The ICA in Philadelphia just closed Nicole Eisenman: Dear Nemesis which started out in St. Louis and is now headed to San Diego. In Holland Cotter’s Times review he talks of queerness and otherness. Hyperallergic’s editor speaks of joyfulness and named it the best show of 2014. I see these works and I want to become one with them. Once I became immersed in the images here there was no escape from the world of flesh and fantasy. I could not see these scenes without imagining myself as a reveler in a beer garden, or a blocked headed abstraction, or a beefy adolescent with spaghetti on my fork glaring at the splay legged woman at the foot of my table. Every bit of doubt every ill-at-ease notion is here, waiting to be plucked like so much low hanging fruit. The assembled crowds are not faceless at dinner parties, shrink sessions and bar rooms. Their faces, though sometimes obscured or abstracted, are as real as you and I. You are in these paintings. You are full of these eccentricities and fetishes. You are a gob of paint.
I was a viewer, but rarely that. To inhabit a painting, to feel it go to work on you like a chiropractor for the the inflexibly minded and limbed; is to love it. Eisenman paints well, that is not to be contested. Her brush, at work on classic portraiture or Ensorian Harlequin or blobby Dubuffet-like personage, is sure of it’s aim. The spaces and places that come to being here are as real as the chair you sit in, the subway you took to get there and place you will eat and drink with your friends later on.
I could review paintings, but I would prefer to mention friends. The Sloppy Bar Room Kiss –ers) the lip-locked conjoined lovers that I loved as a lithograph) is here as the 2011 painting as well as in the background of the bandaged behemoth of Half King. The print is also here among a salon style wall of works on paper. Two of these works on paper offer a definitively enveloping perspective, drawing you into Eisenman’s world: Seder, 2011 and an etching called Watermark in 2012. Seder, a small painting on paper, is from the vantage point of the head of the seder table, breaking the matzah in half. We lead the service and watch on as the rest of the crowd (bored, hungry and tired) await the end of the ritual. As the leader, whether we are Eisenman or a relative is unclear. The broken matzah, as is the tradition, fractures the room and separates us from the rest of the table. We are surrounded by people and also alone.
Watermark, an exquisite etching done at Harlan & Weaver, sets us aamidst a family moment. We eat our soup and watch a family enjoy a lazy day. There are two girls sharing a book on the couch, an older man reading his book and a woman lounging, arms over her head and legs stretched all the way out. The room is filled with books (complete with titles), paintings and a frieze-like border. The grain of the wood and other patterns make every bit of the homey scene real. Our thumb clutching the soup spoon, bulbous and cartoon like, makes me think Eisenman witnessed this scene and wanted to never let it go. Home looks like this sometimes. Watermark could be utopia. While Dear Nemesis offers more turmoil than peace, here in Watermark, all things are in their right place.
-Jeff Bergman January 2015