PRINT January 2004

Jeffrey Kastner on Judith Eisler

IN AN INTERVIEW IN THESE PAGES LAST SUMMER, French theorist Jean-Claude Lebensztejn invoked Duchamp’s elusive, lyrical notion of the “infra-thin” as one way to think about the complex relationships between Photorealist paintings and their source materials. The evocative neologism expressed Duchamp’s fascination with finely pitched distinctions between apparently identical objects or conditions; with the way closely related things tend to seep together across their shared edges yet somehow remain distinct and integral (among his poetic examples: the warmth that lingers on a seat after someone has risen from it). More than simple adjacency, infra-thin association proposes patterns of causality, of transition and exchange, between extremely similar but nevertheless discrete things or situations—like a Photorealist canvas and the photo on which it is based. In fact, the concept suggests, it’s precisely in the subtlest slippages between seemingly analogous formal, psychological, or temporal states that the richest creative possibilities are generated.

Elaborating the processes of the first-generation Photorealists from whom her approach descends, New Yorker Judith Eisler has found room to work in this territory of generative recapitulation, in the razor-thin spaces between the “original” and the faithful copy. Her technically accomplished paintings emerge from a working process built around a dizzyingly interdependent constellation of re-presentations: A film buff, Eisler spends hours watching videos (typically psychologically complex and formally offbeat films from the ’60s and ’70s) with a camera by her side, pausing the tape periodically to photograph the screen. She then grids the resulting photos and painstakingly re-creates the images in oil on large canvases.

Though she started as an abstract painter, Eisler had begun experimenting with realistic images, based on nature photos, by the early ’90s; her initial works in this mode were paintings of animals. Within a few years, however, Eisler determined that only film imagery could provide the possibilities for motion and surprise—what she calls “apparitions”—with which she wanted to imbue her paintings. Emerging from an intricately telescoped succession of subtly deforming iterations—from the cinematographer’s lens to the film in the camera to the final edit of the film; from finished film to videotape; from videotape to television screen to photograph; and, finally, from the photograph to her painting—Eisler’s new technique produced images layered with echoes and fleeting presences, traces of the mediations they’d previously endured. Her work translates cinematic effects into moments of painterly bravura: Controlled bursts of rich color balance against virtually monochrome passages whose hues seem to have been wrung out from too many trips over the VHS heads, and the indeterminate, complexly lit reflective surfaces Eisler favors in her chosen frames often suggest the phantasmal figural phasing of a lap dissolve.

As a blizzard swirls outside her windows, Eisler is revisiting several recent paintings in the run-up to her solo exhibition at Chelsea’s Cohan and Leslie gallery this month—the seductively disorienting spatial treatment and saturated ocher palette of Smoker (Cruel Story of Youth), 2003, echoing the florid mise-en-scène of Oshima’s classic tale of disaffection; the trippy monochromatic mirroring and partitioning of Car Surface (Performance), 2003, suggesting both the skinny-tie London mob milieu and identity games of Nicolas Roeg’s controversial cult favorite. Tacked on the wall between them is a Polaroid of what the artist calls one of her most fully realized paintings: Car Trouble (Evil Dead), 2003—a fragment of a female figure from Sam Raimi’s creepy masterpiece, buzzing with atmospheric light effects that seem to envelop her silhouette like wisps of damask smoke—is Eisler at her most subtle and compositionally complex. Like the images reproduced here, the photographic stand-in can only hint at the experience of the actual painting. Yet what it lacks in fidelity, it makes up for in conceptual serendipity—presenting us with yet another iteration, another space between the thing and its duplicate, in which the multiple infra-thin correlations of Eisler’s work can be seen in dynamic operation.

New York–based critic Jeffrey Kastner is senior editor of the cultural journal Cabinet and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.