Nicole Eisenman

Installed at the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, Nicole Eisenman’s retrospective “What Happened” begins at the top of the staircase. If this sounds insignificant, think of the staircase as a threshold. Below is Eisenman’s world filled with lumpy and bumpy, scrawny and stiff bodies bending to the physical and emotional demands of social, environmental, emotional and economic collapse. Everything struggling—oozing, derelict, forlorn and completely entranced in a grim combination of survival and demise. In contrast we, I, the viewer, stand upright and above, neatly contained in our clothing, safely outside the goings-on of the artist’s tragi-comic story beneath. It’s a false sense of security, however, created only to be shattered as we, I, the viewer, descend the steps and confront, artwork by artwork, the pungent mess of our doing. We are the monsters in Eisenman’s quasi-fiction.

Fighting for a first look are two large figurative sculptures caught in the throes of what we used to call “blue-collar” work. They’re called Procession, 2019–20. To the left of the stairs a lumbering figure made of dirtied plaster bends on all fours with hands in front as if in worship. Its feet hang uncomfortably off the edge of a rolling cart with four square tires, warmed by blue and red holey hockey socks. The contraption is pulled by simple rope tied around the hand and head of a giant with a lead-grey body. The hulk also dons snorkel gear with cans of Bumble Bee tuna hanging off the air tube. On the back of the crouching figure, a heap of cotton batting feathers and orange-brown goop closely resembles a large seabird and its nest. The bird fishes off the back of the prostrating figure, not with its beak (it’s gone limp) but instead with a red pole and plastic coffee lids for bait. Together the figures perform a dom/sub relationship, one on their knees in a binding collar and the other controlling all movement. This sculpture is a contemporary allegory of power and exchange, with only the most meagre of rewards.

Nicole Eisenman, installation view, “Nicole Eisenman: What Happened,” 2023, Museum Brandhorst, Munich. Photo: Haydar Koyupinar, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Museum Brandhorst, Munich. © Nicole Eisenman.

To the right, a baseball-capped figure cast in black bronze heaves a pipe leaking viscous yellow liquid that pools around its massive foot. Its face, hands, feet, breast and genitals are unpolished—visible are Eisenman’s fingers as they pulled the once-malleable material around and down the figure’s calf to monstrous toes, down the breast to form a nipple and together to make hands. At the other end of the pipe, a golden orb floats in the muck. This work screams slippage, control and exploitation, with a little nod to artists’ work as well—a classic Eisenman move. Her ability to reference art and art history transforms her work into contemporary period pieces and allows her to take on not only the male-dominated progress-at-any-cost but also male master artists—in this case, Rodin (the figurative male modelled in clay) and Philip Guston (the big foot).

Part of the excitement of this survey is witnessing the way Eisenman oscillates between painting and sculpture without losing material viscerality or political complexity. Continuing to mix pleasure and pain with the personal and political, her painting titled The Triumph of Poverty, 2009, could be seen as the keystone to her life’s work. Walking in some kind of perverse funeral procession, a group of weary figures chaperone a stalled car with no doors, driven by a lumpy female with no clothes. Instead she has an inflamed nose and skin that’s been patched back together. Led by a male in a top hat and black suit, pants slung down his ankles, standing literally ass-backward, the group is burdened by the present—indicated by a group of scrambling rats—and the past, illustrated by a group of tiny medieval people led by a string tied around the Lincoln figure’s hand. Here, Eisenman recalls the painting The Blind Leading the Blind, 1568, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Triumph of Poverty was made shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, who ignited global hope only to begin his rule with a disastrous financial recession. Eisenman’s painting is an excellent indication of her ability to render disenchantment, anguish and turbulence palpable and in their own distinct colours—all amidst an atmosphere of utter absurdity. In other words, she paints realistically.

Nicole Eisenman, Reality Show, 2022, oil on canvas, 210.2 × 162.6 centimetres. Collection of Udo and Anette Brandhorst. © Nicole Eisenman. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, New York, and Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

Another thing that makes Eisenman a genius is her relaxed yet superb sense of humour and attention to detail. In other notable paintings, sex happens with one eye gazing at a television set, a doleful head with sorrowful eyebrows looks down at a mobile phone only to receive a break-up text, lesbian lovers laze on a daybed with laptop open just in case of a work email, and swimmers bruise each other with their limbs as they compete for space in three undersized and tumultuous lanes. In more than one sculpture, bright pink wads of chewing gum stretch between the heels of the figures and the floor. With these (and other) seemingly small details, Eisenman exemplifies her mission—to reveal the ever-increasing complexity of our daily moments, from the largest of terrors and injustices to the smallest annoyances. The gum, the glances, the inside-out pockets of the poor, the rats, the lumpy-bumpy parts of our bodies shaded in tones of shame, violence and aggression—all are symbolic entry points into topics greater than their size.

Yes, putting the body at the centre of economic exchange and power dynamics is one of the things capitalism, and in turn Eisenman, does best. Her figures, her monsters if you will, are embodiments of class politics and racism, environmental abuse, war and extinction, which is either a depressing revelation if you’ve never seen her work or a grand relief if you already have. Blending art historical and real life, past and present, political satires, lesbian/feminist stereotypes and patriarchal bacchanals, Eisenman holds up a much needed, albeit scratched, piece of mirror to reflect not only American contemporary life but also the greater Western world, and what could/should be its last gasp for life. ❚

“Nicole Eisenman: What Happened” was exhibited at Museum Brandhorst, Munich, from March 24, 2023, to September 10, 2023.

Jasmine Reimer is a Canadian writer and artist based in Berlin. Working in non-fiction, fiction, poetry, sculpture and drawing, she uses symbolism, myth and abstraction to investigate states of spiritual transcendence and bodily transformation.

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