During the past fifteen years, New York–based artist Nicole Eisenman has created a self-aware and psychologically probing body of work that includes installations, animations, drawings, and, with increasing focus, paintings. “Coping,” an exhibition of new paintings and monoprints, opens today at Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin and will remain on view until October 18.
I made the paintings in this exhibition throughout the past year, gravitating, as I often do, to particular images (both found and imagined). I put them in drawings and then on canvas, initially working on one at a time and then on several at once. When selecting paintings for the show and thinking about them as a group, I realized that they are all somewhat depressed or depressing and that what ties them together is their embodiment of different notions of coping. The world can be a depressing place these days. I don’t think I’m depressed—though I did experience something akin to a midlife crisis recently—but the state of the world, and my opinion of it, necessarily filters into the work.
The earliest painting in the show is Coping; it depicts people trudging through muck in a town setting, which directly preceded a revelation I had in the studio that it was time to try painting interiors. That in turn led to the canvas that depicts me in a therapist’s office. But the epiphany about painting interior spaces was less about the subject matter than it was about my need to push myself formally. I frequently paint vague outdoor scenes, like Coping or The Fagend, in which the figures are placed in an artificial, tableaulike environment. If you take the figures out of The Fagend, it’s just a big bunch of abstract blocks with patterns on them. I liked that aspect and wanted to pursue it further. To do so, I debated taking the figures out of these canvases, but I couldn’t. I’m not ready—and don’t want—to make that jump.
In a way, I couldn’t do it because I don’t know how else to make paintings. What would I pull from? If the figures aren’t included, these constructed worlds seem entirely removed from reality and rather self-indulgent. You need the figure—or, rather, I need the figure. Not necessarily for narrative, as the work ends up being as much about feeling or atmosphere as a particular story. The atmosphere of this show is one of sadness. Sadness arises from particular circumstances, but it can move from the mind into the body, from something focused into something more general—a lethargy, that pit in your stomach. I hope there is a connection between the movement of an intense emotion as it infiltrates the body, becoming less legible if no less present, and the dissolving of the figures in my works into patches of abstraction. (Perhaps viewers will be able to tell I’ve been looking at Edvard Munch and the Impressionists lately.) This is particularly true of the thirty prints in the exhibition depicting people “crying,” where washes of ink run down and obscure their faces.
In a way, the whole show is a collection of faces. When visitors walk into the gallery, they encounter the thirty prints and then Brooklyn Biergarten II, a very busy scene—a painting of heads that are locked in space because their bodies lie on top of one another. Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life. There’s a whole genre of paintings, particularly French ones, of people eating and drinking, and the beer garden seems to be the equivalent, for certain residents of twenty-first-century Brooklyn, of the grand public promenades and social spaces of the nineteenth century. It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked-up place and about our culture’s obsession with happiness. The paintings in this show hopefully present something of a ballast to that obsession. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.