Can Aliza Nisenbaum’s Group Portraits Capture the Bonds of Community?

New York

at Anton Kern

Aliza Nisenbaum: Jenna and Moises, 2018, oil on linen, 64 by 57 inches; at Anton Kern.


Aliza Nisenbaum’s exhibition at Anton Kern, “Coregrafías” (Choreographies), focused on three subjects: London Underground workers, dancers from Lower Manhattan salsa clubs frequented by the artist, and the gallery’s staff. Most of the fifteen large-scale paintings on view were multi-figure portraits of members of these groups. To create such works, Nisenbaum plots out the compositions and then paints the subjects individually, in one-on-one sessions.

Nisenbaum studied psychology in her native Mexico City before turning her attention to figurative painting. In the early 2000s, she relocated to the United States to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She began incorporating elements of social practice into her painting in 2012, when she started volunteering as an art and English teacher at Immigrant Movement International—a community center in Queens, New York, founded by artist Tania Bruguera—and painting portraits of her students, who were largely undocumented immigrants. Nisenbaum’s work resembles social realism and Mexican muralism, but without the sloganeering and generic figures. She engages with the particular, rendering specific individuals and communities through a process of intimate exchange. In her practice, painting becomes a medium of social cohesion, the works providing a vivid residue of her sustained contact with other people.

Nisenbaum’s portraits rely on sharp color and contrast. Hot yellows and reds are used liberally for lit flesh, and shadows tend to pool in chilled purples and blues. Whether in a London Tube station or a nightclub, walls and floors are in Technicolor, throbbing with mazes of tile or flecks of carpet pile. In Anton Kern Gallery Staff (2019), painted in the weeks leading up to the show, all the gallery’s employees—from the directors to the art handlers—pose together in its storage room against a vibrant backdrop of works by other gallery artists stacked or leaning against the walls. Kern is shown resting on a ladder at the painting’s center, an iPhone in his hand. There are moments of fun and bliss in the works on view, like the four exuberantly dressed friends dancing in Mis Cuartro Gracias (Brendan, Camilo, Carlos, Jorge), 2018, their hands interlaced. Other paintings are quiet, off-duty. In Anya’s Dancers, 2018, women gather in a nightclub dressing room. They sit in a circle, removing their high-heel shoes.

Nisenbaum often portrays subjects from groups that are historically underrepresented—due to race, nationality, class, sexual preference, or gender—and she names them, honors their identities, and participates in their community life. There is something disturbing, though, about these portraits: the faces are expressionless. Even when Nisenbaum depicts moments of intimacy—as with the friends wrapping their arms around each other in Puro Teatro (Jorge, Carlos and Brendan), 2018, or the casually embracing couple in Ximena and Randy, Sunrise (2019)—the figures seem atomized and estranged, their gazes never meeting. In London Underground: Brixton Station and Victoria Line Staff (2019), which served as the basis for a large-scale mural recently installed at London’s Brixton Station, the fifteen Tube workers depicted have individualized features, but nearly all of them look out at the viewer with the same blank, contented stare. The wild colors begin to seem compensatory: flashes of mint, teal, and pink strobe a club setting in Jenna and Moises (2018), generating an air of emotional heat that is missing between the two figures, even though the woman leans cozily on the man’s shoulder.

It’s difficult to determine whether the sense of detachment in Nisenbaum’s work is a formal shortcoming or a conceptual choice. The peril of her method, it seems, is that by engaging with her sitters piecemeal and then planting them in group compositions, she loses a sense of what binds them. Communities, while composed of individuals, are always bound with some third term—a culture, a shared interest, a common purpose—and the challenge is rendering that in paint.


This article appears under the title “Aliza Nisenbaum” in the November 2019 issue, pp. 98–99.