BY Jörg Heiser in Fan Letter | 11 JAN 19
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Issue 200

Jörg Heiser on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and the Paintings of Nicole Eisenman

‘If criticality indicates a desire for change, then surely the critic is actually an optimist’

BY Jörg Heiser in Fan Letter | 11 JAN 19

Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 2011, video still. Courtesy: John P. Johnson/HBO

When I hear the word ‘enthusiasm’, I think: well, curb yours! I will never be able to unsee, unthink, unlaugh Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–ongoing) in which he stars as himself – a retired comedy writer schlepping around Los Angeles relentlessly insulting colleagues, friends and family. But while it’s very funny, it’s also tragic: in the midst of an endless cast of cynical, misanthropic Hollywood types, Larry trumps them all with his pathological absence of tact. Enthusiasm is, indeed, terminally curbed, replaced with the cringe-worthy, the sheer comical exaggeration of a downward spiral of the increasingly damaging and self-defeating effects of pathological narcissism.

Trying to think of a counterexample in the world of US sitcoms, a place where enthusiasm is celebrated, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–ongoing) springs to mind. Its star (Ellie Kemper) always manages to laugh in the face of whatever lies ahead – despite having been locked up by a doomsday cult leader for 15 years with a small group of women in a bunker. In other words, her enthusiasm is either extremely hard won or a bitter parody of positive thinking. Her post-bunker roommate is the enthusiastically flamboyant Titus Andromedon and, together, the two present a complex force field of flickering forms of enthusiasm and its negatives: the traumatic voids and constant rejections it is won from.

If enthusiasm is curbed, does it necessarily result in a humour that is deadpan? Not quite. Whether enacted by Buster Keaton or Marcel Duchamp, deadpan is pronouncedly anti-enthusiastic: a way to deflect stupidity and undermine false entitlement, but also to prevent one’s own shame. So, the kind of comedic enthusiasm I’m referring to is more like curbing enthusiasm as a form of enthusiasm itself – and embarrassing oneself is a welcome part of it, if not at its core. It’s a kind of double-negative enthusiasm that is backhand or indirect, and intelligent; it’s open about its soft or sore spots, its desires and cravings, in a way that resonates with a certain and significant part of contemporary art.

In the period from the early 1990s until now – during which the world and art have changed in ways that nobody really could have foreseen – let’s take, for instance, Nicole Eisenman’s paintings. Captain Awesome (2004) depicts a redneck dude with a corncob in his hand, bare-chested with a white ballcap on backwards, his feet stuck in what could be mud or poop. It’s not easy to explain why this painting is more than the sum of its parts, i.e. more than just a caricature of the kind of person that might wear a red ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. However, if you look more closely at the serene, bedroom-eyed peachyness of Captain Awesome’s face, it’s as if a polymorphously erotic city dweller has finally realized his most bucolic sexual fantasy and the identity we assume him to have is immediately unsettled. Equally, in Eisenman’s drawing Alice in Wonderland (1996), the Alice of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll is channelled through her Disney version – and she has her head stuck in the vagina of a Robert Crumb-style, powerfully voluptuous Wonder Woman, who strikes the pose of a cheerleader. I never tire of looking at Eisenman’s work: it’s always beguiling and surprising, a celebration of queerness, buoyantly bulbous and melancholically comic.

Nicole Eisenman, Captain Awesome, 2004, oil on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Anton Kern Gallery 

I saw Eisenman’s 2017 exhibition at the Secession in Vienna. It included an installation titled Monument to a Politician (2017), which comprises black paint, like crude oil, splattered over a white sofa. It was immediately clear what this monument alluded to: a US government that champions the fossil fuel industry and denies climate change, and whose enthusiastic followers splatter their vitriol over the lives of entire communities. Not much enthusiasm on the part of the artist was evident, admittedly, unless you read the stains on the white sofa as the sign of a grim, double-negative enthusiasm in creating this monument to a politician who, not least, stands for the kind of vilification of women associated with the casting couch. A politician who has surfed on a wave on the kind of angst-and-anger-turned-enthusiasm – self-congratulatory, gun-toting, woman-hating, immigrant-despising, triumph-howling chauvinism – that has become, overwhelmingly, the winning formula for the far right around the globe.

So, how to reclaim enthusiasm – that exuberant state of body and mind? Well, certainly not by trying to be ‘positive’, if that means you can’t be critical of the state of things. But if criticality indicates a desire for change, then surely it implies that the critic is actually an optimist. The kind of enthusiasm the world needs right now is of the Eisenman variety: mocking and self-deprecating, powerful and voluptuous, open and funny and alert. 

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.