In the catalogue for her current exhibition Al-ugh-ories at the New Museum, artist Nicole Eisenman responds to a question on her employment of painting by the Museum’s Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni who asks, “Did you feel that you were taking on a slightly anachronistic medium?” Eisenman replies, “That never occurred to me. Maybe it had to do with how conservative my education had been at RISD: you go to art school, and they teach you how to paint. And I had spent a year in Rome looking at work by Mantegna, Caravaggio and Michelangelo: I was just looking at it, as if it was normal, as if that’s what art is. To me, they felt contemporary because I was discovering their work in the present moment, and it was blowing my mind! Also, I was connecting the classical work I saw in Italy, with its storytelling function and serial format, to the comics I was interested in–think of the cartoonish quality of Giotto’s frescoes, for instance” (13).
With her first New York museum survey Al-ugh-ories, as well as a solo gallery exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery and the inclusion in numerous group shows around the city, Nicole Eisenman’s work is ostensibly unavoidable. And thank god for that. Her reinvigoration of figurative painting as a radical and even, subversive gesture reignites the medium that for years seemed to be a lost cause in the contemporary art world.
For example, while wandering through the New Museum’s exhibition on Thursday, I witnessed copious visitors stopping, considering and discussing Eisenman’s paintings, pointing out different characters and brushstrokes. When is the last time you saw that level of engagement with painting? Exactly.
Now a common name in the art world with a 2015 MacArthur grant under her belt, I first encountered Eisenman’s art during the Carnegie Museum of Art’s 2013 Carnegie International. A bright spot in the exhibition, Eisenman created an–and I hesitate to use this overblown critical word–“intervention” in the Museum’s Greek and Roman sculpture room with a series of paintings and enormous plaster sculptures. By placing her own gargantuan statues into a space filled with traditional forms and bodies, Eisenman not only highlighted links between the antiquity and the contemporary world, but she also destabilized the monolithic reverence for classical sculpture.
Curated by Assistant Curator Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni, Eisenman’s Al-ugh-ories features a career-spanning range of Eisenman’s paintings, as well as a small selection of sculptures. Highlighting her painterly practice–a practice depicted mythically and monumentally in her own Progress: Real and Imagined, Al-ugh-ories portrays Eisenman’s use of allegory to depict contemporary society. From Dysfunctional Family, a sepia-toned scene depicting Mom knitting while Dad smokes a bong, to The Triumph of Poverty, made in response to the 2008 financial crisis, Eisenman emerges through Al-ugh-ories as the painter of everyday life in 2016.
It is important to note that, above all, Eisenman’s work is downright hilarious. I find that most artwork that tries to be funny…well, isn’t. However between her clownish and phallically challenged I’m with Stupid or Were-artist, which is relatable to all creative fields, Eisenman strikes the right balance between darkness, camp, cultural satire, sarcasm and dry humor.
With her increasing popularity, many critics with an eye on Eisenman’s career have chosen to focus on her biting and honest social and political commentary on the present day including paintings of selfie-taking, waiting for the train and drinking with death. Ok fine, the last one is an allegory but can’t we all relate?
Bafflingly in his imaginatively titled review “A Truly Great Artist,” Hyperallergic Weekend’s John Yau pointed to the indeterminate gender in one of Eisenman’s paintings–a consistent theme in her work–as an example of her reflection of contemporary life. He writes, “The figure’s gender is not immediately apparent, another indication of Eisenman’s eye for the choices that people are making today.” Now I’m no PhD-level art historian but I’m pretty sure Picasso has paintings where the subjects’ gender is also obscured. While certainly approaching figurative painting with a distinctive queer eye, I don’t see Eisenman’s paintings as statements about trans visibility.
Even more than holding a mirror up to current society, I am interested in Eiseman’s cooptation of past artistic styles, predominantly belonging to “Great White Male Artists.” With references as vast and varied as Impressionism, German Expressionism, Picasso, Goya and more, Eisenman takes on the visual language of these largely white male masters and places herself–a queer woman artist–into the boy’s club of art history.
One only has to look at the stacks of books in several of Eisenman’s paintings to see the expanse of art historical influences in her work. I’ve long felt personal libraries reveal almost everything about a person and Eisenman’s representation of books in her works act as a roster of her own painterly influences. Looking at the erotic Night Studio, two stacks of books both in the background and foreground boast the names of artists including Munch, Picasso, Max Ernst, Matisse, Henri Rousseau and Vuillard, among others.
In her interview in the exhibition’s catalogue, Eisenman explains that early in her career she was drawn to the hypermasculine work of 1980s painters such as Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz. Responding to Gioni’s description of this genre of work as “very macho and conservative,” Eisenman says, “My feeling about painting and gender is that whatever any dude feels entitled to, I feel like: ‘Fuck, I’m entitled to that too.’…I never even really thought about it that much. I just wanted to paint, and I could relate to those guys who were painting at that moment in history” (14).
Whether the decadent vision of The Fag End II or an unexpected take on Renoir’s café scenes, transforming the Parisian café into an urban biergarten, in Biergarten at Night, Eisenman’s use of these various art historical tropes reads as a form of what Elizabeth Freeman terms “temporal drag.” In the chapter “Deep Lez, Temporal Drag and the Specters of Feminism” in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman reveals that temporal drag not only refers to the gender-bending performance art, but also “all the associations that word ‘drag’ has with retrogression, delay and the pull of the past on the present” (62).
Further delving into Freeman’s “temporal drag” in his essay in Identity, Otherness and Empire in Shakespeare’s Rome, Drew Daniel writes, “Elizabeth Freeman has coined the phrase ‘temporal drag’ to describe a salutary yet disorienting ‘tug backwards’ at play in certain specifically queer performances of trans-historical identification. Temporal drag constitutes an affective glue that does not tie subjects within a shared historical present together into a contemporaneous community so much as it stakes a certain generative yet ‘impossible’ longing upon a relationship between a present historical subject and a past historical moment…” (83).
Even though she says in her interview that her interest in painting “never felt anachronistic,” Eisenman’s unlikely identification or possibly, disidentification with these past art historical masters certainly could be understood as an anachronism with many of these artists still admired but almost rejected stylistically. Looking back and connecting with centuries of art-making, Eisenman seems to question the value of progress as it relates not only to to historical “isms,” but also contemporary social, cultural and political occurrences. How different are the scenes captured in Eisenman’s paintings than those in the 19th century or even before? Like David Wojnarowicz’s photographic Rimbaud in New York series, which historian Jennifer Doyle points to as an example of temporal drag, Eisenman resurrects these art historical languages to show both their continued pull on the present and the present’s concurrent and unchanging echo of the past.
By creating work that appears both out of time and unmistakably of this era, Eisenman reflects, as Freeman describes, “temporal drag may offer a way of connecting queer performativity to disavowed political histories” (65). Connecting her own voice and aesthetic as a queer woman artist to these predetermined masters, Eisenman carves a place for herself within this typically white male framework–an unquestionably feminist and queer act.
Despite her subversive gesture, Eisenman seems to shudder at the thought–and who could blame her–of being, as Gioni says, “the voice of a queer community. She exclaims genuinely: “No. God, no. I’m not the voice of any group of people! That’s a horrifying thought. I’d never want to define a community or begin to know what the borders of that community even look like. I couldn’t draw a line around a group of people and claim to have a voice for anyone other than myself” (17).