New York

Nicole Eisenman

Jack Tilton Gallery

Oxymoronic when institutionally sanctioned and otherwise just plain moronic, the “bad girl” moniker went from epithet to epitaph in less than the allotted 15 minutes. Nevertheless, the trajectory of the term—from the pejorative to the laudatory and back again—has in most cases been a star far brighter than the practices it sought to illuminate.

The work of Nicole Eisenman, however, might well be one of the few exceptions. Though within the rubric of the “bad”—subversive, funny, and not incidentally lesbian—it successfully exceeds the terms of the debate, finding a voice that is neither that of a ventriloquism of good/bad nor indebted to the tertiary politics of its predecessors. If traditional stereotypes of misogynists had men thinking with their dicks, Eisenman redresses the imbalance with a body of work emanating from what in the dyke parlance of the show was referred to as the “little woman in the boat.”

Saturated with sexual and anatomical references, this most recent installation of work bore all the marks of visual incontinence. Urination itself was clearly a preoccupation: yellow streams of piss accented the predominant blue of The Lemonade Stand, 1994; a father obliviously urinated into a hat held out by a child as the mother adjusted his tie in Father Pissing, 1994; and a line of Amazonian women who waited for the loo in postures of pained restraint, male plumbing as much as female biology conspiring to persecute women for their lack.

Eisenman herself refuses to be demure or to exercise restraint. Incapable of containment, her work spills from every (sexual) frame, sweeping the viewer along in a stream of visual ribaldry and Rabelaisian irreverence with a narrative that stages a showdown between peep-show scatology and bawdy good humor. While such a glut of imagery and a scattered approach are often a subterfuge (disguises for a lack of specific skills—drawing, the application of paint and color, not to mention composition), in Eisenman’s oeuvre they are the logical compliment to the proliferation of the female form over virtually every available surface. The pleasure of drawing is here as evident as the pleasure of biology. Fusing the esthetic codes of social realism—echoes of the Ashcan school as well as Reginald Marsh—with her own homegrown variety of sapphic fantasy, Eisenman inflates her cartoon-like figures to the point where their generic outlines threaten to burst beneath the pressure of the specific. The result is a sort of social realism invaded by lunatic humor in which pleasure, castration, and mutilation are never more than a giggle and the flick of a brush away.

For all its lack of editing, this latest show succeeded as a bombast of half-developed thought and images that cajoled as they seduced. Sifting through the heroic and the mythic, Eisenman took on everything in the name of the Father from Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to Donald Judd and John Travolta. But despite the barrage of irreverence directed toward an art history wrought from misogyny and creative testosterone, Eisenman’s own style is never quite able to escape its spell.

Neville Wakefield