The narrative compositions of Nicole Eisenman’s Al-ugh-ories address the mix of human behavior in situations extreme or banal. A festive evening in a beer garden, the artist in his studio, a man in bed—all are commentary on mainstream or counter culture. Her oil paintings—large scale and masterfully rendered—tell a story.
The paintings of individual figures cast too much suggestion to be mere portraiture—Hamlet (2007), holding a skull and sword, armor shining in a kaleidoscope of reflection, halts at a pivotal point in his unexplained story; the rinsed Deep Sea Diver (2007), with tilting posture and apathetic gaze, paused before descending under water. The bulb-nosed cartoon man in Selfie (2014) reclines on his back in bed, holding a smartphone above his face. Darkness surrounds him, shadow of a window in the background, a sketch of a sheep he might be counting floating above his head like an unconscious ambition. But he’s absorbed in his phone, his selfie. Eisenman animates a modern conundrum–The device intended to connect us to others instead isolates us within our own vanity; it’s increasingly a tool for our self-obsession. The selfie practice is common and ridiculous. The figure, cartoonish instead of lifelike, emphasizes the absurdity of the act.
At first glance, many of the works here seem to visualize something normal. Were-artist (2007) depicts an artist at his easel. Mostly average looking: modern haircut, striped tee underneath open chambray jacket, the artist’s paint-streaked hands have transformed into monstrous claws. With them, he angles a paintbrush to canvas. In the background, a window is open, gauze curtains (detailed with the transparent, textural sweeps of a wide brush) are adrift to reveal a full moon. In the foreground, the were-artist’s canvas appears at it’s side, the image away from the viewer, but visible—Eisenman builds the painting-within-a-painting with heaps of colorful pigment. The full moon overhead seems an afterthought; the artist is transfixed, affected by the work he is creating. The symbols here represent transformation, either of the artist by his creations, the artworks by their creator, or the artist within the biodynamic universe where he creates.
A more dire circumstance, it would seem, is the scene in Coping (2008). A small town–a neighborhood of traditional European wood beam and modern architecture is flooded with opaque brown water. The townspeople carry on with their normal lives: a man in a suit walks to or from work, a casually dressed–yet ghostlike–figure crosses the frame with a cup of coffee; in the background, someone stares passively out of a window, others sit and chat at picnic tables, all unfazed, it seems, by the murk surrounding, or the low-levitation of fecal brown clouds. Among the normal specimens are a mummy, with his back to the viewer, walking away, and a naked woman in the mud–both of whom go unnoticed. This sort of crazed tolerance is a motif in her scenes–that humans can adjust to unimaginative circumstances, that the normalcies of our modern lives might once have been unfathomable, that even the oddest of events, with enough repetition, become mundane.
Al-ugh-ories is on view through June 26.