Crudely, Playfully: Nicole Eisenman at the New Museum
Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories at The New Museum
May 4 to June 26, 2016
235 Bowery (between Rivington and Stanton streets)
New York, 212 219 1222
Exiting the east stairwell onto the New Museum’s third floor, I am greeted immediately by Hanging Man (2016), a sculpture of wood and wax mounted on a wheeled, metal table. The wooden structure’s arms end in clumps of clay from which organic sticks awkwardly protrude. Just below this armature, a figure rests vertically but upside down, legs kicking in the air atop a torso-less giant head. Clumps of dark brown wax are strewn about the worktable. Below, a stream of burnt sienna paint issues from a tube to form a spiraling pile beneath the table’s final shelf. Crudely, playfully, this tableau evokes linguistic and experiential allusions that, much as we try to avoid it, are undeniably part of human life; these rough, “piece-of-shit” objects suggest the different shapes and smells that our bodies are capable of producing. However, equally present in the sculpture is its titular relationship to hang-man — formally established in the hooking arrangement of the wooden arms — and the history of violence so carelessly invoked in this children’s game. This olfactory experience and the following tide of associations seems a fitting introduction to “Al-ugh-ories,” a survey exhibition that attempts to address the humor, complexity, and satire of Nicole Eisenman’s varied and probing works.
After the fashion of the old masters that she alludes to, Eisenman creates compositions so rich in their references that they are painted not only in pigment but also in words and relationships. In Night Studio (2009), the names of artists and movements listed on the spines of painted books color my reading of the painting, pressing it into a history of imperialism and cultural appropriation, even while objects such as a bottle of Vitamin Water and an orange extension cord return the scene to the present moment.
In literal and contemporary interpretations, Eisenman demonstrates the ridiculousness and crudity of the ideas that construct our intellectual canon. Eisenman visualizes Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex in Dysfunctional Family (2009), mocks the fleshy dynamism of Michelangelo’s renditions of the human form in Spring Fling (1996), and teasingly exaggerates the tawdry romance implicit in traditional renditions of Death and the Maiden (2009). The Triumph of Poverty (2009) gestures explicitly to Hans Holbein the Younger’s drawing of the same name, even while imposing a group of miniature figures copied directly from Pieter Bruegel’s The Parable of the Blind Men (1568). In spite of the richness of this iconography, there is a fundamental humanity in Eisenman’s paintings that make them legible to a varied audience. Her portraits render our lives in startling relief, bringing the awkwardnesses and banalities of life to the painted canvas. This leveling does not discriminate between an alluring nude, an individual performing oral sex on his or her partner, and boy looking onto his own body with confusion.
In a society that mortifies the flesh for the beacon of intellectual democratization, Eisenman’s sculptures and canvases confront us with visions of human corporeality, capturing the body in all of its base carnality and abjection. Captured in gaudy hues and caricatured parts, these figures are aliases for human bodies that allow us to enter a surreal space of symbolism and alterity. In the startling revelation of the human form rendered grotesque and confusing, Eisenman refuses to adhere to expectations of class, age, or gender. In Coping (2008), a mummy, a bundled form, and a female nude pass each other in anonymity on a provincial street. A reclining yellow figure in the forefront of Night Studio, although explicitly female, remains uncertainly coded in a challenge to a sexual binary that is fully realized by the child who castrates himself in Dysfunctional Family. Many of Eisenman’s characters exhibit a curiosity and physical self-inspection that both question and potentially affirm difference. The cartoonish cyclops of Selfie (2014), a boyish figure in I’m with Stupid (2001), and child in the Dysfunctional Family all seem to wonder “Am I normal?” These disruptions ask us, in turn, to dispute the idea of normal and other cultural expectations laden with judgmental biases.
Eisenman reveals modern allegories in even the most banal of gestures. The stack of books and cheap beer depicted in Night Studio do as much to communicate time and narrative as iconographic and allegorical details do in classical paintings. The individuals who live out the minutiae of the everyday in these colorful canvases unselfconsciously wear their unusual identities on their sleeves. As layered as they are in emblematic markers of character, these badges point to an “ordinary” that is not necessarily common. By comparing the flawed models of aesthetic tradition to the normative power of contemporary conventionality, Eisenman demonstrates the stifling impossibility of conforming to the idealized archetype. In the lovingly mocking tone of Breugel’s paintings of peasants, the artist brings our daily discomforts and failures into sharp (or occasionally stylized) relief. These unapologetic portraits of unexceptional life are characterized not only my mistakes, foolishness, and crudity, but also by the joys of affection and laughter. Eisenman’s forgiving gaze tells us that it is alright to have a nonconventional face, body, or sexuality. Because nothing follows the prescribed model, particularly not our allegories.