One strain of the 1990s figurative painting revival, the one in which the likes of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage titillated with low subjects even as they thrilled with high technique, now finds itself on the sticky wicket of middle age. No one doubts that these painters’ breakthrough work was meant in earnest, but its frisson still relied on a certain irony, and irony – like homage, the movement’s other watchword – always retains the hormonal whiff of adolescence. So what does the painter who squandered an outmoded virtuosity on pop do when pop moves on, as it always does? What does the ambitious contrarian do when he grows up and finds that he’s nigh as canonized as he always wanted to be?
The most famous test case may be Currin’s, but more interesting may be that of Nicole Eisenman. Her new paintings at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects offered both reason for hope and evidence of confusion. She still reveres the masters of the 19th and 20th centuries. In three galleries, comprising three main modes – larger-than-life, faux-primitive heads; pastel whimsies of kissing couples; and dark, psychologically narrative tableaux – Eisenman taxes the visual memory: Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, George Grosz, Francis Picabia, Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton and so on. The main engine of her project now seems neither social satire nor formal aestheticism nor personal waggery but a desire to ape as many traditions as possible, making cartoon imitation itself a comment on our times. But ultimately, this relentless reflex toward allusion is dispiriting, like a comedian’s act that leans too heavily on impressions.
This is a shame, since her primary values are neither reactionary nor parodic. Unlike, say, Currin, she is uninterested in technical refinement. She is instead dedicated to eclecticism, to Kippenberger-esque slapdashery, which shows off her talent for colour, line and proportion while joyously refusing to control it. Eisenman may simply be too wary to do more than spar with the ghosts of the pantheon, but I suspect a more apt reason for her peripatetics is that, again unlike Currin, she has something more earnest to prove than her own chops. Her japes on political identity, smarter and more lacerating than his, have always been aimed at claiming a queer place, and a feminist place, in the tradition that she loves. She aims not to outdo men at a game from which women had long been excluded, but to explode the playing field. In The Drawing Class (all works 2011), one of the show’s most clumsily symbolic paintings, she allegorizes just this predicament: a blank female nude with a black heart poses for a drawing class, the eye of a storm of male self-mythology (mid-century American macho artists, an effete French aesthete with lupine claws, a couple of morose Teutonics), with a token matron relegated to the back of the room. We see this from the artist’s point of view, hands and sketchpad in the foreground like the shotgun of a first-person shooter, with little to do in this set-up but repeat formulas of womanhood or make fun of them.
And this is in fact a telling idea. The more bullying Eisenman’s jokes and the more retrouvé her aesthetics – that is, the more she seems like the riot grrrl Currin – the less affecting her efforts. Where she eschews the traps and tropes of the 1990s, both the irony and the traditionalism, the multiculturalism and the commercialism, she seems more likely to transcend the cheaper thrills of her cohort. She has visual audacity, as in Guy Artist, whose limp red scowl squirted directly out of the tube extends the pure-colour play of Henri Matisse even as his phallic thumb and squinting eye critique the straw man of male bohemian identity. She can be a subtle observer (check out the shiny kettle and homespun macramé of the rug in Tea Party, a send-up of US right-wing paranoia that is otherwise less subtle, to the point of meanness, with its bomb-makers and threadbare Uncle Sam). She can be a humane social critic (for example, the surprisingly endearing pathos of the dumping-by-BlackBerry in The Breakup, or the drunken, ambiguous escape of the androgynous kissers in Sloppy Bar Room Kiss). But we don’t see how these qualities might come together until we encounter Guy Reading ‘The Stranger’, in which a version of Auguste Rodin’s thinker, flattened into mere head and hand by a maze of lines scratched from a thick plane of black paint, pretends to read Albert Camus while gazing out into the distance, too locked in by his rationalism to know how to ask for help. The books on his shelf are a small thinking-man’s library of Big Theory, and the bee and flower trapped in amber as a bookend (though lovely and final) are hardly necessary to tell us that his predicament is of his own making. We do not know exactly how art can help this ‘guy’, in part because Eisenman is too smart to make his condition one of gender alone (which would imply, horribly, its opposite stereotype), but we suspect that the artist has empathy for him and his hollow feelings of overcompensation, and that seems like almost enough.