Contemporary Art Museum's 'Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993-2013' Both Delights and Destroys

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Nicole Eisenman’s paintings are sometimes troubling, sometimes touching, often funny and occasionally obscene. They are intricate large pictorials and simple line drawings that broaden a viewer’s mind or slaps his face. Her coloring of flesh is intergalactically democratic; blues and reds and yellows and browns and the lifeless pallor of death masks with dead eyes peering out into the bleak unknown. Eisenman, currently receiving an impressive mid-career survey at the Contemporary Art Museum, references styles and techniques from the history of art like a starving man at a Las Vegas buffet—a generous portion of everything heaped onto her palette and dispersed through a modern brush.

Nicole Eisenman, Breakup Oil and mixed media Courtesy of CAM

Nicole Eisenman, Breakup
Oil and mixed media
Courtesy of CAM

“Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993-2013,” generously curated by CAM Associate Curator Kelly Shindler, exhibits works from Eisenman’s “Bad” paintings—denoting a more focused or deliberate disrespect for recent styles —through her luscious, impasto works with remarkable detail and rough commentary.

Case in point, one smallish drawing shows “Charlie the Tuna” with his fin thrust between a woman’s legs. Charlie is saying, “Nice smell Babe,” and she replies, “Thanks Charlie.” If it weren’t hanging on a museum wall, you might think you are looking into the notebook of a mischievous high school boy, and a crude boy at that. It’s all part of Eisenman’s decidedly lesbian, unladylike point of view. Another nearby drawing features only a tombstone engraved with the word “Dyke.”

Nicole Eisenman, The Triumph of Poverty, 2009,  oil on canvas, 65 by 82 inches, private collection, Omaha, Nebraska.

Nicole Eisenman, “The Triumph of Poverty,” 2009,
oil on canvas, 65 by 82 inches, private collection, Omaha, Nebraska.

Contrast those with “The Triumph of Poverty,” based on Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of the same title from the 1500s, featuring a procession of men and women, some of them on a cart pulled by mules. Eisenman uses the Holbein drawing to comment on the collapse of the U.S. motor industry. Instead of a carriage, she juxtaposes a beat-up jalopy with a naked woman at the wheel, surrounded by motley crew of characters from a bad dream: A woman coddling a baby, who looks toward the mother with expectation while the mother stares dejectedly at the ground, a superhero, an unshaven businessman in a suit and tie, a black child with a distended belly, a green boy holding a bowl (Oliver Twist?), a pale man with red nose and ears and his empty pockets pulled out and central to it all, the disheveled leader in top hat and tails, holding a string connected to a band of lilliputian people—refugees from Holbein’s original—stumbling over a pack of fleeing rats. The top hat man’s pants are down revealing his buttocks facing forward, leading the group arse first, a sickly moon visible beyond the hallucinatory scene. Detroit, here we come.

Nicole Eisenman, Man Holding his Shadow (2011),  Two-color lithograph, Edition of 25. Published by Jungle Press Editions, Brooklyn, NY.  Courtesy of CAM

Nicole Eisenman, Man Holding his Shadow (2011),
Two-color lithograph, Edition of 25. Published by Jungle Press Editions, Brooklyn, NY.
Courtesy of CAM

Eisenman doesn’t subscribe or limit herself to a signature style. Instead, it seems she paints whatever she wants however she wants, without regard to expectations or adherence to any kind of tradition. For this reason, her work, from one piece to the next, is full of surprises. In “Man Holding His Shadow,” a man in an ill-fitting suit and floppy hat holds his own shadow draped over his arms. The concept is delightful, but we feel bad for the man; has he become so disenfranchised he no longer even casts a shadow?

The surprises extend to style changes as well. “Watermark” depicts an intricately detailed look at Eisenman’s two children at their grandparent’s— Eisenman’s in-laws—house. The children are center on the couch with a grandparent on either side. The image is realism, but in the very close foreground, we see what we presume to be the cartoonish hand of the artist spooning food from a bowl. She has brought her children here, but she doesn’t feel part of the scene.

Nicole Eisenman, Watermark, 2012 etching and aquatint, Hahnemühle bright white paper edition of 25 Courtesy of CAM

Nicole Eisenman, Watermark, 2012
etching and aquatint, Hahnemühle bright white paper
edition of 25
Courtesy of CAM

If this all seems a little gloomy, it should be emphasized that there is deadpan humor throughout, even in the more emphatic pieces, like little wrapped candies found on a battlefield. The exhibit is fun, and a little hurtful. Topping the list of dire artworks is easily “Hanging Birth.” Clearly referencing art of the Italian Renaissance—the ones with cupids flying around and angels blowing heralding trumpets—the painting depicts a woman hanging by the neck from a tree, surrounded by men. One pulls a child from her lifeless womb. The men look eagerly, even happily, towards the baby and pay no attention to the woman. It’s disturbing, but even here Eisenman gets in her humor. In the upper right, one of the men blows not a heralding trumpet, but a party favor. In the other corner a man videotapes the whole thing for posterity. Those little details, taken separately, are sort of funny, but in context the painting is all the more horrific. The work is as packed with meanings as it is of luxurious detail.

“Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993-2013,” is an important exhibit, and it will remain on display at CAM through April 13, after which it will move to Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Do yourself a favor and see this extraordinary exhibit while it’s here. For more information, visit the Contemporary Art Museum website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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