Eisenman Paints Contemporary Life, Sometimes as Deadpan Allegory

“Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories”

New Museum of Contemporary Art, May 4 – June 26, 2016

A relatively modest mid-career survey of paintings and a few sculptures, the latter, clearly secondary, which I’ll leave to others.  The gathered paintings very well represent the accessible, figurative style–or non-style–that Eisenman has established over the past two decades, and which carries its own subversive message in the context of a self-propelling, “progressive,” avant-garde.  Figurative is not to say “realistic”; however, her narratives and themes feel that way.  They tackle the contemporary American zeitgeist through lesbian subjectivity–capped with large doses of middle-brow humor.

Eisenman first received critical attention in the context of a very loose network of very loosely described Third Wave feminist artists dubbed “Bad Girls” by pioneering New Museum director/curator Marcia Tucker, the title of a two-part 1994 exhibition.  (Although not included, she was included in a follow-up L.A. show of the same title curated by Marcia Tanner.)  A tie-over here is the breezy, I’m with Stupid (2001), in which a clownish man-child wears a T-shirt printed with the title slogan and an arrow pointing to his exposed penis.   Hilarious every time–more than ever, with the Trump campaign. 

The earliest painting on view, Spring Fling (1996), suggests the entrenched social and cultural binding of women to nature through a flora-bearing female nude cuffed to a rack of cobbled tree boughs.  A primavera allegory, via Botticelli, Ingres, and William Blake, turned into a deadpan “al-ugh-ory” of the exhibition title.  Subtle art  historical appropriation abounds throughout.

The enormous canvas, Real and Imagined Progress (2006) is a bravely intimate view of the artist at work in a boat-like studio flanked by, or floating in, a sea.  Allegories obvious.  Traces of Max Beckmann and mural-esque American Regionalism perceptible.  Among other things, the painting demonstrates technical painterly exploration, from impasto to scraped, watery, highly naturalistic and schematic passages.  Take-away, in a time-worn phrase: painting is not at all dead; nor is the time-worn artist studio theme.   An amusing  variation, Were-Artist (2007), looks in on a mannish, hairy-armed painter with pointy, curling fingernails working at the easel by moonlight.  Night Studio (2009) poses a butch/femme (female) couple provocatively under the artist’s spotlight amid stacks of art books, which, might symbolize the Super Ego and art task at hand both challenged and fed by libido.

A departure in subject matter was seen in several paintings most directly taking on the allegorical mantel, while melding further “between-the-wars”/ Depression German and American styles.  Populated with weary, hollowed-eyed masses, these canvases also brought in Munch, Ensor, and sometimes Bruegel.    Created on the cusp of the 2008 mortgage crash, they seemed to anticipate the desperation of the Occupy movement and, at times, environmental disasters like the Flint, MI water crisis.  Floating through: stupefied hipsters, zombies, sex workers, and vagabonds.

The most recent paintings included turned back to the studio/ bedroom complex, where Eisenman seemed most at home, so far. Several draw from the late, self-scrutinizing Philip Guston.  Spending time amidst Eisenman’s paintings should further, or restore (as the case may be), anyone’s faith in the engaging continuity of non-ironic representational painting in the context of the life and times of an honest, socially aware, individual artist.

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