Entangled in the messiness of life: Nicole Eisenman's What Happened at Whitechapel Gallery, London
Dec 11, 2023
Nicole Eisenman’s first major UK solo exhibition is described as a “highly humorous commentary [on] some of the most prescient socio-political issues of the time,” and yet it feels much grittier, more personal, voyeuristic even. 100 works share Eisenman’s experience of the US over the past four decades – lust, solitude, friends and fears, loss and anger. These canvases speak viscerally of surviving a moment in time, with others and alone.
The exhibition moves through eight chronological chapters, covering the breadth of Eisenman’s works from the beginning of her career up to now. The first chapter begins with a salon hang of early paintings on paper, including the 1992 drawing behind Eisenman’s discovery as an artist, Betty Gets It - an imagined erotic moment between The Flintstones’ Betty and Wilma. Then come the stand-out works from her mid-1990s exhibitions, where deep navy canvas Hanging Birth (1994) depicts a noosed mother in labour, and Spring Fling (1996) sees Botticelli’s Venus restrained in wrist and ankle cuffs. These early works are slow, carefully rendered and contemplative, but in this exhibition they cannot be enjoyed quietly, given the film on view beside them. Commissioned by exhibition curators Mark Godfrey and Monika Bayer-Wermuth, the video is an animation by artist Ryan McNamara which revives the murals Eisenman made across New York in the 1990s, illustrating the lifestyles and frustrations of her queer community. The film certainly brings these fantastical paintings to life, yet its voiceover by Hardy Hill is a loud and scathing takedown of the artworld, and is vastly distracting. Eisenman’s work may emit dark humour, but it does so with a wry smile rather than Hill’s jarring cackle.
While brimming with commissions, museum exhibitions, and acquisitions in the late 1990s, the early 2000s saw a drop in Eisenman’s commercial presence. And yet, the resulting series of works is sublime. The namesake for Whitechapel’s second exhibition chapter is the 2004 painting From Success to Obscurity, in which a stone-bodied figure, like Marvel’s The Thing, solemnly reads a letter beginning with “Dear Obscurity...” This is the first example of character development in Eisenman’s art, and from here on appears a growing cast of weird and wonderful creatures from popular culture, history, mythology, as well as Eisenman’s life and mind. It is quite extraordinary to see an artist’s period of obscurity so clearly marked out in vibrant, self-examining works. In Commerce Feeds Creativity (2004), a muddy green sliver of a man delivers dripping gruel to Eisenman’s mouth, who is unable to wipe her chin, her hands tied. Inspiration (2004) sees the artist glare out of the frame, her head deep in a black cloud, uninspired and unimpressed – so much that it feels like the subject of her apathy is you. These paintings may sound rooted in self-pity, and perhaps they are, but they are not narcissistic. Instead, Eisenman’s self-portraits are uncannily relatable because they pour out everyday feelings of inertia, disappointment, annoyance – banalities not usually seen to be worthy artistic subjects.
As the exhibition reaches 2007, the global financial crisis looms large. Entering this chapter entitled “Coping,” it seems apt to ask “who is?” Here, Eisenman starts to paint groups of people again, but the struggle and isolation of this period is palpable. Seder (2010) is a Passover feast whose nine diners are engaged in a family tradition, yet it is painted differently, from abstract grotesque to golden-skinned realism. With utterly contrasting expressions, they are completely in their own worlds. The “mother” of the table stares wilfully at the feast leader, whose giant hands break matzo – she is holding this disjointed congregation together, a familiar family story. Meanwhile, Eisenman’s Beer Garden paintings are stunningly complex mazes of figures, vivid in colour, stylistically outlandish and, similar to Seder, displaying a group of people entirely disconnected from one another. Some chat lazily, some drink alone. The artist explains that these places are “where we go to socialise but also commiserate about the world and our culture’s obsession with happiness.” Does Eisenman mean true happiness, or the stand-ins for happiness – success, riches, status – perpetuated by the American Dream?
In answer to this, The Triumph of Poverty (2009), a wild and drastic reworking of Hans Holbein’s 16th century work, points to the unhappy losers of capitalism and consumerism. Replacing Holbein’s mules with a broken-down car, and with characters from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Pieter Bruegel’s 1568 The Blind Leading The Blind, this painting underlines the unchanging story of capitalist inequality. The lead image for this exhibition, like all of Eisenman’s works, is more unnerving. It is also more multifarious in texture with wild color, and achieves more impressive visuals than any reproduction can do justice. This chapter comes to a close with its eponymous work, Coping (2008), whereby a village of people trudge through swathes of yellow mud. They all move, but distinctly alone, affected by the same flood – the same crisis – not helping one another, but trapped in their own stories.
As we rise up and out of 2008, and literally move to the gallery upstairs, the mood changes. Eisenman’s twenty-teens were spent painting artists in their studios, making an optical illusion cover for ArtForum, and creating new cartoon characters who stare at their phones or laptops, take selfies and look bored – is Eisenman bored too? A room of abstract heads on paper and sculpted in clay is introduced by Eisenman’s statement, “When you don’t know what to draw, draw a head.” Yet in this case, perhaps the artist shouldn’t have taken her own advice.
Reaching the exhibition’s final rooms, Eisenman is evidently horrified by right-wing movements in the US, and an ongoing tragedy for liberal Americans becomes another triumph for her work. In the 2012 painting, The Tea Party, a crestfallen Uncle Sam holds his steaming mug, sitting beside a sleeping woman who clings to her rifle while fellow party-goers wire up dynamite. Similarly dejected, the 10 ft. tall Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass (2017) sees the US drift into a murky green, polluted waterfall, its jawbone sailing boat manned by a ghoulish businessman-cum-politician – who could this be? In these deeply political works, Eisenman’s raw and affecting ability is back.
The grand finale to What Happened at Whitechapel Gallery is The Abolitionists in The Park (2020) which recounts Eisenman and friends as they take part in the month-long Occupy City Hall sit-in in Manhattan, one of many Black Lives Matter protests that year. Again, Eisenman draws a line from past to present, her title harking back to the 19th century abolitionist movement, and the genealogy of racism in the US. This is Eisenman’s Beer Garden series meets Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Eisenman borrows the style of the European leisure painting - once the exclusive territory of the white and wealthy - and fills the landscape with the diverse multitudes of people who attended these sit-ins. Back-lit figures share food, offer a light, and rest on one another or alone. The park is politicised, yet soft, and so is the painting. Still, somehow, beneath this togetherness, it is still there – that separation. Eisenman’s work has us entangled in this messiness we call life, together yet distinctly alone in our journeys, wading or sailing through its muddy waters.
Nicole Eisenman: What Happened at Whitechapel Gallery in London is on view until Jan 14, 2024. For more information, please click here.