Thursday, June 15, 2006

Eye on Eisenman

Nicole Eisenman is a painter's painter, with many enthusiastic fans in NYC. Her new murals at Leo Koenig, Inc. examine the tumultous creative process, a life in art, and a dialogue with feminism. A series of intimately-scaled portraits add more autobiography to the show. The murals are entitled Progress: Real and Imagined, which expresses uncertainty about forward movement.

Eisenman depicts "Real" progress in the left panel, where an androgynous artist scribbles with a plume into a large sketchbook. The artist is hunched over, face nearly pressed to the page, with "his" legs sprawled. He is surrounded by painting accoutrements - Bustelo cans, Turpenoid, and jars of mediums - and a "real" palette sits in the foreground, with thick, crusty gobs of paint on the canvas' surface.

Between the painter's Converse sneakers, we find a shattered lightbulb: a busted idea. Loose pages drift around. Are they unfinished drawings, memorabilia, or passing influences? Between the broken bulb and loose pages, we sense the transience of ideas, that they can be adopted or discarded quickly.

Either way, the artist here is in distress, drawing his way out of a sinking ship. In the distance, an Icarus figure grasps a life preserver and in the foreground, a man tries to pull his mate back on board. If the crew of the Medusa could have been saved by an earnest painter, this hero(ine) would be the one. Despite the near-disaster, the artist continues to work, displaying commitment and perseverance. The painting says, "Hard work is a virtue" or "Where there's a will, there's a way." Or maybe it describes the ways that painting can consume the artist, making him oblivious to the surrounding world, placing him into the realm of his imagination.

Progess "Imagined," according to the same painter's vision, unfolds in the other panel, a frozen landscape inhabited by Amazons developing an agricultural/economical system that appears to be based on artificial insemination. Gangs of women port around the testicles of a slaughtered, giant male whose head rests in the open. Some women carry rifles; others ride horses and supervise hunting dogs. Eisenman has used glacierscapes in the past, as in "Sloppy Joe Party" (2000), "The U.S.S. Williamsburg Crashing into the Shores of Fame" (2003), and the "Mining" paintings (2005). These pastoral scenes indicate a utopia, where people follow natural ideals and live off the land - Rousseau, Gauguin, etc. But Eisenman's utopia is frozen, and therefore, infertile. A tree grows in "Imagined," but it is barren. Thus, Eisenman's lesbian utopia is almost uninhabitable.

In "Imagined," we see more of Eisenman's personal iconography. In a cave, a figure resembling the Fantastic Four's "Thing" sadly reviews a letter. A similar figure appeared in "From Success to Obscurity" (2003). This self-critical melancholy is assuaged by humor. In the cave above, a vagina-headed figure pets a phallic-shaped cat. Above that is a cartoon drawing of a bulldyke with tits and three penises, saying "There's Some for Everybody." A Bergman reference pops up in a nearby game between a woman and death - they are playing "Sorry." Here, the "game" is maybe a pun on the game that women hunt - men. Death sits with his legs crossed and head resting in hands, a pose Eisenman has used in numerous previous paintings to indicate observation or dejection. Death may be losing this game.

"Progress: Real and Imagined" is a diptych, essentially. It features an ambiguously gendered, but apparently male, artist generating an imaginary land. In this land, men are compromised, reduced to currency - only useful for survival, merely necessary. They are like nutrients or shoes. However, the artist conceiving this world is apparently male. As a creator, he masters this universe and reigns supreme. Yet, he is still created; created by a female artist, who is making a painting about making a painting, and who is aware of her power as a painter.

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