In a way, I was so insecure about what I was doing. I was so unprepared... I suppose I was protecting myself... With the Rorschach Blot a few years later I had continued to work through the process trying to turn the figure around. It was the finale of the back. The end of 'Don't look at me.' It was the most far out extension of what I would be afraid to show" (Yuskavage, quoted in Whitehead, op.cit., 1998).
Certainly, all that was concealed in the images of women's backs is now on flagrant display. The mouth and the vagina have been rendered as explicitly and as exaggeratedly as possible, as though they are in fact purpose-driven evolutions. The woman in Rorschach Blot straddles an uncomfortable line between real person and sex-toy. The unreality of her existence and appearance is sharpened by her impossible pose. And yet, to some degree Yuskavage implies that there is a form of self-portraiture, or rather self-representation in the picture. The artist is exposing herself before the world-- the sex-object woman in Rorschach Blot stands both for the painting itself and the artist, placed on display in front of the prying and judging eyes of the art world, and the world at large. It is with a mixture of anxiety and pure guts that any artist shows their work, and in this painting Yuskavage ultimately condenses this deeply personal mixture of feelings, thoughts and worries about the processes and even the economics of art.