A Higher Health

The deformed bodies in Nicole Eisenman’s exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley Museum testify to the artwork as liberating event.

Nicole Eisenman, Giant Without a Body, 2021. Installation view, the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Photo: Christian Øen.

At the entrance to Nicole Eisenman’s exhibition Giant Without a Body on the ground floor of the Astrup Fearnley Museum stands the sculpture group Procession (2019). The centrepiece is a misshapen and seemingly leprous human figure made from blistered construction foam and positioned on all fours on a cart with square wheels. A woollen hump protrudes from the figure’s back, and from time to time plumes of smoke seep out of its gaping rectum. Strapped to the cart, a rugged, bowed figure in bronze lumbers forward with something resembling pink chewing gum underneath one foot and a bundle of empty cans over its shoulder. Behind it, a rough cast plaster figure holding two metal garbage can lids in its hands like cymbals sits on top of another figure who crawls.

Procession (which includes more elements than those described here) is among the most recent works in the exhibition, which comprises mostly oil paintings and spans the American artist’s output from 2006 until today. The exhibition is an impressive demonstration of formal control and will to transgress, establishing a dialectical principle that applies to the oeuvre as a whole: while Eisenman courts entropy and the emancipation of creative action and the body from normative and conservative frameworks, technical proficiency with the material remains central.

As the first artist featured in Solveig Øvstebø’s programme as director of Astrup Fearnley Museet, Eisenman was not plucked from thin air. The choice confirms an expected change of course for the museum, which had ossified in a repetitive alternation between geographical group exhibitions and solo shows featuring male market favourites (preferably American). At the same time, a certain continuity is maintained: in addition to being a major figure in American contemporary art, Eisenman does not shun grandiose gestures. Usually modest in size, her skilful and diligent paintings regularly return to situations, types, and objects that testify to painting as a historically conditioned practice and to the artist as a dissolute, drunken bohemian. But there is also an expansive desire at play, as evidenced by Procession’s monumental tendencies; it is just of a more sophisticated and ambiguous kind than one is used to seeing in Oslo’s ‘financial district’ on Tjuvholmen, where the museum is located.

Nicole Eisenman, Coping, 2008. Oil on canvas, 165.1 x 208.3 cm. Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art.

Eisenman’s works are rich in content, and the catalogue accompanying the show calls attention to this wealth of detail. In between the reproductions of her paintings and sculptures, details from the works are grouped according to shared themes and overlapping motifs, all of them furnished with numbers pointing to the page where the entire work is reproduced, enabling readers to trace the detail back to its wider context. This disassembling presentation suggests that the works are montages composed of elements that exist independently of and prior to them. The montage principle can be extended to also apply to Eisenman’s wide stylistic repertoire. Self-conscious references to earlier styles are perhaps typical in contemporary painting, but are particularly striking in Eisenman, who demonstrates a muscular historical and technical range. Indeed, it is at this stylistically flexible meta-level that she chiefly articulates herself, like a modernist post festum. The eagerness to encompass destabilises and fragments the work. Several plinths are held together with ratchet tie-down straps, as if to illustrate the weak connection between individual elements. No overarching formal signature ties the exhibition or the oeuvre together, although the many nods to figurative expressionism create the superficial appearance of coherence. If anything unifies Eisenman’s works, it must be their tendency towards parody, a mode that, tellingly, prescribes stylistic promiscuity.

The barrage of diverse influences requires a weight to bind it to the canvas (or floor). Eisenman’s bodies are often thick-set, slouching, sullen, have hobbit-like feet, stubby fingers, and snub noses. They typically occupy the lower half of the painting – as if gravity is pulling on the composition – were they lie down or sit with poor posture, slumped and sunken. The settings are the same. In Huddle (2018), which depicts a group of corpulent men in black suits (one of whom looks like Donald Trump) leaning in to form a multi-headed lump under a sky covered in stylised explosions, the figures’ amorphous heaviness is echoed by a brownish landscape reminiscent of faeces. In Coping (2008), a street scene under a sickly yellow sky shows people wading through waist-high mud. Here, the sense of heaviness manifests as a physical circumstance that impedes movement – rather like the square wheels in Procession. The mud is also materially related to the painting, a point which Eisenman emphasises by reproducing it with coarser brushstrokes than the rest of the scene. The proportions comply with the rules of perspective, but the picture’s inhabitants do not seem to occupy the same space and time; and this temporal disjunction corresponds to Eisenman’s anachronistic, pan-historical brush.

