New York

Nicole Eisenman

Leo Koenig Inc. | 541 West 23rd

Yes, this is a review of that Nicole Eisenman, who, officially dubbed a “bad girl” in 1993, has received far too little critical consideration outside that nomenclature. Though the artist’s numerous virtuosic paintings, drawings, installations, and animations torque elements from high art (Renaissance to modern), low culture (porn to punk), and autobiography (lesbian libido to psychoanalyst dad), her status as bad-attitude dyke, bad-ass feminist, and even “bad” painter has been iterated again and again. And while Eisenman’s work can be read in any of these ways, one thing became clear on seeing her most recent exhibition: When it comes to painting qua painting, she’s really awfully good.

The eight oil paintings on canvas and one ink drawing on paper that made up “Elizaville” were so many lusciously rendered psychic landscapes whose topographies straddled the phantasmic and the real, marking them as at once immediately readable and wholly opaque. In The Work of Labor and Care (all works 2004), two ghoul-like figures paw at a sticky, shit brown mound in an allegorical incarnation of the title. (Like Freud’s famous depiction of dream images as rebuses, Eisenman’s, too, shift between linguistic and symptomatic poles.) For the last ten years, the artist has taken up the powerful, perverse elasticity that exists between words and things, paying ample attention to the nether regions of the unconscious, both social and singular. Here, without losing any of her trademark raunchy humor or her proclivity for wordplay (in one work addressing her own wildly fluctuating art-world reception by cheekily personifying the phrase From Success to Obscurity), she seems to have abandoned herself to less slapdash and more formal pursuits, infusing her images with a new gravity.

A kind of close attention to dense pigment that paradoxically conjures psychogenic depth could be seen in works depicting the seedier side of her new Hudson Valley hometown, including Captain Awesome, in which a hairy-chested hick proudly displays a phallic ear of corn, and 4:20, a portrait of four red-eyed small-town punks. Commerce Feeds Creativity again made use of a distorted allegorical vocabulary, depicting a naked, rope-bound female muse (aka Creativity) being force-fed drooling spoonfuls of soup by a jeering green creep (aka Commerce). While the title lends the figures a general, even mythic legibility, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine Eisenman poking perverted fun at her own doppelgänger (as well as that of her gallerist).

Still, as ambivalent and internally coded as the images are, they’re painted so deftly that pure visual immersion becomes a major part of the mix. Color—from algae green to piquant pink to marine blue—produces unnameable but tangible physical effects. Nearly every painting harbors seductive pockets of abstraction; in Inspiration, a woman strains so diligently for divine guidance that a thick gray cloud forms around her head like a dirty halo and her belly becomes a distended palimpsest of thick whorls of paint. In European Painting, a cool snowscape is inhabited by a number of orange-clad skiers, one monstrous rock-man hybrid, and, in the right-hand corner of the canvas, a schematic, minimal azure and white square that suggests an alternate reality or perhaps the refuge of pure opticality. Eisenman, who has traditionally laid bare mechanisms of (male) mastery, is perhaps not as obviously bad in these images as in her now-infamous early works (Amazons castrating shipwrecked men, and the like). Yet these are hardly less feminist; rather they complicate such terms, proving that bad-ass great painting is hardly a category safely reserved for the boys.

Johanna Burton