Overt art-historical referencing in contemporary art, whether intended as a critique or an appreciative nod to the source, can come off as navel-gazing. And for all its punkish chutzpah and critical acclaim, Nicole Eisenman’s work of the past 20 years didn’t exactly break out of that mold. Her formula was relatively consistent: canonical styles (e.g., Italian Renaissance, American Regionalism) + provocative subject matter (e.g., bondage scenarios, figures with vaginas in place of their faces) = contemporary cultural critique.
Although the paintings in this show retain Eisenman’s appropriation-minded methodology, they use it to entirely different—and far more powerful—ends. Gone are the epic scenes of sex, death and violence; in these seven large paintings and a salon-style installation of 18 small ones, 30-something Brooklynites smoke and socialize in outdoor beer gardens or lock eyes boozily across dinner-party tables. And stylistic tropes borrowed from the likes of Munch, Bruegel and Rousseau are used for their deep psychological potency rather than for their footnoting potential.
The disturbingly red ear of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, for example, appears on various figures throughout several paintings, suggesting that flushed point of inebriation when what one hears has more to do with one’s inner emotional landscape than with what is actually said. In Beer Garden with Ash, a kissing couple that recalls Picasso’s post-Cubist portraiture speaks to the fractured identity which results from one person physically fusing with another. The sickly half-closed eye of the jaundiced androgynous figure in Night Studio reveals itself, on up-close scrutiny, to be an actual slash in the canvas; the small-scaled yet deeply resonant violence makes Lucio Fontana’s works seem downright playful. In Winter Solstice 2012 Dinner Party, a relaxed man whose complexion recalls that of the artist’s wife in Matisse’s Green Stripe listens attentively to a Toulouse-Lautrecish matron while a drunken, heavy-lidded young woman makes the moves on a Soutine-like monstrosity. One can only imagine the head-splitting, art-hysterical hangover these dinner-party guests will endure in the morning.
Despite all their references, the subjects of these paintings read more as real-life people than the archetypal characters of Eisenman’s earlier works, suffering profound alienation as they grope to connect with one another. The new paintings are still about sex, death and violence, but these themes have gone subterranean—it’s as if Eisenman had switched from her loud, three-chord punk approach to an unsettling minor-key dirge. Ironic adoption of old-master techniques may have long served as a conceptually fruitful approach for Eisenman, but it also clearly taught her something about the sheer potential of paint. The works in this show are truly masterful in their utterly original peculiarity.
Photo: Nicole Eisenman: Night Studio, 2009, oil on canvas, 65 by 82 inches; at Leo Koenig.