The ground’s infringement on the figure is dramatised with even more fervour in the triptych Team Shredder (2006). Two of the canvases show a beach with naked sunbathers melting into the landscape; in the third, a huge wave rolls over a group of surfers like a wall of paint literally about to swallow them. A surfer whizzing in from the left, a vaguely humanoid lump reproduced in whirly impasto strokes raises its thin cartoonish arms and lumpy fingers helplessly in a gesture wavering between celebration and resignation. Feet and hands devoid of sensitivity invoke the feeling of lclumsiness. Eisenman usually portrays the body in an expressive manner, either as registered from experience or invaded by the materiality of the painting. But now and then she turns to Botticellian beautification, imbuing her figures with literary and allegorical lightness. In such cases, the sense of weightlessness is directly addressed by the subject matter: Morning Studio (2016) shows two women in bed. One has a restless pose which, in combination with a nebula projected on the wall behind them, gives the impression that she is about to take off and drift away while her partner, a peaceful expression on her face, cradles her to her chest.

Nicole Eisenman, Morning Studio, 2016. Oil on canvas, 168 x 211 cm.

Elsewhere, human bodies have been abstracted to the point of geometric caricatures. Often these interact with screens or mirrors (Selfie, 2014; Breakup, 2011; Morning Affirmations, 2018). A few recall Philip Guston’s iconic giant-eyed profiles that have become emblems of the puncturing of American post-war painting’s pompous formalism. The alliance with comedy is liberating: Eisenman jumps from the seemingly most camp and arbitrary Surrealism (Hindsight, 2020) via art school-like pastiche (Groundsweller, 2014) to completely bizarre reliefs that look like they were made in jest. In Devil (2007), the canvas is covered with an intestine-like foam texture crowned with a rapidly executed line drawing of a devil’s head, as if the artist left the painting to its own devices, allowing it to constitute itself with demonic-infantile results.

In contrast to this creative ecstasy, depression pops up again and again. For example, in Death and the Maiden (2009) where a woman wearing a transparent bra drinks red wine with Death as her companion. In the aforementioned Coping, the mud can be read as an image of the depressed person’s experience of all-encompassing resistance. The theme of depression contradicts the widespread notions of art as a health-promoting or edifying activity. Actually, Eisenman seems to indicate that painting requires a will to self-destruction, much like a birth. The diptych Progress: Real and Imagined (2006) allegorises this association between birth and art. While the left canvas depicts a studio situation, the right is reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of hell: an icy wasteland thronged with people, dogs, and horses hunting, eating and, not least, giving birth to oversized babies; hamburgers and junk food cover the sky. The painting is the exhibition’s largest and its dimensions stretch the artist’s creative capacity to snapping point. It’s as if the her imagination is struggling to fill it. Something formulaic comes to the fore in the pursuit of explosive variation, as if to confess that the painter falls short (or has lumpy fingers).

Nicole Eisenman, Selfie, 2014. Oil on canvas, 135 x 112 cm. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Eisenman reaches for a painting that is larger than the painter. Any attempt to conscript her work as banner for a demographically determined experience finds little traction. Her many androgynous figures, for example, could easily be read as negations of identity rather than manifestations of it. Eisenman evades fixity by claiming: “Everything is mine!” However, such possessive hubris imposes demands on the painter, who can no longer take refuge in the secondary tasks of art, to master the medium’s full repertoire. Nietzsche wanted to see humps on the backs of artists, physical marks of a life schooled in a particular discipline. Eisenman has a hump. The negativity that processes her bodies is metaphorical evidence of this. The liberation of the artist from the role of aesthetic social worker does not take place through rationalisation/automation/outsourcing of production as in Pop and Minimalism, which accelerate the functionalisation of art by dissolving its otherness in order to escape its pathetic aspects. Instead, it comes through a deformation of the artist via production: the acceptance of the creation of the work as a self-destructive and unpredictable event. This is the opposite of practice modelled on commerce, an approach that several artists associated with the Astrup Fearnley Museum have pursued vehemently. For artists like Jeff Koons, Alex Israel, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst the goal is calculability and scalability, brand building, etc. In short, a lucrative object – no matter what kind, as long as it spares the artist from developing a hump, from being marked by practice.

In Were-artist (2007), a painter stares down at his hands, which have turned into hairy claws. The monstrous transformation signifies a loss of moral inhibitions in the work. Eisenman’s hands tend to hold things: smartphones, drawing tools, but especially wine glasses. Her grip is not cool and instrumental; it is covetous, merging with what it holds. Or is it submissive, yielding? The one does not preclude the other. A symbiosis does not have to be equal. Eisenman’s bodies almost always have their integrity breached in one way or another. Their boundaries leak. This degradation of physical integrity is precipitated by the motif of alcohol, which connects loss of social function with the destruction of the body’s objective usability. Alcohol catalyses the dissolution of the organism’s ties to society by jeopardising personal health. Historically, intoxication plays an important role in the social demoralisation of the artist, enabling her to instead devote herself to the pursuit of a higher quality than that determined by art’s immediate collective usefulness. Alcoholism’s oscillation between ecstasy and depression corresponds to a vitalism that recognises antagonism as a co-creative force, that sees the body as a boundary to be overcome in order to achieve a health that lies beyond it.

Nicole Eisenman, Death and the Maiden, 2009. Olje på lerret, 37 x46 cm.