On view through this past weekend at the New Museum, painter Nicole Eisenman was showing a striking exhibition of pieces on the third floor, spanning the artist’s output over the past several decades, and underscoring her impressive creative investigations into the modes of sculpture and painting.
The artist worked through any number of painterly and sculptural touchstones throughout the course of the show, tracing a formal evolution defined more by a series of exchanges and incorporations than a singular evolution in a single mode of practice. Cartoonish figures shared space with more exacting, anatomically correct figures, or elsewhere, collided into sharp visual punchlines that give the show a sense of a carefully told narrative, orchestrating long buildups and quick, witty jabs, often through a variation of new and older work. Her handful of sculptural selections, each one accompanying a room of paintings, shows this same sensibility in three-dimensional space, moving from ready-made objects like stuffed squirrels or Captain America athletic wear, on to her own cartoonish figures, and through to strange arrangements of other materials like sticks and adhesive.
Nicole Eisenman, Biergarten at Night (2007), via Art Observed
Formally, her compositions are constant flurries of invention, spinning myriad formal techniques, historical epochs, subject matter and even media through any number of works in her exhibition. Styles frequently cross from work to work, or drip into various scenes from the course of her career, which in turn makes other works all the more notable for their sheer divergence in approach and focus. Her works take visual puns and quick jokes to the next level, twisting them into real explorations of the canvas space, and using a distinctly post-modern, yet playful logic to constantly subvert the viewer’s perception, creating strange optical illusions or twists on her depicted scenes.
Eisenman’s stylistic mastery was perhaps best seen in one particularly striking piece, Progress: Real and Imagined this act of creation is given center stage, both in subject matter and technique. Eisenman’s figure labors through veritable storms of books, papers, and even a choppy sea, colliding metaphors that are balanced by her claustrophobic rendering. Her writer’s home seems to literally surge forth from the surface, as his own creative energy reaches a fever pitch. Yet Eisenman treats this moment with a painterly deliberation, simultaneously denying the work endless space to expand outwards. A painter’s table (potentially her own), sits in the foreground, caked with a thick layer of oils that seems to reframe the whole canvas as an exercise in spatial subversion, breaking immediate readings of foreground and background, especially when one notes the fluttering postcards drifting over the frame of the work and out towards the viewer.
Eisenman’s use of figurative subject matter is telling here, employing familiar forms in a distended, warped final execution that recalls high surrealism in its strongest moments. Her employment of everyday scenes, banal experiences and public spaces, in conjunction with her varied depictions of the human form, provide her an opportunity to experiment with both reality and the act of painting simultaneously. Like many of her forbears, Eisenmann takes the act of painting as an end in itself, but one that is never divorced from the environments or histories that make it possible. This collision, echoed on her canvases, invites the viewer into a lingering consideration of her spatial logic, returning an emphasis on the act of viewing that few painters of her generation can match.
Eisenman’s exhibition closed yesterday, June 26th.
— D. Creahan
Nicole Eisenman: AL-UGH-ORIES at New Museum [Exhibition Site]