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NICOLE EISENMAN: WHAT HAPPENED

Updated: Nov 12, 2023


11 OCT 2023 - 14 JAN 2024

WHITECHAPEL GALLERY

77-82 WHITECHAPEL HIGH ST


"art is her political megaphone"

Nicole Eisenman at The Whitechapel Gallery London : Sloppy Bar Room Kiss 2011
Nicole Eisenman at The Whitechapel Gallery London : Sloppy Bar Room Kiss 2011

REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR

For Nicole Eisenman (b1965 France, living in Brooklyn) art is her political megaphone. And she has a lot to shout about from sexuality, racism and poverty to the wretched state of America. Described as a political activist, her early work challenges heterosexual hegemony, with erotic, often pornographic lesbian images, making lesbianism, or at least her experience, visible. Her later works take on the economic crash of 2008 and its devastating fallout followed by the alienation in relationships due to technology dependence and finally the rise of American fundamentalism with the advent of Trump and the call for Black Lives Matter.


The Whitechapel’s solo exhibition opens with a wall of explicit paintings and drawings, depicting robust, lesbian sex in comic strip or cartoon style. Some poses are insolent, some are more are pornographic, but all are part of a body of work which places desire and eroticism first. Sluts, 1993, is a take on the Presumed portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister the Duchess of Villars (Fontainebleau school, circa 1594). Alice in Wonderland 1996, has a girl under the legs of an American icon. And Betty Gets It 1992 is a sexual take on Betty Boop with another cartoon character.


Although described as “witty” by the curators, her paintings and sculptures are unsettling. Many of her compositions are sexually and violently explicit. These large-scale paintings are unnerving with women tied up or hanging in symbolic torture.


Coping 2008; Portrait of Nicole Eisenman (Photo Brigitte Lacombe); Morning Studio 2016


Uniquely, Eisenman combines German Expressionism with a Marvel comic style. She refences an Austrian Jewish heritage with European figures in caps painted on large canvasses. People or characters are bulky and heavy limbed as if weighed down or immovable. They stare impassively resolute. They look indifferent, bored, or just downright angry.


Nicole Eisenman: Econ Prof 2019 Bronze
Nicole Eisenman: Econ Prof 2019 Bronze

Although gender fluidity is preferred in Eisenman’s narratives, her figures and portraits look positively masculine. In M to F to M to F 2015 shows an uncompromising stocky guy (M prevails?) with arms crossed looking mad.


Eisenmann’s inspiration from Marvel comics is translated in From Success to Obscurity 2004, in which she presents “the artist” as a thick-skinned monster. She describes herself in the third person as “the artist”, a gender-neutral reference. She depicts the life of an artist working with clay (Achilles Heel 2014) or part of a life drawing class (The Drawing Class 2011). The surreal infuses Eisenman's paintings with claws for hands and dark primitive figures mixing with mid-century, Jewish men in bowler hats.

With the election of George W. Bush as US president in 2004, Eisenman shifts her attention to direct political statements. In Coping 2008, her characters are wading through the mud of an economic crisis. In Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011 two women crash on a table before empty bottles, passed out, their lips locked. In The Triumph of Poverty, 2009, a family of bereaved figures, march in resignation as if at a funeral.


There are rare glimpses of the Eisenman’s family. Her mother is represented in Seder 2010 at a Jewish religious dinner. And her father, a psychiatrist, is present in The Session 2008, in which a blotchy faced Eisenman lies on a couch clutching a box of tissues before a vase shaped like a penis as her father takes notes. In “Screens, Sex, and Solitude”, Eisenman draws on the world of social media and technology. In The Morning Studio 2016, two women lie before a screensaver of the solar system and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. In Break-up 2011 and Selfie 2014 animation characters stare wide eyed at mobile phones. The explicit sexual representations of her early works are absent.


Eisenman moves into the cerebral, quite literally, around 2015 spending a great deal of time painting, drawing and modelling heads. Whitechapel provides ample evidence of this pre-occupation with a gallery dedicated to "The Head". Eisenman believes the head has a deep, physical connection with the viewer, “when you can’t think of what to draw, draw a head”.


Eisenman's most recent work forcefully brings together Surrealism, German Expressionism and political activism in a series of large-scale paintings challenging the trajectory of white supremacy during the Trump presidency. Dark light, 2017 has a swastika structure as a white coalminer beams black light amid coal fumes. The Dark Ward Trail 2018 shows grotesque figures patrolling the Mexican borders and Tea Party 2011 depicts dejected white people preparing a bomb. Aptly, “Nicole Eisenman: What Happened” ends with the artist’s unflinching challenge to populism.


#WhatHappened @_TheWhitechapel

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