Tag Archives: Nicole Eisenman

Beauty in the beast: Whitney Biennial 2019

So another edition of the show the art world loves to hate, The Whitney Biennial—somewhat subdued overall this round in contrast to the shocking and rarified avant-garde culture that has been widely seen as characteristic and (rightly) off-putting to many sectors of the cognoscente and the public. And yet. Thank goodness–in a big way. In the end, love wins … for better and worse, as its very existence has furthered the cause and spread of contemporary art in America since its inception as a founding component of Whitney’s activities (beginning in 1932 shortly after the museum opened, as an “annual” until 1973 ).     

Over the course of this nearing centenary span negative criticisms have been directed increasingly towards the curators charged with the coveted but impossible task of amassing the most interesting “new art” produced or, in some cases, first “noted” in the past c. two-year span–by artists working primarily in the United States at least through the period in which they were created. A few repeated charges have been clique-ishness (among curators, institutions, dealers, artists), heavy-handed thematics, forced relationships and trends, and the reverse–a lack of installation strategy and direction that might leave a little too much work for most viewers. I’d say here that that last caveat has been turned to a positive, bolstered by ample space in which to consider individual works/artists. Both chronology and de facto eligibility–vis-a-vis the museum’s mission of “American” art have been (rightly) more fluid in response to post-millennial transnationalism–exemplified this time around. The overall tone hovers carefully between post-identity PC and pointed politics, and also indulges, intermittently throughout, in a kind of crafted visual pleasure not prevalent on the scene in recent decades. 

My impulsive and partly preordained (because I already like the artists) “hot spot” run-through starts at the beginning–in the ground floor gallery, given over entirely to Diane Simpson, who continues to create art in her mid-80s. Here her highly developed body-Bauhaus aesthetic hits high points in both drawings and contoured constructions inspired by sartorial designs and architectonic abstraction. Elegant-without-trying, deliberately and expertly plied geometry with anatomical armatures in mind.

Upstairs (including two main floors; niches elsewhere and two outdoor terraces) a number of other women are working directly with bodies in sculpture, including Simone Leigh, whose several majestic female-vessel works here (ceramic; bronze) are gorgeous (yes, she’s one artist I’m always looking out for). They can evoke supreme, feminist minkisi whose power, however, is invested in serenity and timelessness rather than fear and aggression (as in traditional Kongo culture). Another more amorphous, bulbous piece, with its clay-braided seams, recalls Yoruba “house for the head” shrine coverings and even head sculptures themselves from ancient Ife (more so in the context of her oeuvre broadly). Wangechi Mutu (another favorite a priori) is also represented by spirit-suggestive, more malleable female figures well known from her collage and video oeuvre; here, imbued with an atavistic sensibility in their sinewy, muddy appearance of simulated and real organic materials. A pending or perhaps present dystopian humanity is embodied in a parade-like installation of a gender-bending (some bent over) grotesques by Nicole Eisenman. They seem to have risen out of the muck (environmental and metaphorical) depicted in her paintings, wherein band-of-fool scenarios include evidence of psycho-sexual trauma. Wholly incongruent in sensibility, both Mutu (in one piece) and Eisenman incorporate a kinetic element (that doesn’t add much, imo, to their otherwise impactful works). Eisenman‘s freaks refer at least partly to American society specifically with details like NY Giants socks and a one sartorially-defined cowboy in the mix; but the US matrix is most indulged by Kota Ezawa‘s “social realist” watercolors and animations documenting Colin Kapernick’s sports protest revolution.  There’s quite a bit of figurative painting throughout, stylistically ranging from “bad painting” popularized in the 1980s to very good, nuts and bolts oils of nothing much, such as those of Keegan Monaghan that engage with tinges of object nostalgia and overlooked viewpoints.  

A large wall installation of calligraphic metal “signs” in a taxonomic-like arrangement (with cryptic key) by Maia Ruth Lee may recall, for those weaned on European modernism like me, the wrought iron “folk” hardware collected by Albert Barnes and integrated with his precious the French (mainly) paintings and African sculpture. (Barnes may have been on to something after all with his universalist formal reductionism, despite his blind spot when it came to content.)  Even more so, the Barnes-commissioned mural, now in the collection, by Ellen Harvey (not in the Biennial, but a great candidate) comprised of separate, movable depictions of each of Barnes’s related objects (Metal Painting, 2015). For Lee the paradigm is language—one built on components with accrued associations if not meaning through their past lives as functional object parts, reshaped and shuffled into 3-D “texts.”  Other compelling bricolage approaches include Joe Minter‘s free-standing sculptures of similarly rusted and rustic fragments resonant with notions of past labors, and Robert Bittenbender‘s haywire wall assemblages of hi-tech, bling-y detritus. Some artists are still addressing directly legacies of modernism–, as concept, restriction, barrier, foil, especially here John Edmonds in a loose photographic series that tackles evolving (or not) attitudes towards and outgrowths of European “primitivism” inhered primarily in African art. 

