Nicole Eisenman, Maker’s Muck, 2022. Detail. 103 1/4 x 120 x 155 1/4 in. (262.3 x 304.8 x 394.3 cm).
You could say that Nicole Eisenman’s career started with a bang at the 1995 Whitney Biennial, where they exhibited a site-specific, WPA-style mural titled, Self-Portrait With Exploded Whitney. Sure enough, it depicted the artist amidst the ruins of the institution in the aftermath of some terrorist attack or gas leak (pick your poison). Wrapping around a corner of the Whitney Museum’s lobby, the piece pictured a chaotic jumble of disaster porn, with the dead and wounded ignored as firemen rushed towards news cameras and curators dug artworks out of rubble. A miraculous parting of debris in the center revealed the artist, their back to the viewer, on a scaffold in front of the same wall, laying down the sinopia for the same cataclysmic scene.
This early tour de force contained all the hallmarks of Eisenman’s many tours de force to come, including a gimlet (and queer) eye for satire, and a talent for marshaling complex compositional details into sweeping narratives. Just as importantly, it showed the empathetic understanding of human foibles beneath the artist’s black comedy.
Installation view, Nicole Eisenman. Untitled (Show), Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street, 2022. 5 May – 22 July 2022.
Since then, Eisenman has received a MacArthur “genius grant,” and has become a sought-after, blue-chip artist, as their debut at Hauser & Wirth, one of the handful of mega-galleries dominating the art market, makes demonstrably clear.
Spread over two capacious floors, the exhibit is Eisenman’s first presentation of new paintings in New York City after a seven-year hiatus in which their sculpture, fresh examples of which are also on view, took center stage. Called Untitled (Show), the exhibit reprises Eisenman’s overriding theme since their Whitney mural: That creation and destruction are mutually intertwined. 
Stylistically, Eisenman has always been an adroit shapeshifter, and true to form, the proceedings here bounce back and forth between numerous figurative phenotypes from cartoonish and Cubistic to Expressionistic and Surrealistic. But while Eisenman appears to leap wildly from one to the next, these gyrations bind the connections between works.
Installation view, Nicole Eisenman. Untitled (Show), Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street, 2022. 5 May – 22 July 2022.
Installation view, Nicole Eisenman. Untitled (Show), Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street, 2022. 5 May – 22 July 2022.
Various leitmotifs, and iterations of the same subject, run throughout, as in the example of the artist’s cat Edie. Speaking to the mercurial nature of felines (and to predatory behaviors that millennia of attempts have yet to breed out), the darkly humorous Edie (The Destroyer), a large likeness limned with Klee-like playfulness, portrays Edie with a murderous glare. 
Continuing in the cats-don’t-give-a-shit category, Edie re-appears as a treed kitten in the dreamlike Destiny Riding Her Bike, watching indifferently as the titular woman collides with a man falling off a ladder in her path. And in what’s perhaps the ultimate statement that cats are dicks, a 400-pound bronze of Edie’s head is tethered like a wrecking ball to an actual construction crane.
Nicole Eisenman, The Abolitionists in the Park, 2020-2021. Oil on canvas. 127 x 105 x 1 1/2 in. ( 322.6 x 266.7 x 3.8 cm).
Nicole Eisenman, Reality Show, 2022. Oil on canvas. 82 3/4 x 65 in. ( 210.2 x 165.1 cm).
Elsewhere, anomie animates several works, including Reality Show, a treatise on the deleterious pull of procrastination. A view through an unfinished exterior wall, it pictures an evidently depressed, couchbound figure watching TV while disregarding a henge-like arrangement of unlaid bricks that await his attention. As an allegory, perhaps, for artist’s block, depictions of freshly piled mortar chime with blobs of thickly applied pigment that stick up above the canvas’s top edge. Meanwhile, despair of a more existential variety suffuses The Ledge, a nearly abstract landscape featuring a silhouetted stroller on a beach at sunset as a seabird (the Ancient Mariner’s albatross?) follows above like a harbinger of crosses to bear.
More serene in tone, The Abolitionists in the Park, features a large, multicultural group of demonstrators attending a Defund the NYPD rally at City Hall. Instead of being caught in the heat of protest, however, they’re seen at night in repose, sleeping on the ground, or chatting amongst themselves. Painted at the height of the furor over George Floyd’s murder, The Abolitionists recalls an event that has already faded in memory due to ebbing interest and reactionary backlash. Yet the manner in which the artist has composed this work captures a moment that transcends time.
Nicole Eisenman, Maker’s Muck, 2022. 103 1/4 x 120 x 155 1/4 in. (262.3 x 304.8 x 394.3 cm).
Speaking of which, Eisenman’s showstopping installation, Maker’s Muck, transforms the adage about omelets and eggs into a purgatory of the ever-present now. Set on a wooden stage measuring 130 square feet, the piece revolves around a potter hunched over a hive-shaped hunk of clay on a turning, motorized wheel. His hands are fitted with articulated fingers that endlessly rumble along grooves in the material, which is as crude and lumpy as the rendering of the character himself. Surrounded by a debris-scattered field of trial and error (unfinished sculptures, chunks of discarded clay, and other bits of trash), the potter will never leave his wheel or finish his project or exit the mess he’s created. In this tableau, as in their entire show, Eisenman offers a piquant metaphor for that inchoate experiment called life.
Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen’s Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.
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