New York

Nicole Eisenman, Maker’s Muck, 2022, mixed media, 8' 7 1⁄4" × 10' × 12' 11 1⁄4".

Nicole Eisenman, Maker’s Muck, 2022, mixed media, 8' 7 1⁄4" × 10' × 12' 11 1⁄4".

Nicole Eisenman

Nicole Eisenman’s “Untitled (Show)” could at first appear either as a painting exhibition with a few sculptures, or a sculpture exhibition with a couple of paintings, depending on which floor of Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea redoubt you stepped into first. After absorbing it all, I couldn’t help wondering if any other artist working today can make as plausible a claim to equal mastery of both mediums. Having taken up sculpture only a decade ago, Eisenman is now clearly an artist for whom painting and sculpture are part of a single continuum: analogous ways of materially engaging with the making and transformation of images.

Whatever the means, Eisenman finds beauty in humor—specifically, in the grotesque and absurd. But the artist does not assert art’s superiority over life; the power to give form evokes no hubris here. Activities such as painting and sculpting are just as irrational as resigning oneself to couch-potato-dom and channel-surfing on the boob tube in a deconstructed house, as does the mouthless, drowsy-eyed cartoon protagonist of the canvas Reality Show, 2022, suggests Eisenman. The will to art was exemplified in this exhibition by the oversize plaster character sitting at the center of the vast sculptural ensemble Maker’s Muck, 2022. This figure, seemingly spellbound by the endlessly revolving mound of clay on the potter’s wheel before it, lays its pudgy fingers on the whirling material, producing nothing more than some linear marks—the maker is bound to a sort of lathe of Sisyphus. Yet, somehow, this anonymous artist has been wildly productive, surrounded as they are by all sorts of creations, representational and abstract, finished and fragmentary. But no matter—the sculptor’s eyes are focused on the unprogressing work in progress.

Is the transfixed protagonist of Maker’s Muck an avatar of Eisenman? I don’t think so. Few artists are as attentive to the surrounding world, even while concentrating on the paintings and sculptures through which they mean to evoke it. Eisenman is sometimes a painter of contemporary history, as in The Abolitionists in the Park, 2020–21, which depicts more than thirty figures—rendered in various styles ranging from straightforward realism to dreamy expressionism—encamped for an Occupy-style protest. (Many of those pictured, I’m told, would be recognizable to those who know them.) Eisenman’s imaginative document of the turbulence that arose nationwide after George Floyd’s murder is perhaps soberingly true to its moment. Rather than functioning as an impassioned plea on behalf of victims—like Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19, or Picasso’s Guernica, 1937—or a rousing call for a new social compact based on cross-class alliances, such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Eisenman’s piece celebrates the solidarity of the like-minded rather than envisioning active struggle. Perhaps the painting’s stylistic heterogeneity reflects the disparate attitudes, from enthusiasm to skepticism, evoked by the events the artist is describing, and the dispiriting lack of social change in the aftermath of all our revolts and demonstrations.

But “Untitled (Show)” was not only devoted to works as large and ambitious as Maker’s Muck and The Abolitionists in the Park. “When you can’t think of what you want to draw,” Eisenman has advised, “draw a head.” The exhibition featured both painted and sculptural heads—including a portrait of the artist’s cat. Far from representing a dearth of ideas, these imaginary portraits were bursting with intuitive angles on features we take for granted and revelations about how complicated the simplest image can be. Most of them were charming monsters, with a bit of swagger and a touch of abjection in equal doses, and seemingly improvised, like Dr. Frankenstein’s, out of spare parts. They threw off formal sparks by way of brilliant representational mismatches; I was particularly piqued by the way the plumes of smoke in the abstract busts Sailor with Cig #1 and #2 both 2021—and who sculpts smoke?—drift in and out of the seamen’s heads. Eisenman is able to pull anything at random from a deep stylistic grab bag and make it fit wrong in just the right way.