Nicole Eisenman’s Paintings Will Make You Laugh, Even When It Hurts
It’s not every day that a painting makes you laugh out loud. But at least two of us at a recent New Museum press preview cracked up while viewing the irresistibly fucked-up humor of
This dark (but, some might say, cathartic) satire extends throughout much of “Al-ugh-ories,” as Eisenman has titled her show, nodding to the cocktail of sexuality, grotesquery, and symbolic power that it contains. Other earlier paintings—like Spring Fling (1996), in which a
But this style of painting is just one of numerous genres and histories that Eisenman has absorbed into her consciousness and, as Grace Dunham describes in her great essay on the painter’s work, “consumed, chewed up, and spit back out.” Eisenman’s work is so heavily referential that several of her paintings literally contain stacks of books, seemingly indexing the encyclopedic range of sources she draws on. These are not only art-historical, but literary, too. Volumes by Homer and Emily Dickinson are among them, and the array of movements, tropes, and characters that surface in her paintings do not overwhelm so much as provide layer upon layer of dense complexity, prompting viewers, at least this one, to puzzle over them endlessly.
Eisenman excels at group portraits, which by turn recall
The artist’s most absorbing portraits, though, are those of lone individuals. In Hamlet (2007), Shakespeare’s cerebral prince is pale, effeminate, brooding, and mired in a deep psychological solitude that is portrayed here as dense blackness. Deep Sea Diver (2007) depicts a ghostly man whose awkwardly oversized diving suit could also be a space suit, or even elements of a regal ensemble. Yet this uncertain hero, standing against an expanse of ocean, is somehow without time or location, a state that applies to Eisenman’s Hamlet, too. Both figures are queer not only in the sense of subverting gender norms typical of the weighty portraits-of-old this style of painting invokes, but also in their agelessness. Both seem to hover on the edge of some eternal abyss.
Masculinity—which, if we’re to believe the media or the plethora of sad-white-guy movies and TV series out there, is in crisis—appears to be a central subject for Eisenman. One need only look at a painting like I’m with Stupid (2001), in which a cartoonish man-child gazes down at his flaccid penis with a look of deep sadness and self-doubt. Though it’s tempting to view her work through this lens, however, the artist’s own gender identification gives pause. “What looks masculine in a painting,” she says in an interview with the exhibition’s curators, Massimiliano Gioni and Helga Christoffersen, “could be a self-determined gender mutineer, or trans, or something completely off the spectrum.” Eisenman may be staking her claim over the male-centric canon of Western art, but she deploys its tools and techniques to ultimately show the whole range of humanity as fragile, complex, and tragic.
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