NICOLE EISENMANby John Yau
Leo Koenig Inc.
October 30 – December 23, 2009
Have seriousness and high-mindedness been placed on a pedestal to the exclusion of nearly everything else? It sure appears that way when I try to count all the exegetical tomes, essays, and reviews citing Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault while supposedly explicating a contemporary artist’s project. It’s as if there is a checklist, and any artist who wishes to be considered important needs to give an overt nod to the figures on that list. The message is clear: Humor has no place in art. Imagine Luc Tuymans making a rude and funny painting. Or closer to home, when has John Currin made a painting that is vulgar, tender, and humorous? If the work of Tuymans and Currin are really radical and challenging, then why are so many people hugging everything they do as if it’s the last baby seal on earth? Perhaps they are really conventional painters who know how to masquerade themselves in all the right ways.
Enter Nicole Eisenman, whose recent exhibition is a needed gust of fresh air in today’s I-wannabe-an-intellectual art world. This doesn’t mean that Eisenman is a reactionary or that she has no use for cultural theorists; it’s that she doesn’t have to wear them on her sleeve, so that everyone knows where she is coming from. Full of odd and marginal figures—well-meaning schlubs and masked friends—her paintings are rude, funny, tender, contemptuous, and outrageous, but they are never puerile or adolescent, like those of so many more celebrated figures. Always a confident painter capable of working in different styles, Eisenman makes knowing allusions to Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh when they were at Arles, Max Beckmann, and Pieter Breughel, to name just a few, but the brew is distinctly hers.
There were 25 paintings in the show ranging in scale from less than a foot square to around five by seven feet. In terms of subject matter, they run the gamut from the domestic “Night Studio” (2009), which depicts two women in bed, one of whom is wearing a bowler, while the other sports a sailor’s cap (a loving allusion to Paul Cadmus and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories) to the political “The Triumph of Poverty” (2009), which combines in equal parts rage, emotional distance, humor, grotesquery, revulsion, and a wide knowledge of art history and Hollywood horror films. The scene consists of a motley assortment of pathetic figures gathered around a doorless, “touched up” car driven by a nude, patchwork woman with a large, inflamed nose that makes her look more porcine than human. Standing near her is a man in a tuxedo and top hat holding a string, with his pants falling down to his knees. Buttocks protrude where the belly should be. He is going in two directions at once, and neither way offers much hope. Breughel’s blind men are on the other end of the string, rendered in diminutive scale, with the leader tumbling into a pack of rats that don’t seem disturbed by his clumsiness. The other figures include a child with skin the color of pea soup, holding a presumably empty bowl, a man with his pants pockets pulled out, a mother holding her child, and a nude African boy with a distended belly. Eisenman mixes familiar types together, but doesn’t condescend, parody, or index them.
In this exhibition, more so than in her previous ones, all of which were terrific, Eisenman proves herself to be a social painter who shares something with, as well as critiques, contemporaries such as Elizabeth Peyton and an older generation that includes Alex Katz, David Hockney, and Larry Rivers. First, she’s more interested in the underbelly of society than these artists. Second, she resists developing a signature style, but for different reasons than those employed by postmodernist theorists. In her depictions of “Beer Gardens,” the combination of diverse styles and deliberately off-kilter color (a man with a yellowish pallor flanked by a man in profile wearing green) functions as acute social observation: Brooklyn is a teeming hodge-podge. There is no common language or even patois that everyone can agree on, no bedrock (and this includes style) upon which to stand.
Eisenman never plays it safe, which is why I hold her and her work in such high regard. In her first exhibition in 1996, she painted faces on marshmallows, which were stuck in little cubbyholes. One can imagine other artists trying to make a whole career out of this kind of gesture, but not Eisenman. She has done off-color and literal drawings (one shows Charlie the Tuna sniffing a naked girl, while “Jesus Fucking Christ” is the source of another), but never made that the sole focus of her work. And in this exhibition, she squeezed thick trails of tan paint over a scene of an artist in his large, open, and well-lit studio, complete with modern furniture. Eisenman doesn’t segregate her contradictory states of elation, tenderness, and disgust from her unabashed love of paint and painting. More than refusing to feel guilty (or pretending to), when that is the easier and more polite thing to do, she doesn’t tailor herself or her work into a presentable commodity signifying this or that politically and/or aesthetically correct disposition. Instead, she remains open to doing the wrong thing without making “bad” into a stylistic tic (Albert Oehlen). Her resistance to all the temptations that keep trying to push painting into a ditch should be a beacon for younger, independent-minded painters, such as Dana Schutz. One doesn’t have to become what your so-called fans want. Among artists living and working in the sprawl of New York City, Eisenman is exemplary.