Nicole Eisenman at Jack Tilton Gallery by Meghan Dailey
Nicole Eisenman has been something of a phenom at least since the 1995 Whitney Biennial, where her two installations of pictures -- including a floor-to-ceiling mural showing the museum literally in ruins -- wrested figuration -- History Painting even -- away from whomever it was that had it and claimed it instead for a sensibility that is firmly rooted in underground cartooning, that exults in a play of the imagination that is almost hallucinatory, and that is outspokenly and sexually lesbian. Her new show at Jack Tilton includes unframed sketches and more polished drawings, collages made from magazine pages and largeish pseudo-serious paintings, and mixed medium installations that combine painting with toys and other props.
Eisenman's imagination often surfaces in moments of inspired destruction. The installation piece Airport chronicles a journey for both passengers and the airline -- none other than TWA -- beginning with a happy departure and parodies of advertising full of shiny, sexy promise, then moving on to the boozy, in-flight pleasure, and concluding with imminent crash. The fiery end is depicted simultaneously as horror, in a drawing of dead and dying figures, and as tragi-comic, in the mess of a dolly and her charred plane on the floor. Another drawing, Cats at Wintergarden, is lighter, portraying everyone's fantasy of that damn musical going up in flames, cats and audience members fleeing.
Taking center stage at the rear of the main gallery is Ship Wreck, an installation that is centered around a mural of doomed mateys -- including a self-portrait of Eisenman -- sitting in their hold playing cards. On the floor below swirls a rambling, wooden whirlpool of canned oysters, toy boats, sandals and kitschy reproductions of ships and yachts. In the eye of the storm is a drawing of a mosh pit. Disaster is tempered by comedy.
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Nicole Eisenman - artist, by Liz Kotz
Nicole Eisenman's figures cavort across page and wall with raunchy perversity. In her stream of recent drawings, gouaches, quick cartoons, and large-scale murals, diverse genres and art-historical references collide with ferocious energy: comic books, history painting, Ash Can School, Pablo Picasso, linear perspective, Saturday-morning cartoons, the hybrid musings of Saul Steinberg. These deadpan samplings populate a Rabelaisian dystopia of the comic, the grotesque, and the orgiastically violent. Yet this fancifully excessive sensibility veers from gritty urban realism to bubblegum. The exuberance of Eisenman's execution makes her morbid hallucinations light-hearted and cartoony: part William Burroughs, part Betty Boop.
In Eisenman's Minotaur Hunt, a mural presented as an installation at New York's Trial Balloon Gallery earlier this year, bulky Amazons hunted down virile Cubist icons amid a throng of spectators who grappled and shoved with spears and swords, as if in a war scene by Uccello. All the tricks of academic illusionism were in play: chiaroscuro, foreshortening, compositional geometry, detail, the depth perspective of Renaissance history painting. The densely modeled figures intertwined and merged in the shadows; a horse reared up among them. Yet a collapsing of spatial depth, and superimpositions of imagery in a kind of cross-historical collage, gave the mural a postapocalyptic quality of sensual overload that jarred as it seduced. Animated by a wry humor and a perverse passion, the barrage of images and juxtapositions was less the product of art-historical.
However densely worked, however large in scale, Eisenman's murals are ephemeral: Minotaur Hunt, and a linked scene titled Penelope in the Pit, were temporary affairs, to be painted over for the gallery's next show. But Eisenman has also made a series of expansively detailed ink drawings that replay her handling of the figure on a more contained scale. In Captured Pirates on the Island of Lesbos, 1992, a gleeful horde of brawny women enact a ritual of mass castration. As in the murals, the weighty figures sprawl and pulsate, modeled with ink washes that evoke old-fashioned magazine illustration; despite the murky palette, a pop sensibility persists in the cartoony line, underground content, and ribald humor. In Trash's Dance, 1992, for example, a performer poses aggressively on the stage of a rough-and-tumble lesbian bar, in a scene that recalls some of Reginald Marsh's bawdier works.
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