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 Nicole Eisenman’s Dysfunctional Family (2000)—included in the artist’s current solo show—which turns the happy, gender-normative family of Norman Rockwell illustrations on its head with relish. In this small, sepia-toned, and deceptively benign-looking painting, Dad draws from a decidedly phallic-looking bong; Mom manspreads on her armchair while knitting, revealing pantless genitalia; and 2-year-old Junior, naked on the floor, has smashed his penis into a bloody mess with a kid hammer.
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 Renaissance Venus figure is shackled to a wooden frame, or Commerce Feeds Creativity (2004), in which the shadowy, emaciated figure of Free Market Capitalism force-feeds the bound and cowering figure of the Artist, fattening her up for consumption—also have the similarly potent quality of early-modern satirical cartoons.
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 Kirchner, Renoir, and so many others. In The Triumph of Poverty (2009), a large-scale canvas the artist painted in response to the 2008 market collapse, a disparate cast of characters crowd into and outside of a modest orange banger of a car. They are idiosyncratic figures, stoic and sober, if ravaged by poverty. One separate figure, in a tux and top hat—the human manifestation of Wall Street?—is depicted with his pants down, revealing buttocks in place of a penis, and leading six small-scale figures who are drawn from Pieter Brueghel’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1568).
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.