Los Angeles

Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas, 10' 7 1/4“ x 8' 9”.

Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas, 10' 7 1/4“ x 8' 9”.

Nicole Eisenman

Vielmetter Los Angeles

Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas, 10' 7 1/4“ x 8' 9”.

If history painting aims to convey the course of empire through the depiction of mythic or moralistic episodes, then Nicole Eisenman’s canvas Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, is likewise a tribute to recent American history, our country’s progress allegorized as a one-way trip down a swampy cataract. More than ten feet tall, the work depicts a sailing vessel—the impossibly large jawbone of a donkey—with a torn sail, manned by a solemn piper, a ghoulishly pasty sailor, and a politician-like fat cat, who lurks in the shadows. Perhaps an update to Emanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, this scene takes place on a polluted, pea-soup-green river that rushes along barren banks toward a ferocious plunge. It depicts a place where democracy goes to die.

The epic canvas was one of forty-two works that comprised “Dark Light,” a sprawling exhibition of drawing, painting, and sculpture, much of which was included in Eisenman’s fall 2017 solo show at the Vienna Secession. As a whole, the Los Angeles version of the show embodied a mood and sensibility redolent of American figurative art of the 1930s: the Mannerist chutzpah of Peter Blume, the proletarian ardor of Mabel Dwight, the tripped-out dreaminess of Wanda Gág, and the Protestant creepiness of Grant Wood. And like so much American art made at the brink of environmental, economic, and political calamity, Eisenman’s work is rife with mortality, tension, satire, and absurdity.

Among the best works in this show were several untitled drawings full of humor and energy; in one from 2013, a man in a suit stood scratching his head in bewilderment in front of a nude female with a massive bush. In another pencil drawing from 2018, a grinning, self-satisfied man flexed a tiny bicep while holding his enormous, ejaculating member in his other hand. The motif was repeated in an ink drawing, also from this year, in which a man holds his member in one hand and a gun in the other, the ends of both shooters pointed dead center at the viewer. The drawings are cutting and cathartic, knee-jerk reactions to the toxic masculinity of a certain swath of society. The caricatures continued in several two-sided preparatory drawings in oil, ink, acrylic, and charcoal for works including Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass and another ambitious canvas, Dark Light, 2017. Each revealed loose, playful permutations of tropes repeated elsewhere in the show.

Taking as its subject the very straight, white, misogynistic males who popped up in the drawings, Dark Light itself is, by contrast, a serious and monolithic canvas. It depicts four men, three asleep in the bed of a red pickup truck and one standing over them, shining the dark-blue beam of a flashlight. Above them, a smokestack emits a heavy, painterly cloud, while an inky black streak flows from a round form (a formal motif that the artist names the “black sun” in other works) in the sky. The skin of the men is painted in a sickly rainbow—shades of green, pink, peach, blue, and gray. The standing man sports a camouflage shirt, painstakingly and even lovingly painted. His pose and attire cast him as a hunter finding himself stranded outside of nature, without a target. The picture is an impression of male alienation, the destruction of the environment, apathy. As the cornerstone of this show, the painting revealed Eisenman’s mature technique and masterful handling of allegory; these are parables for the late days of patriarchy, stories of subjects desperately clutching at something resembling power, seemingly indifferent to the fate that awaits them.

Catherine Taft