Nicole Eisenmen: Al-ugh-ories at the New Museum May 4th – June 26th 2016
Nicole Eisenmen: Magnificent Delusion at Anton Kern Gallery May 19th – June 25th 2016
“Non-figurative art brings to an end the ancient culture of art. The culture of particular form is approaching its end. The culture of determined relations has begun.” – Piet Mondrian
When I read a wall text declaring that an artist is the best of their generation I tend to shudder. I don’t believe hierarchy has any place in art, in fact it can create blinders. But in the case of Nicole Eisenmen, (b. 1965, Verdun, France) my distaste for power rankings subsides in knowing that the artist is in complete control of her own destiny and the scope of her imagination covers a multitude of subjects I like; camp, caricature, satire, parody, irony, the sublime and the psychosexual.
We live in a ridiculous culture that is not always funny. Art with a sense of humor or art in touch with the absurd, as opposed to art with an overbearing single message, lends itself more freely to my appreciation. I don’t like being hammered by a notion, there is enough of that in politics. I have affection for figurative work and value the many gestures in its long history.
That said, Eisenmen elevates nuance in today’s condition of social and psychological fragmentation in ways that are novel, there are many shades of meaning in her work and she captivates with pure physical expression not theoretical trappings. The artist reflects her world through the figure and art history. She conveys her intellectual and emotional nature with a similar panache of the Neo-expressionists before her, who also returned to the figure to express their own anxieties in the late 1970’s.
Eisenmen is making a heroic journey of self-expression: imagining herself in fascinating roles while challenging the viewer out of a certain conformance. At times the work has the epic narrative of isolation but never loses touch with reality. For this reason I associate with The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. And like John Bunyan, the author of that famous allegory, Eisenmen is a true non-conformist.
There are a multitude of interpretations in the concise exhibition Nicole Eisenmen: Al-ugh-ories at the New Museum. The chef-d’oeuvre in the central gallery is the magnificently layered Progress: Real and Imagined, (2006). The massive painting, appropriately in a Swiss private collection, depicts the toiling artist, lost in the sea of her own imagination, wrapped in the tug of creative war, as images flutter down from the caved ceiling.
Nicole Eisenmen seems to be a true Romantic where existence is solitary, psychically charged, and relationships are spiritual embodiment’s of unknown forces. In the past, when her partner became pregnant Eisenmen said she was more confined to her studio and would have her friends visit and paint them into beer garden scenes, in a sense recreating community there in the studio. The notion of recreating community in a recent work at Anton Kern, Another Green World, 2015 is magnificent.
She also understands the dangers of our community as well. Masterfully irreverent, she can calibrate understatement with overstatement.
What I respect most is her outright refusal to be pigeon-holed. In a section of an interview included in the catalog for the New Museum show, Massimiliano Gioni asserts that her work is the voice of the queer community. Her response is classic.
MG: But something interesting has happened in recent years: your work has attained not only a unique sense of gravitas, but it now speaks with a kind of authority. To simplify things dramatically, for me, your work has also become the voice of the queer community.
NE: 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.
It is great to see the culture of figurative art returning to the galleries and museums of New York. Go out and see these exhibitions as they speak of great things relevant and true.
And lastly, there is also a very smart self-portrait included in Human Interest: Portraits from The Whitney Collection exhibition that is worth noting. The work is from an early exhibition at Jack Tilton (I believe) and clearly shows the fear of measuring up as an artist and of being on the outside. Nicole Eisenmen has measured up and is now on the inside flourishing. She has learned to deal with the pressure of being an artist very well by creating her future and “culture of determined relations.”