Art Seen: National

NICOLE EISENMAN // DEAR NEMESIS,

by Stephanie Cristello

Open Letter to an Enemy: Nicole Eisenman (1993–2003)

When Western painters in the mid-late 1800s imagined the exotic landscape of the East, it was filled with caricature and hyperbole. Style comes into question more in this genre than any other, because the paintings are topical – what you see on the surface, its stylization, its aesthetics, all contribute to the imaginary. In many ways, each painting from this genre is an open letter to an enemy. This is the same type of address cited in the title of Nicole Eisenman’s recent exhibition, Dear Nemesis, which just closed at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis and will soon be travelling to the ICA Philadelphia – a survey collection of over 120 works, primarily paintings and some sculpture, since the early 1990s. Just over a century apart, and yet so related in method, the opponent in question for Eisenman is not outside of the artist, as it was in the past, but is used instead as a frame for her method of production. Both styles of painting beg the question: without gross inaccuracy, how else can you paint pure invention?

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Nicole Eisenman, Guy Reading The Stranger, 2011, 76″ x 60″

To those who are unfamiliar with Orientalism, the movement folds seamlessly into art history – unbound and uncontradicted by the peculiarity of the paintings’ creation date, belonging to an imagined time that could never have existed in the throws of the industrial revolution. The genre hinges on imitation; it is precisely the painting’s inability to depict reality that gives it its charmed and enchanting allure, readily and falsely inventing the image of an unknown locale – like a practice in visual broken telephone – and supplanting fiction for fact. These paintings are amazing slices in time, disruptions in the cannon that break our understanding chronological space. Eisenman’s paintings are dated too – often referred to for their cartoon primitivism, which has been popular since the early 2000s. In contrast to this lineage, she does not paint the other as a means of control or ownership, but attempts to place a mark on her own style. Similarly to Orientalism, these paintings operate as one part love letter, and one part attack, spurned by a colonial ideology that propagates a sense of ownership through creating the image, and having the authority to do so. However, in Dear Nemesis, Eisenman does not point to the urge to depict a subject by means of conquering it, but instead to the instinct to fight against her own impulses, her own desires, for how to construct an image.

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Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993–2013, installation view, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 24-April 13, 2014. Photo: David Johnson.

It is a battle that can never be won, or at least in no quantifiable way, forever in flux by the changeable nature of the formula of a painter pitted against herself. This conflict is not overly dramatic, but is certainly apparent within the surface of each work, which is often edited or masked, or otherwise left bare and unfinished. While there is a nod to primitivism in every of Eisenman’s images, her paintings are not exotic – there is nothing mysterious or romantically imagined in the strangeness she depicts. A definition of the exotic depends on the ability to render a fictionalized subject as primitive, untouched, and above all unharmed, by civilization. Yet, for all the persistently opulent and luxurious projection of Orientalist images onto the other, select European attributes remained in tact. In many ways, the French were still painting what they knew. The same persistence abounds in Eisenman’s work – hers is a known peculiarity, a stylized and accepted form of tastefully distasteful imagery. The paintings are deliberate, unwavering, and unconcerned with nuance or subtlety; the act of unlearning is embedded into the behavior of her descriptions.

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Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011. Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 inches. Collection of Cathy and Jonathan Miller. Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

The deskilling in Eisenman’s attempt to render strangeness is not a revolt against the institution or art history, but an open challenge for herself, laid bare for viewers to witness. The crude texture of her characters’ skin, the brash and deliberate outlines that define the exaggerated figures within tableaux, the patches of thinly applicated paint that barely cover the ground, or the dug-out passages of drawing that carve into the surface, are all archeological – as if she was unearthing some hidden pattern that was embedded into the canvas all along. This is the same resistance in Orientalism: an opposition between wanting to invent and imagine, and the inability to surpass one’s predisposed style. This Gemini nature of Eisenman’s sensibility is well demonstrated by this mid-career exhibition, though one has to ask: who does Eisenman battle if not her own mark – are there any stakes for the viewer outside of this solo encounter?

The answer is in the paint itself. The materials Eisenman works with manifest as paint, first and last, despite their wild and imaginative representation – and always return to this basic, and elemental position. In Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, two faces mash together lying down on the table, sitting in their seats, in tact. The palette is brazen and a touch Fauve, ignited blues, striking reds, and lush greens appear to palpitate with a pulsing heat. You can feel the drunkenness. Even the neon sign in the left corner of the window seems to be lit up, the backwards word B-A-R simply squeezed out from a thin tube of light yellow pigment. The subjects in Eisenman’s work do not deviate so far from the impetus to unveil the savage imaginations of late 19th century Europe, since both depictions of otherwise unconcerned (and indeed unsuspecting) figures have never really existed. The gaze that is so heavily placed onto Eisenman’s subjects is never returned – the imagined subjects never see the result of their creation. Like phantoms, the images exist as fully imagined and unconscious of the artist that so obsessed over their impossible, but necessary, existence.


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Nicole Eisenman was born in 1965 in Verdun, France and lives and works in New York. Dear Nemesis at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis, MO, was curated by Kelly Shindler and will be traveling to the ICA Philadelphia, PA.

Stephanie Cristello is a critic, curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL.

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