Art is never made in a vacuum, as all visual iterations must derive from something: a momentary glimpse of refracted light, a train pulling out of the station, a woman lying languorously on a bed. Whatever it is we are witness to, at least in the context of art, it has been done before. The trick is to create a compelling conversation between the ‘now’ and the ‘then,’ to find threads of association, of understanding and celebration.
Nicole Eisenman has always been a renegade maker of things that are at once luminous and sardonic. She is an artist who asks the questions we are too afraid to ponder, and then she answers them for us – with wit, grace and infinite wisdom. Her answers may not always be what we want to hear, but rest assured they are true. Nicole Eisenman and the Moderns. Heads, Kisses, Battles establishes what the catalogue essay describes as an unprecedented dialogue between the artist’s own oeuvre and that of twenty-seven modern artists, including (and perhaps most importantly) Vincent Van Gogh. This, to be sure, is not an easy task, and it is one that could easily have slipped into sentimentality were it not for the fact that there is not one sentimental bone in Eisenman’s body.
As a means of holding focus, the exhibition concentrates on three themes, each of which are popular subjects in art – that of the head, kisses and battles; in other words, portraits, images of sex and love, and the omnipresent human predicament that is war. What is also of interest is the fact Eisenman culled the work for this exhibition herself, selecting works from the Aargauer Kunsthaus in Aarau, Switzerland, the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany and the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands. So, in essence, the artist has created a visual conversation between her own practice and that of other artists, whose works reflect specific ideas and concerns that are at once personal and universal. There are moments of breathtaking beauty and recognition in this show and others of irreverence and ribald humor, but always one has the sense that these parallels afford us as viewers a unique understanding of how visual associations can affect and influence our understanding of the world.
Perhaps the most obvious associative thread here is socio/political, and works by artists like Otto Dix, James Ensor, and of course Max Beckman prove to us that themes of desperation, cynicism, and the ever-present presentiment of war sadly never go out of style. Eisenman mines these themes in her own works like Weeping Woman, 2007, where a lumpy faced woman stares out at us with a streak of white smeared across her right cheek, indicating tears. This work, like so many others in this exhibition, functions as both a portrait, ambiguous and strangely terrifying, and an indictment of war as the woman is clearly distressed and powerless inside her own life. The face is modeled in a primitive style that is reminiscent of the work of artists like R. Crumb or George Baselitz, and the falling water from her all-too-open eyes functions more like the identifying “mark” of terror or emptiness rather than simple salty tears.
This conflation of ideas and themes happens again and again in the show, creating a kind of layering of ideas and concerns. For Eisenman, a kiss is never just a kiss, but transforms into a portal of self-reflection and socio/political commentary. An example of this is the painting Le Kiss Deux, where two people are seen kissing, however, the figure on the right has they’re eyes closed seemingly in ecstasy while the figure on the left appears stunned by the gesture and stands with eyes bulging in a liplock that may or may not have been invited. Is this a gesture made under duress, or is this figure simply reflecting back to us both the complexity and ambivalence of modern life?
Love in all its multifarious expressions is a prevalent theme in this exhibition, and there are several images including the stunning portrait by Co Westerik, entitled Man in the water, woman in a boat (1959), which showcase the tenuous relationship between men and women. Even here there is ambiguity as the young woman sports a forest of underarm hair while the man beside her appears smaller and more fragile, his ribcage protruding from underneath his nipples. The woman’s gesture, arms raised and crossed behind her head also suggests that she is the one who “wears the pants” in this relationship. Like most of Eisenman’s work, this image is oddly discomfiting as the woman is clothed and safe inside the boat while man is naked and immersed in water, suggesting a shift in the traditional balance of power between the sexes. It is indeed not surprising that Eisenman was drawn to this work as her own work reflects the same tension and ambiguity and the burring of more traditional gender roles.
Finally, there are exhibitions that leave behind an indelible impression on the viewer, and this is one of them, a show that challenges our presumptions and notions of beauty while also suggesting and indeed celebrating alternate ways of being. I wish I could have stayed there all day and into the next, expanding my mind as to what it means to be human.
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York. Wood is currently represented by Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles.