Conversation: Lisa Yuskavage And Tamara Jenkins

Left, Natasha Lyonne in Slums of Beverly Hills.; right, Yuskavage’s Day.

When artist Lisa Yuskavage was preparing a book of small paintings of sexualized young women, she invited a close friend, Slums of Beverly Hills director Tamara Jenkins, to write an introduction. Karen Rosenberg caught up with them over coffee on Avenue B.

I’ve read that you met at a coffee shop not far from this one.
Jenkins: It was this café on Avenue A called Nation. The guy that owned it was a buddy of ours, Tim McCoy.
Yuskavage: We were two chicks from the East Village. Oddly enough, we were both born in 1962 in Philadelphia. [To Jenkins] What’s your birthday?
J.: May 2.
Y.: I’m May 16! You’re a Taurus?
J.: Yeah.
Y.: Omigod, so am I! Anyway, Tim said, “You two should talk.” Then Tamara disappeared to make Slums of Beverly Hills. I thought I’d never see her again, because who goes to Hollywood and comes back? But she came back.
J.: We never made dates; we would always find each other at the coffee shop. I was writing a screenplay about Diane Arbus.
Y.: She was asking me lots of questions—I had a lot of feelings about Diane Arbus.

Tamara, when you made Slums of Beverly Hills, had you seen Lisa’s work? There are great similarities, like that scene when Natasha Lyonne goes for her bra fitting …
J.: No. She gave me this tiny catalogue after I’d made the movie. Then she had this big show in Philadelphia. It was like walking into a fever dream—room after room of your friend’s psyche.

What else do you have in common, besides portraits of self-conscious, busty young women?
J.: I was interested in the imagery she grew up with—her mother’s paint-by-number Blue Boy and Pinkie. Hanging over my grandmother’s couch was this gigantic Mona Lisa, in a gilt frame with a little plaque that said L. DA VINCI.
Y.: We have kitsch as a background.
J.: But we didn’t perceive it as kitsch.

You’re both obsessed with adolescence.
J.: It’s a major transformation that occurs in public.
Y.: It’s the most powerful moment in almost everyone’s life—the operatic note. Works of art have their own adolescence—mine were like the nerdy girl who wasn’t quite smart enough or pretty enough.

Like the heroine of Slums, who doesn’t know what to do with her new breasts?
Y.: What do you do with these?
J.: I’m still trying to figure that out.

Lisa Yuskavage: Small Paintings, 1993–2004
Abrams. $50

Conversation: Lisa Yuskavage And Tamara Jenkins