at the Institute of Contemporary Art
By Aubrey Levinthal
For those walking into Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman’s mid-career survey at the ICA, the first reaction seems to be amusement. Visitors are greeted by gargantuan, surly painted faces looking into the space beyond their heads, and boozy figures in pubs and beer halls lethargically stretched across their enormous canvases. Within a minute of glancing around the walls of the show, a side smile is cracked or a little laugh is uttered. This initial response is followed by sustained, serious engagement as viewers get closer and dig into the works more deeply. Such simultaneous levity and contemplation is a rare thing to see in a single show, and a testament to the power of Eisenman’s paintings. They walk a narrow line between humorous and somber, felt and cerebral, gestural and rendered, built up and scraped away.
Originally organized by the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis and reorganized for its Philadelphia installment by ICA curator Kate Kraczon, this rousing survey provides insight into the mind of a major contemporary American artist. A 1987 graduate of RISD, Eisenman moved to New York, showing in the 1995 Whitney Biennial at the tender age of 30. Now on view, 20 years later, is her artistic development from 1993 through 2013.
A sprawling show of over 120 works fills the lower level of the museum with exuberance for color and the human form. Large scale, multi-figure paintings and framed portrait drawings animate the walls, while podiums of hulking busts pepper the space throughout. Everywhere you look there is something to take in, viscerally and cognitively. Eisenman’s use of material is raw; some canvases are built up inches thick, others created through a careful, woodcut-like removal of paint. In a 2007 work titled Saggy Titties, fleshy ribbons of paint are layered so thickly they become a low-relief of a woman’s face, while two grapefruit size balls of paint droop down beyond the bottom edge of the canvas, giving the painting its apt title. The abandon with which she creates is never self-indulgent, but masterfully utilized in tandem with her subjects. Sloppy Bar Room Kiss shows a couple of unspecified gender in a drunken lip-lock languidly laying on a pub table, their noses painted as one pink shape of a single color.
In the four large galleries that house this exhibition, there is a pulse of ideas and energy that compresses the space, a feeling that correlates to Eisenman’s explanation of her own mind. In a talk at the Barnes Museum with Kraczon and art historian Martha Lucy, Eisenman remarked that her memory constantly feels “overstuffed.” She noted an inexhaustible appetite for art, popular culture, and current events. Dear Nemesis suggests that she is the type of artist who always has her eyes open to the world, constantly absorbing and reforming information. The voracity with which she consumes her environment comes back twofold in her work; within the same painting are intimate details and political ideations, or a simultaneous nod to Impressionist painting and Expressionist figuration.
This is not to say the work is incongruent or all over the place. On the contrary, Eisenman’s all-encompassing approach and the tension between multiple expressions in a single piece is the defining aspect of her practice, a strategy that fuels the complexity behind it. Looking at the series of paintings depicting scenes at a beer garden, there is a decidedly “celebratory melancholia,” an oxymoron Eisenman put forth to describe the feeling inherent in these pictures. The play of pitting multiple emotions against one another is clear in Brooklyn Biergarten II. At first glance, the repetitive white outlines of beer glasses and yellow string lights distributed throughout the canvas feel jubilant, along with thick impastos of a woman’s hair, dancing couples, and gestural flower beds framing the scene, bringing associations to Renoir’s luncheon paintings. But slowly, those raucous moments of brilliant color become discordant, and disturbances begin to bubble up: a pale man’s face with transparent red drips is bleeding from his temple, a hooded skeleton over a bar goers’ shoulder materializes out of nowhere, a sickeningly green figure ruminates over a beer and a cigarette. Suddenly Degas’ Absinthe or an Ensor painting seems a better comparison.
These paintings depict the Bush era, a time when Eisenman and members of her Brooklyn community were ill at ease with the political state of affairs abroad and at home. She uses the structure of the painting to not just illustrate but recreate the experience of ignorance and escapism as bliss. Viewers first find gaiety and ease in the picture, but after extended look it all goes to hell.
Eisenman’s paintings are built in such a way so that when you look for long enough, you feel as if you are witnessing her experimentation with material and color, unfolding through the act of making. For all the content-based narrative swirling through the paintings, there is an openness to process that breathes life into these explorations of politics, the economy, gender, and sexuality. A couple of the earliest works are stiff in their narrative and hesitant in process, like Captain Awesome, which pictures a young, white, male, shirtless in mud with a phallic corn cob in one hand and a phallic silo behind. The painting does not seem to involve a lot of material reworking, and it is a comparatively easy read.
Works from the mid-2000s on begin to tap into more personal subject matter and bring greater freedom in process. Sunday Night Dinner shows the artist’s home, with her partner A.L. Steiner and guests around the perimeter of a bright, white table with plates of spaghetti. One figure, on the far left, is naked, her leg up on the chair exposing genitalia that are unsettlingly similar to the pasta dinners. A male figure sipping wine in the foreground looks lifted straight out of a Van Gogh painting; a figure behind him, who would flatten into background without her patterned dress, resembles a woman Vuillard may have painted. No one is talking, as you might expect at a dinner party. Instead Eisenman captures a familiar moment we all know well but rarely see recorded: being in a social environment and having private thoughts. Each figure seems to wear their feelings on their face, bringing up questions of social norms, both public and private. Depicting the figures in multiple styles brings the art historical narrative to the table as well, considering the question of how the representation of women in painting has changed over time. Perhaps Eisenman decided to reclaim Manet’s L’dejeuner sur l’herbe for her gender.
In this painting, as in the series of beer garden paintings, there is no clearly illustrated opinion, but rather a non-verbal response and questioning of social and historical issues. When the work is turned inward, feelings on these subjects abound but with no resolved position or conclusion. They are complicated and conflicted in the way that one’s own opinions are complicated and conflicting. By reflecting multiple viewpoints, Eisenman never forces anything onto the viewer.
At her talk at the Barnes, Eisenman’s last comment was in response to a question from the audience on the importance of politics in her work. She said that while her paintings are overtly politically charged, it does not define her focus: “after all, I am a painter, not an activist.” Her ability to make paintings that get it all in there, messy and unresolved, is an echo of her own complexity as a person and why Dear Nemesis is an incredible feat. It leaves the work wide open, raw and vulnerable, to let viewers in.
Aubrey is a painter who writes about paintings. She lives and works in Philadelphia.