A dirty blonde goes down on a brunette while a pussycat curls in the foreground. An infant plays with his feces. A redhead pensively gazes to the right, her bust a sickly pickle green. The first room of The New Museum’s Al-Ugh-Ories, the first museum survey of American artist Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965), reminds one of what Julia Kristeva deemed “that experience, which is nevertheless managed by the Other,” in which “‘subject’ and ‘object’ push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject.”
Such abjection is dribbled with sour humor. In From Success to Obscurity (2004), a hulking superhero (villain?) opens a missive that reads “Dear Obscurity” in stately cursive. In the multimedia sculpture Hanging Man (2016) little lumberjack legs jut out of an inverted wax head, the laces of their left boot caught a piece of plywood as a taxidermied squirrel peeks out from below. Captain America (2016), another work sending up the humiliation of foundered masculinity, takes the form of a massive wax head sleeping upon a boxing glove, a small stretch of fabric dangling from its neck like a deflated blue balloon.
What is not abject in Eisenman often makes way for the more grotesque—a Muppet-like man stares into a cell phone reflection in Selfie (2014), his cartoonish visage split in half; a man in a tee reading “I’m with Stupid” peers dolefully down at his flaccid dick; a painter’s forearms grow ever-hirsute in the playfully monstrous Were-artist (2007).
But lest the artist seems to skewer only vestiges of male-hood, her maidens typically fare no better. Spring Fling, an earlier painting from 1996, depicts a willowy nude shackled to some arcane pulley system, a basket of flowers drooping over her shoulder, blossoms floating from her idle hands. In Death and the Maiden (2009), a garish woman with bulbous digits and flappy breasts sips wine with a comparably dainty version of the Grip Reaper. Eisenman spurns the pretty for something much more interesting; what is raw might repulse at first but grows relatable and even sympathetic.
In the final room of Al-Ugh-Ories, the artist’s multi-character oil canvases cast a more somber light upon the exigencies of our day—according to Jerry Saltz, “bringing turbulent fields of figures into elemental motion in compositions that echo Post-Impressionistic picnic scenes as well as German Expressionism.” The Triumph of Poverty (2009), created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, portrays a mass exodus of dogs, infants, and mothers down an unpaved road. An old man in a top hat grips a flashlight, his trousers unbuttoned to reveal a bum where his cock should be. People in cars flee with rats; human and vermin coalesce.
“The only way out is through” has been attributed to both Buddhist nun Pema Chodron and modernist poet Robert Frost; Eisenman’s take on the adage comes in the way of Coping, a 2008 piece in which desultory pedestrians literally wade through waist-high rivers of shit—clutching coffee cups, steins of beer, dragging on limp cigarettes, consoling confused kitties. How free are we really? the piece seems to posit. What comprises a cloudy day when the very clouds are a smeared crap-brown?
In Beasley Street (2007), a colorful array of hookers, strays, and invalids express what seems a Dickensonian desperation; a dog grabs a smaller dog by the neck, a boy lifts an empty bowl to a woman on crutches. “Who is the slayer? Who is the victim?” asked Sophocles. Eisenman’s art kicks us awake to face this question anew.
Nicole Eisenman: Al-Ugh-Ories is on view at the New Museum till June 26th. The New Museum is located at 235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002. Tickets are available at newmuseum.org.