Despite her inclusion in major painting surveys in Europe, New York-based artist Nicole Eisenman has had few European solo exhibitions to date. Her contribution to Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017, Sketch for a Fountain (2017) – a working fountain featuring stylized human figures in plaster and bronze – made headlines after it was repeatedly vandalized. In Germany, the destruction of public art is all too familiar, but usually reserved for the likes of Georg Baselitz or Markus Lüpertz. Though public sculpture is attacked as traditionalist and monumentalist, such reactions reveal a secondary traditionalism on the part of certain publics.
Eisenman’s painting has explored ambivalences of terms such as progressivism, tradition and demagoguery. She feeds ‘low’ painterly histories and styles such as social realism or the US’s ‘art of the people’ with heavy-handed expressionism or an intentionally vulgar painterly execution with a high measure of attitude. So Eisenman’s exhibition ‘Dark Light’ at Secession may come as a surprise for those expecting an overdue survey of her painting. The show contains just three canvases alongside a large body of drawings, ephemera, a table displaying her publications and a massive in-situ installation (Monument to a Politician, 2017).
Centrally displayed in Secession’s main space, the vertical canvases confront visitors as their first, most lasting impression of the show, not least on account of the works’ demonstrative directness. Going Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass (2017) is a conventional allegory of the ship of fools drifting toward the abyss. Reminiscent of works by Hieronymus Bosch, Thomas Hart Benton or George Grosz, the vessel depicted consists of a giant donkey’s jawbone. With a grotesque spin, it reflects the cheap apocalyptic rhetoric that is all too familiar – sadly not only – from the US right. The overt symbolism can be read as a warning against excessive fatalism now that shit really did happen.
More interesting than triggering potential readings through allegorical codes is the way Eisenman subversively re-renders painterly genres. Dark Light (2017) and Shooter 2 (2016), while figurative, are composed of blocked patterns referring to minimalist painting. In Shooter 2, these are well-chosen, carefully tempered fields of colour building up to a suitably eye-catching – and unsettling – view down the barrel of a revolver to the shooter’s face. Dark Light presents a constellation of aggressive inertia with an all-male cast: sleeping, contemporary-looking guards placed into a post-industrial wasteland subjected to dark light coming from a pocket lamp held by a character wearing the proverbial red cap. The scene is created from dense colour patterns and primary painting gestures – short brushstrokes, thick lines – that contrast the strict geometry of the composition. Far beyond their allegorical component, these paintings cause discomfort through their jarring use of material and evocation of their historical moment.
Due to the extensive presentation of preparatory drawings, the Shooter motif in particular appears in a wealth of variants. Some explore links between machine and trauma – not unlike Lee Lozano’s ‘Tool Paintings’ from the mid-1960s, exploring the sexual connotations of tools – where a gun mutates into a phallus and the shot becomes a lethal ejaculation. But the exhaustive, quasi-philological detail, juxtaposing the ‘making of’ directly with the paintings, leads to a certain fatigue.
Ultimately the exhibition fails to balance working process and result. Monument to a Politician attempts to represent both artistic and destructive processes as subverted in-situ monuments – yet is hardly as successful as Eisenman’s paintings. A suite of white lounge furniture, complete with rug and potted plants, is trashed with black paint, while an outsize brush-cum-penis construction penetrates Secession’s glass skylight. Not that this is unpalatable, less would have been more here. Otherwise, it’s just shooting blanks.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main image: Nicole Eisenman, Going Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, (detail), oil, acrylic and paper collage on paper, 100 x 85 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles and The Aishti Collection; photograph: Sophie Thun