Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011, oil on canvas, 39 × 48".

Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011, oil on canvas, 39 × 48".

Nicole Eisenman

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011, oil on canvas, 39 × 48".

Despite frequent critical emphasis on their deliciously flamboyant narratives, Nicole Eisenman’s paintings derive their full impact from subtly subversive details, which become visible only when the viewer has recovered from the initial encounter with the artist’s imagery. Organized by Kelly Shindler for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, (where this midcareer survey of Eisenman’s work originated), and by Kate Kraczon for the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Dear Nemesis” accomplished its goal of showing the breadth of the artist’s incisive investigations into art history and the changing view of the gendered body in the wake of postmodernism. Once Eisenman had brought us into her world—she accomplished this seduction with stunning speed—we saw her nuanced vision for a more equitable future, displayed not only in narrative or biography but also, intriguingly, in her handling of materials, and specifically of paint.

Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011, for example, has often been viewed as a depiction of amorous, embracing androgynes, their bodies united by the boozy haze of love, and by Eisenman’s Jasper Johnsian crosshatched brushstrokes, which fluidly weave between the figures. But equally “queer” is the artist’s treatment of seemingly mundane details outside the painting’s focal point. Seen from inside the establishment, the bar’s neon window sign, thickly materialized in paint, would of course appear in reverse; however, the paint’s application, raised above the rest of the background (which has been laid down so that it rests flat against the canvas and recedes in typically illusionistic fashion), is productively disorienting. Forcefully situated on top of the canvas, BAR is in the viewer’s world, even as it points to what is outside the bar patrons’ swirling, drunken refuge. Eisenman takes the viewer through and beyond the picture plane in a blurring of boundaries that recalls that of the ambiguously gendered pair she depicts. Under pressure from the canvas, the B in this sign breaks down like globs of cake batter—a tearful confection. Eisenman’s text vacillates between language, at once intelligible and nonsensical, and image, simultaneously abstract and imbued with meaning. Like Eisenman’s image field, her characters are caught between layers of representation in Sloppy Bar Room Kiss’s hall of bodies and mirrors. These bodies are more than androgynous; they are queer entities borne of and constituted by a precise and irreverent set of brushstrokes. In this way, Eisenman points to that which cannot be understood—a paradoxical spatial situation—while illustrating the beautiful inscrutability of sexuality and gender.

Eisenman is concerned with painting’s ability to convey such inscrutabilities. Her work reminds us of what has been excluded from cultural intelligibility—all that is outside Eisenman’s bar—whose exclusion is akin to the underrepresentation, erasure even,of minorities from within the art world, exposed in “Readykeulous by Ridykeulous: This is What Liberation Feels Like™,” a group show co-organized by Eisenman and the artist A. L. Steiner that ran concurrently with the exhibition. Steiner and Eisenman filled the museum with statements of political revolution generated by a broad swath of participants, from Leidy Churchman to Eileen Myles to Kara Walker. Eisenman brings this queer history to her materials and does so with an earnest desire to share it with the public. In her work, she encourages her viewers to look to the margins, where we might find Death carousing with partygoers, or a mess of multicolored pigments stuck to the canvas’s edge like barnacles. In learning to look with an unbiased eye, we can approximate a new mode of vision that takes into account diverse lives, stories, genders, sexualities, and modes of embodiment.

William J. Simmons