Lisa Yuskavage was unhappy. Why would a young woman with a fresh MFA from Yale hate her first show in New York? Because it wasn’t who she was.

That show shut her down. She didn’t paint for a year, until she saw a picture postcard of a baby seal on a beach. It seemed to Yuskavage that the two black eyes caught by the camera were pleading, “Please don’t club me.”

This insight was a breakthrough of the artist’s block and culminated in the four “Babies” paintings in her current exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Painting only the helpless eyes, then finding bodies to fuse with flat background color, resulted in her first mature works. And they are, as she intends, alive.

Being an instinctive rule-breaker, from a school where she learned to paint with the pinkie finger up, Yuskavage remembers the art rule: Never use red, yellow, and blue in portraits – it’s too difficult to modulate between the primaries.

But then, a Laura Ashley mailer with beautifully simple, modulated primaries turned up in her mail. That, along with Johannes Itten’s color contrasts work, inspired Yuskavage to modulate her color palette in new ways, resulting in the superb triptych, “Blonde, Brunette and Redhead.”

The exhibition presents diptychs, triptychs and the artist’s “symbiotic portraits” — single panels with multiple figures, some within epic landscapes.

“Rorschach Blot,” the right panel of one diptych, disturbs some critics. No one would buy such a blowup doll with an exclamation point rendering genitalia, yet the key to the painting is the sexuality of the rounded open mouth. Isn’t the real question here, how troubled are you living in a culture that treats parts of a person’s body as things? Is this 1995 painting so last century, so outmoded? Or can this blown-up body be seen in the context of current nightly news?

Yuskavage says that she is apolitical. So, is she a feminist? A misogynist? Androgynous? One writer commented, “She’d better be gay!” Choosing a one or two word label may provide the viewer with an easy solution to the complexity that the artist is spending a lifetime exploring. This is ambiguous, profound art and demands time. Our interpretations, our struggles with the issues and the questions that we ask of the artist’s work are not hers; they are what each of us project upon her work.

So, is this pornography? If this work is sexually arousing to you, you may need to find a life. But let’s ask that question of the diptych, “Day and Night.” The youthful woman in “Day,” wearing little more than sunlight, is pleased to discover exaggerated beauty in her body. Is it unnatural to explore the mystery of one’s human form and stand in awe? How sad for one to have missed the wonder of that life experience.

In “Night,” a young woman, styled after a Penthouse-cover pose, wearing little more than the glare of an electric light bulb, teasingly reveals those parts of her body that she knows you want to see. Cool. And of course, you gaze. Naughty you. But wait. Before you leave the painting, look into the shadow. There’s that silhouetted young girl with the lolly-pop, who appears in so many of Yuskavage’s works.

Is “The Brood” about full-bodied adult sexuality confronting the innocence of childhood? Or, do we see motherhood? Celebrations of the fruit of the womb are as old as primordial bonfires flickering across the belly and breasts of the Venus of Willendorf.

I would argue that Yuskavage’s mythic art finds beauty and pain in human vulnerabilities. Her work is about her, the artist, present to herself, going down into the darkness and gazing upon personal and collective fears. She stretches backward to the paleolithic period and forward to an unknown future — and invites each of us on a quest for ourselves, our relationships and the planet itself.

Lisa Yuskavage: The Brood

Through April 3 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Blvd. Visit:

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