Who is Nicole Eisenman? She doesn’t seem too sure herself, so what chance do the rest of us have? The New York-based French artist’s work is so full of clashing influences, disparate styles and dense references that she becomes impossible to pin down.
In her early work from 1990s New York, she creates satirical paintings that mash together high renaissance influences with caricature and comic book references in searing cultural critiques of the artist’s place in society. Naked swimmers fondle in a pool, a hanged woman gives birth, a kid sells women’s pee like it’s lemonade. It’s all cartoony, gross, quick, clever. Eisenman found early success with these works, but it was fleeting, so then she paints herself as The Thing receiving a letter addressed ‘Dear Obscurity’ and as a nude woman bound in rope by her gallerist.
All this early work feels like French satirist Honoré Daumier going to therapy, hanging out in hip New York instead of revolutionary France, looking inwards instead of outwards.
It’s all cartoony, gross, quick, clever
She eventually gets less introspective. The early 2000s brought the Bush administration, an economic crisis and a war on terror. Things get panicky, heightened. She paints group scenes of people in bars or around dinner tables, anxious paintings of worried people, full of nods to Otto Dix and interwar European painting.
Upstairs she depicts art classes where each figure is painted in a different style, a sculptor staring at his own bust, sharp reality, splodgy abstraction, comic exaggeration all vying for space on the same canvases. She paints a series of people staring at screens, images and sculptures of heads that could all be by different artists, allegories for the rise of Trump the American alt right. Some of it is great, some of it is good, and some of it really isn’t.
It ends with a huge kinetic sculpture of a figure bent over a mound of wet, squelchy clay, surrounded by endless different little works it has made. And finally we figure it out, this is her, this is Nicole Eisenman; she’s an artist, engaged in the endlessly mucky process of making art. And it’s in that process, that filthy journey, that her art finds meaning. It’s political, it’s personal, it’s sad, it’s funny, it’s a mess, it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s not great, but it’s always Nicole Eisenman.