Seeing through Nicole Eisenman’s Al-ugh-ories
If you enter the Nicole Eisenman show, “Al-ugh-ories,” at the New Museum the wrong way - take the stairs to the third floor, where you will bust into a wing with no wall text to announce it - you will come upon some smaller paintings first. A green man spooning some strange liquid into a bound woman’s mouth will greet you, next to a kind of undead couple having a glass of wine. If this sounds uncomfortable, I encourage you to indulge it. These paintings take your temperature. They are works you warm up to.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of entering a space the wrong way. Entering a building the wrong way, entering an exhibition the wrong way. Entering a painting the wrong way, entering history the wrong way, maybe even entering where you’re supposed to exit.
In keeping with my entrance of the exhibition, I thought I would enter the conversation on Nicole Eisenman the wrong way, too. I would start with a you and an I, a gesture of irreverence toward academic writing on art and toward self-erasure more generally. I take Eisenman’s paintings as an encouragement to use an I in a critique of them, an I that writes or paints into and out of overdetermining structures. Form to match content, so to speak. Eisenman’s paintings make this seem a dubious binary in the first place.
If Nicole Eisenman and I have something in common it is probably a shared desire to do art history the wrong way, to stack it and skew it, to watch the wiggling Jenga tower of it all topple.
Stacked art history and poetry books act as bookends in two paintings: Is it So and Night Studio. Framing the two reclining lovers of Night Studio, the book stacks point us to places outside the painting, toward references as scattered as Ernst, Byzantium, Goya, Japonisme, Rousseau, Bellmer, Munch, Breugel (an Eisenman favorite). Together they create a canon between which Eisenman’s figures are quite literally situated, a (mine)field of references presented as a frame. To first state the obvious, none of these named figures are women, so the queer lovers appear within a frame of male art historical references. Yet, neither individual part nor whole of these collected references helps us out much in making sense of the painting. We could consider the nude bodies in relation to the abject dolls of Bellmer, perhaps, or the flattened shimmering surfaces of Byzantine art, but only to be led into mental traps of our own making. As influences or interpretive lenses, these great men only take us so far.
Foils to see through, these books throw the very notion of “reading” a painting into question. Art historical allusions turn out to be illusions. Rather than providing resolutions they assist us only about as much as the Bumble Bee tuna cans do as they sit in the background of Tea Party, resting on a shelf behind Uncle Sam. Perhaps it is not that these references point outside the frame but rather to the frame itself, to the hierarchical structure of canonization, the stacked nature of historiography. The anachronism in the act of stacking Ernst on top of Picasso on top of Vuillard on top of Breugel and Munch is already a reshuffling of the art historical deck. With Eisenman we get an intervention in the form of a dishevelment.
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If you enter the Nicole Eisenman show the right way - take the elevator to the third floor, step out into a large room with the introduction to “Al-ugh-ories” written on the wall - the first piece to blast you in the face is her 2006 painting, Progress: Real and Imagined. Here Eisenman has most clearly allegorized herself as painter in the whirling world of her studio. We enter a cosmos of canvas flying, daubs of paint flung willy nilly, a rotting cheeseburger long forgotten under a low table. The whole image is out at sea, clinched by some bearded seamen who pull the frame taut with a diagonal oar.
So much shit brown sits on the surface of Eisenman’s paintings, from the squirted-out raised taupe spurt, to the ruddy brown patches of her 2008 painting Coping, to the dark mudpie color in The Work of Labor and Care. These lowly, abject turd moments of Eisenman’s paintings deserve a closer look even as they incite a kind of strange, even olfactory disgust. “How’s my painting?” a cheeky bumper sticker at the top of Progress probes, pointing to Eisenman’s sarcastic play with expectations of what a painting should look like. Her asynchronicity of style and gesture, not only within her body of work but also within a given painting, makes this question difficult to answer. Whatever frame of reference we brought with us to assess the painting, we will have to let it go. As with the temporal incorrectness in her stacks of art historical references, here the whole idea of progress becomes hairy at best.
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Nicole Eisenman knows that a painting is always already an allegory of itself. You don’t have to fill it with symbolic meaning for it to be loaded, fraught with an often hard-earned ideology. Always participating in an act of (art) historical narration subject to power, paintings, like any I or you which anchor speech, somehow get away from themselves in practice.
That I can call the hands clasped by the mid-cunniligus couple in Is it so “hands” does not detract from their pinkness, their round fleshness. Eisenman’s yellows are too strange, too acidic, her greens too toxic to make sense of - in the same way that the I or you is always in excess of itself, in excess of meaning. For all the old talk of figurative painting as too obvious, Eisenman’s figures refuse to resolve into any easy narrative. Too stout, too warped, too skeletal, sometimes all at the same time, they actively resist any “about” function of a figurative painting. In all their delicious obviousness - or what is mistaken for obviousness - the kind of sight that Eisenman’s paintings demand is what she describes her father, a US Army psychologist, as having taught her: “to see things that are not there and to see through things that are.” Our seeing through must be double - to look beyond the picture only to arrive back within it, looking back at us. These figures see through their own picture plane, through their world of quite palpable fictions and into our own.