Juxtapoz and Przm bring you Beyond the Cover, an inside look at each issue's cover artist, giving a further look into some of the best creatives working today. Each Beyond the Cover will be presented on Przm.com, a new platform that is the easiest way for artists to create shop-ready sites in minutes.
This month we feature Nicole Eisenman.
View all of Nicole's work HERE
View all of Nicole's work HERE
TAKE A GOOD LONG LOOK AT YOURSELF
Early on, it was marshmallows. "I really was obsessed with them for a few years in the '90s. I'd draw polka-dot eyes and a straight-across line for a mouth; they looked amazing in large groups," Nicole Eisenman revealed, as we dug into her early work. The marshmallow installations were an indication that she would master elegance. Even with faces made of uncomplicated marks, the impact of her figures, whether realistic or cartoonish, is immense and immediate. She has the magic touch. Elegant is a word you might think of when describing a fancy dress, but its true definition suits our cover artist well—gracefully concise and simple; admirably succinct. Expressing these qualities is how you become the voice of a generation. Or at least an intelligible, unforgettable voice in a generation.
Last year, Nicole Eisenman was awarded the prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant, and this year she had concurrent exhibitions at The New Museum and Anton Kern Gallery. Imagine being labeled the voice of a generation, or being credited with making figurative painting relevant again in the twenty-first century. These are heavy descriptions Eisenman is shouldering, and she does so with grace and staunch tenacity. She deftly controls the veiled commentary in her images—their witty, universal truths, observations, and power dynamics.
I felt I knew her just from looking at her work, and asked what personal references she might hold back from the paintings. "I'm curious about what you feel you know," she responded, "I'm sure it's right to some extent. I hold back what feels unnecessary to the painting. Every decision an artist makes is a choice not to go in the unchosen directions."
She has developed her own take on new and known stylistic directions, gliding easily between cartoon and realistic, historic and contemporary, familiar and unusual, self-referential and social. "There are reasons why everything looks the way it does in a painting; there are subtle formal concerns that guide those decisions. Sometimes I want to keep a work open, so it doesn't get located in any specific mode. Especially when the paintings get crowded, I want them to be formally complicated." And timeless. They will successfully tell a human story in a direct way for generations. Though they sometimes reflect a depressing picture of ourselves, they appeal to us because they seem empathetic to our situation.
Walking through the Whitney Biennial in 2012, Eisenman's painting of a figure entranced by a phone hit me like a gut punch. That's us, I thought. Heads-down mobile phone zombies immortalized in a museum. This moment in our history was new, yet already locked in—recorded and museumed. I never forgot that painting and its relevance. Bowing to our tiny overlords, these handheld computers that replaced countless necessities became a focal point for the majority of people, and the new possibilities made us feel more in control. We knew those possibilities opened a dark side, and we collectively ignored it because… convenience!
Breakup is the title of that memorable painting, and while a breakup of the past might be illustrated by an unhappy couple, nowadays a breakup looks like a nonplussed person staring at a phone. Or maybe the painting is about breaking up with the phone itself. Devices are a conduit for life and human contact, our shield from loneliness that purportedly makes us more lonely. They make us more awkward and socially inept in a way we haven't experienced before. It still feels indecent, but we are too far sunk into the depths of denial. As a society, we're hypnotized, and we hide from everything we read about on those phones. But Nicole Eisenman isn't hiding. She's watching our moves, immortalizing our stories and new archetypal gestures—the good ones and the bad ones.
That title, Breakup, adds a personal layer to the image, another facet, and perhaps my mobile device diatribe is just a personal interpretation, though I realized the artist wouldn't mind: "I'm fine with most of what anyone says. I can't start taking issue with how my work is interpreted," Eisenman responded, like most artists do. Success is often determined by any reaction at all. In his essay about Eisenman's work, aptly titled "Seriously Funny," The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl said that gaucherie was her "when-in-doubt reflex." Gaucherie is, by definition, the opposite of elegance, and this opposition to the way I like to describe Eisenman's style is illustrative of the widely varying reactions to her work. Gauche means awkward, lacking ease and grace, and I wondered how she felt about that comment. "As far as gauche goes, I like it. I like awkward. That feels like a position I occupy a lot of the time."
Awkward is a badge of honor these days, something pop culture has embraced, even fetishized. It's hip to be square, it's cool to be awkward—a universal acknowledgement of humanity. It's awkward for Americans to talk about race, gender, politics, economics and social justice. It's awkward to know that a painter has chosen our tech-obsessed postures as something to be immortalized. Eisenman collapses history, mashing up the past and the present as a way to predict the future, like a historian, but more cheeky and fantastical. She interprets our reputation through her work, offering something to look at and love while we compartmentalize the world she often mirrors. Some of her paintings are a wake-up call followed by a hug. Some offer levity in tough times, while others are affectionate portraits of humans and love.
When someone receives a prestigious award, one literally reserved for geniuses, you imagine their confidence to be solid. I remember being shocked when I heard that the great figurative sculptor Giacometti was admittedly self-conscious about his work, and I felt the same when Nicole confessed to uncertainty. "I often feel unsure of what I'm doing, but I have a lot of trust in myself and people. The worst that can happen is you make something uninteresting or bad! No one ever died from making or looking at bad art." Permission to fail is important, and self-doubt is critical for growth. Does she talk to her work in the studio? "I'm sure I mutter 'fuck' a lot when stuff isn't working. I'm probably more expressive when I'm frustrated or unhappy."
Considering confidence, I wondered about specific art history references in Eisenman's paintings, and why she seemed to exclusively reference male artists, but I had missed the point. "I don't think of painters as being dead or alive. The work is dead or alive, depending on whether it has something to say. It's not a gender thing. I'm not interested in reclaiming art history for women or queer-ifying it. It's simply a place to go to get ideas, to find inspiration, to form questions."
It's ironic that I asked about the gender of her influences because I had contradictorily been surprised that people always asked, "Is that a man or a woman?" when faced with Eisenman's more intimate paintings. Does it matter? The gender normative experience still wants to reign, but when art conveys a human experience, wouldn't neutrality be key? A non-specific figure should resonate with a wider group of people, and yet viewers invariably need to know exactly how to categorize the characters before appreciating the image. I began wondering, as I talked to Nicole, if categories were the root of all evil, and she agreed, though less hyperbolically, "As long as there is room for difference, creativity and play, it's all good. It's the second we are asked to lock into this false binary that I say 'no.' What bothers me about categories in regard to race, gender, ableism and age is the lack of tolerance for whatever falls outside of expectations. It's painful and dangerous."
As we chew our nails off in the last days of a painful and dangerous American election season, the show goes on in the artist's studio. She's watching. There could be an unspoken responsibility for artists to leave a record of these earthly times, and Nicole wisely suspects that future generations might evolve into a population of insects. "Maybe in 1,000 years, a family of cockroaches—or whatever is left—will wander into a museum and see my painting of a guy staring at his phone and think, 'There it is. A young human staring at his screen while the planet implodes.'"