By Mona Molarsky
At a time when performance art, contraptions and conceptual art continue to dominate the contemporary museum scene, it’s a pleasure to find an artist who actually paints, draws and makes prints. Nicole Eisenman is not the only one, of course-—the vast majority of galleries still show works on paper and canvas. But the aura of hipness has hovered for a long time.
At the Whitney Biennial this spring, Eisenman commanded two large walls and then some with a couple of oil paintings and 36 colorful monotypes depict- ing the human form and face. Finding Eisenman’s engaging monotypes among the installations and manifestos felt like coming upon a patch of African violets sprouting in field of cacti.
In Eisenman’s atmospheric and darkly funny works, figures dance, make love, scowl, drink, drive cars, send text messages, cry, masturbate and contemplate death. Her exaggerated lines, intense colors and high emotions can be satirical, bitter and angry, and there are echoes of Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann, George Grosz and Philip Guston—-so much so that the artist sometimes risks seeming retro. She admits how closely she’s studied the expressionists, Picasso and—-surprisingly-—the impressionists, including Renoir.
At 47, Eisenman has had a robust career for more than a decade and keeps on winning critical acclaim. Before the Biennial closed in May, she’d opened her fifth solo show at Chelsea’s Leo Koenig gallery. In The New Yorker, she was hailed as the most prominent of a new generation of expressionists, most of whom are women.
Eisenman, who is gay, often portrays herself and her friends at bars and parties. Some recent etchings feature women draped over wine bottles and beer mugs, bringing Picasso’s Blue Period to mind. But Eisenman’s identification with Picasso and the expressionists is fraught with contradictions, given that these otherwise great artists abused women both on and off their canvases. Those sorry chapters in art history leave feminist artists-—and what artist worth her salt today isn’t one?-—in a tortured conundrum with no easy way out.
As a queer critic of American culture, Eisenman is quick to parody machismo. In “Captain Awesome,” a painting from 2004, a shirtless dude with his baseball cap on backwards stands in front of a phallic silo, holding an ear of corn and giving the thumbs up sign. It’s creepy, true and far too easy. But a recent lithograph of a disheveled old man holding his own shadow is more nuanced. In fact, some of Eisenman’s finest works, like her 2012 etching “Portrait of Evan,” have been of men.
To grasp how far Eisenman departs from some of her contemporaries, one need only consider the 2012 Biennial, where the Whitney asked their artists to participate in programs to educate the public about their work. Mostly, this involved a lot of talk. Some artists joined panel discussions; others wrote essays, staged happenings or made videos to explain themselves. Eisenman did something radical. She handed sketchpads and charcoal to the crowd and brought in some naked models. Then she told everyone to start drawing.
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