If Nicole Eisenman spends so much time at beer gardens and dinner parties, then when does she reserve the peace and quiet studio time needed to toil over these moody, mysterious, playful, unsettling, and hilarious pictures? Her palette seems uncaged, but the handling is not reckless. Even when she dispenses oozy snakes of buttery paint to enhance (or corrupt) the placid surface, she is still restricted to roped-off zones of canvas, like a rowdy child penned in a playground.
How does she cultivate that rambunctious style, as jarring and enviable as an early bloomer, while simultaneously revealing a quiet admiration of art history – and pulling it off so effortlessly? She swipes historical styles and movements while poking them and shooting rubber bands their way.
But these are love taps. She knows that by giving history a wedgie, she preserves history by stirring it; it’s like pinching to prove wakefulness.
Speaking of love: these paintings’ titles, settings, and likenesses tell us how much of this work is based in autobiography and personal life.
But first: Tim Davis once identified Nicole as “our Daumier.” Just as 19th-century French painters haunted the Paris cafes to sip absinthe, Nicole’s contemporaries hang out at Williamsburg bars for a few rounds of frothy beer. She captures the shifting congregation like the creeping timelapse of an Impressionist landscape. The surrounding crowd dissolves into monochrome figures, passing shadows, huddled groups, cameos of mask-like visages, and detailed likenesses in varying degrees of pertinence. Nicole intimates the din and density of a crowded patio, instead of settling for an indexical panorama of one.
So one assumes that the “rendered” faces in the crowd are candid portraits of close friends and family, given that many of the paintings’ titles are on a first-name basis with their subjects. For example, Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste probably stars artists Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and Ulrike Mueller, the latter an editor of the lesbian journal and collective LTTR.
There’s even an arresting gaze from a glowing stud. Thumbing his Blackberry, he isn’t that guy obliviously hunched over his device while everyone else is talking and laughing together; instead, his piercing blue eyes shoot laser beams across the gallery and rivet us in place as we cross by. (I hope they will soon zap the noisy gallery attendant behind the counter. I mean, I’m trying to concentrate here!)
So what gives with all the weird sex? Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar, but those bottles are so…erect. And abundant. Just look at the silhouette guy having a Green Door moment. I’m not the first to point out that many people stroke, peel, and clutch their beer bottle when sexually frustrated. So what do painters do?
The Triumph of Poverty is a phallocentric dystopia, as flummoxed by renegade potency as Uganda. First, there’s the sad-looking salesman, leaning against the car, his pockets emptied and inverted. His right-hand pocket aligns with his crotch and hangs like a deflated balloon or post-Bunnicula drained squash. And then how about this blind lemon-colored man leading a chain of sightless peasants? Obviously, his arse is turned forward (or backward), but his eye socket seems to be a peculiarly puckered orifice.
There’s something wrong with the men here, and I can’t deny the ways the painting reminded me of the foresaken decade we lost to the straight-shootin’ Bush administration.
The women, on the other hand, are mightily functional. There’s even a distribution of labor among these independent matriarchs. Compare the study for Winter Solstice 2012 Dinner Party with the finished version.
In Nicole Eisenman’s world, a woman needs a man like Julia Fish needs a bicycle.
But I think Nicole just needs her books, her beer, and her buddies.