Nicole Eisenman: Sturm und Drang
On ViewThe Contemporary Austin
Sturm und Drang, a solo show from Nicole Eisenman that’s on view at The Contemporary Austin through August 16, features representative examples of her art. You’ll find a mix of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper ranging in size from a room-filling grouping to individual pieces you can hold in your hand. Almost everything is of recent vintage, with three exceptions dating from the 1990s. The exhibition celebrates the artist being a recipient of the 2020 Suzanne Deal Booth/FLAG Art Foundation prize. Based on what’s gathered here, Eisenman, 55, could have won this latest honor for her paintings or sculpture alone, or even just for her works on paper. From this sampling of her career, she emerges as a wily overachiever. No matter the medium, she excels. Besides her skill at making things, she forcefully expresses herself with aplomb, conviction, empathy, bravado, and a gift for visual storytelling.
Procession (2019–2020), the riveting multi-figure work that occupied a terrace of the Whitney Museum during its recent Biennial, has been reinstalled on the ground floor of the Austin museum. Its massive characters, huge heads, and trio of runt-like creatures look as good indoors as they did outside. Because these compelling personages have been somewhat rearranged, as well as lit properly, you’re more readily aware of the myriad details. The overall nature of Procession still intrigues, but now so do its most minute aspects. Man at the Center of Men (2019) is a case in point. Seated on the back of a bent over, subservient figure who’s on all fours, this ungainly, oafish humanoid holds two angled garbage can covers fitted with mirrors that function as reflectors to quicken his getting a tan. At the Whitney, this overlord needed a strong dose of sun at a specific time of day to beautify its complexion. In Austin, overhead lights aimed at the mirrors allow the figure’s face to glow 24/7.
At The Contemporary, you’ll also come to appreciate Eisenman’s talent for free-association. Take the tuna cans she dangles from a pole carried by another enigmatic figure in Procession. These cans call to mind Alexander Calder’s mobiles, especially the ones composed of tin cans that retain their labels. And since these ersatz Bumble Bee products are actually fabrications cast in metal, they also relate to Jasper Johns’s infamous pair of ale cans. Masterfully modeled giant heads extend this multivalent vein of thinking. Several bronzes rest atop packing crates that serve as pedestals. Talk about double-entendres. With the impressive yellow-beaked, aluminum Eagle (2018), the artist suggests a story or fable by inserting a cuckoo clock into its hollow core. Similarly, a hearth-like scene transpiring within the confines of Witch’s Head (2018) suggests we’re confronting an unfamiliar fairy tale. Would modern artists like Gaston Lachaise or Henry Moore ever have used the interior spaces of their portraits and helmets this way? Hardly. Chalk one up for Eisenman.
Eisenman’s generously scaled paintings take a different approach. Some of her painted heads favor a geometric vocabulary that calls to mind Russian Constructivism and related movements. Groundsweller (2014) has a face that’s a cross between a deconstructed Malevich figure circa 1931 and Marcel Marceau’s persona as a mime. With a few shapes and a subdued palette, Eisenman has brought into being a new species of human. The eyes, nose, and mouth are so mesmerizing, you hardly notice the cigarette or marijuana stub held by the creature’s raised fingers. Nearby, in Breakup (2011), a woebegone character with a green complexion is a poignant study of dismay. There’s little doubt that the figure staring at its smart phone is receiving bad news. Unhappiness is writ large with just a few patches of paint.
Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down the River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017. Oil on canvas. 127 1/4 x 105 x 1 3/4 inches. Artwork © Nicole Eisenman. Image courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.
Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass (2017) dominates the second floor of The Contemporary Austin much the way Procession does near the entrance to the show. Large, dramatic, and accessible, this painting is the poster child for the show’s title, Sturm und Drang. Two boats, one of which resembles a giant on his belly with outstretched arms and bent legs, travel along a puke-colored river beneath a stormy sky and near barren trees. They are headed towards certain doom. The men in these vessels, including one who plays a flute and another who beats a drum, are about to tumble over the falls into turbulent rapids. Unlike Eisenman’s multi-figure sculptures, which are devoid of specificity, her paintings establish particular times and places. These locations, not just the actions of Eisenman’s characters, contribute to the mood the artist wants to convey.
Heading Down River… is a rich, vibrant allegory. With abundant details, Eisenman establishes that the scene is life-like. The characters playing instruments are oblivious to what’s about to occur. Eisenman’s sailor, identified by his hat and striped shirt, and her businessman, wearing a suit and tie, are both stock types. The hole in one of the sails is not just a random rip, but resembles the silhouette of a king wearing his crown. Instead of oar locks, there are rows of super-sized dentures. Detritus has collected in the river by a floating log: a tire, mattress, and traffic cone. Rather than a rat abandoning ship, you’ll find an adorable squirrel on a miniature raft who’s hugging an acorn. With their believable people and settings, Eisenman’s work harks back to a time when adjectives and adverbs, not just nouns and verbs, animated dramatic paintings. Her range, as seen at The Contemporary Austin, extends from caricature to allegory. Now let’s see where her multi-faceted, ambitious career leads her.