I am sure there are many very “good” videos within the numerous dark, murmuring partitioned areas for this purpose; however, (I’ve mentioned before) I have a hard time giving them the time they require within such large extravaganzas—nothing I am compelled to share on a first run-through–as I am the above.

Postscript (7/22/19): By late last week, eight artists (including Eisenman) had requested that their works be withdrawn from the show in protest of Whitney Vice Chairman Warren Kanders, CEO of weapons manufacturing company, Safariland (which had been mounting). As of right now, I believe everything is still in place. This may end up the most political biennial ever–unquestionably a Pandora’s box has been opened. Perhaps I should not say, but will, hurry.

Simone Leigh, “Stick” ( 2018; bronze); background: paintings by Keegan Monaghan.
Keegan Monaghan, “Blue Door” (oil; 2019).
Wangechi Mutu, “Sentinel I” (background) and “Sentinel II” (2018; mixed media).
Maia Ruth Lee, “Labyrinth” (detail; 2019; steel and laminated key)

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.

“New” Painting High and Low (maybe while high), at MoMA and The Hole

Museum of Modern Art: “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” (through April 2015)

The Hole (312 Bowery): “Early Man” (through December 28)*

Starting with the low (in the hipster-dipster-DIY sense), the current show at The Hole features charismatically goofy, subversively adolescent-ish work. While dominated by painting, the overall raw, playroom approach and aesthetics, heavily evoking the Id, is embodied in a chaotic, man-cave installation by Dennis Hoekstra, which, punctuated by a punk-monster video by Takeshi Murata, makes the tangled studio-fun-houses of Jason Rhoades look elegant. Bjame Melgaard’s putty clown-Golem “portraits” recall messier, pastier Jean Dubuffet and Cobra (Asgar Jorn, Karel Appel). A hilarious graffito-type painting of “two balls” by Maksai Kawai riffs (knowingly or not) on a satiric lineage beginning with Jasper Johns (Painting with Two Balls, 1960); more obviously and very effectively satiric are Devon Troy Strother’s cut-and-paste, black-face and dime-store glitter take-offs on Matisse’s signature circle of dancing, androgynous “primitives.” Philip Guston’s studio isolation / bad diet pictures are recalled in Katherine Bernhardt’s sloppily-rendered pizza slices-and-Mr. Coffee still life.** Francine Speigel brings a photo-shop sensibility into her paintings of melting-hot, futuristically rocking babes of another time and dimension. In the beginning, Scott Reeder’s painted void sky seems to say, “man’s” dreams were limited to meat–and perhaps they still are—a plastic hamburger is balanced on top  of the floor-leaning canvas like a Platonic word. Stand-alone sculpture includes (among others) Barry McGee’s enigmatic, kineticized figurines who seem just to have discovered spray paint and are mindlessly creating obliterative, fuzzy orbs in front of them; psychedelic ceramic  Women of Willendorf by David Pappaceno, and wound-wool-crafted, “after-school” creations by Jim Drain.

Meanwhile at MoMA, “new painting” means, first and foremost, GINORMOUS; and secondarily, the continuation of the at-least-once-removed quality of postmodern painting entrenched in recent decades—but less interestingly conceptual and more decorative. The virtual centerpiece is a 20-some-foot, faux Minimalist, leaning painting by Matt Connor that might be called, I’m not afraid of red, yellow,and blue, the final, crushing word on Barnett Newman’s previous triumphs in his famous series (late 1960s). Laura Owens’s digitized paintings are blown up newspaper ad pages transferred to canvas and then marked with loosely floral patterns—postmodern cubist table-tops, also recalling certain methods of immediate predecessor Christopher Wool. Mark Grotjahn’s triptych is a palette-knife fiesta of swirling painterly abstraction (although he starts out with representational images), nearly refined to recall the controlled concentric quasi-pointillism of Richard Pousette-Dart. Julie Mehretu has gone Cy Twombly, filtering color out of her overblown etch-a-sketch mappings. Oscar Murillo represents reverse-chic street-inspired splatterings. Nicole Eisenman and a few others overlap with some of the adolescent-like efforts in the show at The Hole. While those mentioned and other specific works are interesting, a number appear overly cerebral while simultaneously lacking any messages that are not patently obscure.  The paintings at The Hole are frankly a lot more engaging as a group in their formal abandon and unfiltered authenticity.

*The colloquialism “Cave Man,” okay, but if not, how about “Early People“?

**Roberta Smith mentions the omission of Bernhardt (among other “edgy” new painters) in  the MoMA show in her review, “The Paintbrush in the Digital Age,” The New York Times, Weekend Arts II, 12/12/14.