Closes: June 17th, 2006
I went to Nicole Eisenman's opening, outside of reproductions, it was the first time had actually seen any of her work. While I was impressed with the scale of her new painting, it was hard to see because of the crowd. When I left, I wasn't sure what I thought of it. The memory of Progress: Real and Imagined stayed with me, like a gnawing in ones stomach, and I went back to see it again three more times. After my second viewing I knew I wanted to write something about it, but it took awhile to compose my thoughts.
Progress: Real and Imagined is a monumental painting, overall it is 8 feet high by 30 feet wide. It was painted on two canvases, the left is 16 feet wide and the right is shorter at just 14 feet, with a slight separation between the two. Generally, contemporary paintings of this scale, can be organized either as a permutative repetition of a conceptual idea which then becomes a pattern, as a visual field like Monet's Water Lilies, as the result of a physical process like pouring 20 gallons of paint on a canvas, or just by scaling the concept up. Eisenman's approach is none of the above.
I viewed her painting again Saturday with a friend, another painter who admittedly had some difficulty with the work, but who also conceded that it was masterfully organized. I became curious whether this was just brilliantly intuitive, like Jean Michel Basquiat, or the result of an application of a more arcane geometry. What I found was that it is classically organized, referring back to the methods of the Renaissance. Eisenman uses a sequences of divisions, diagonals and the golden section, somewhat like the diagram I posted earlier on Fra Angelico as a scaffold for her paintings flood of images. A painting, with as complex aggregation of images like "Progress: Real and Imagined", requires a degree of organization which creates a visual resonance among its parts or it will fragment into chaos.
Initially I thought there might be some similarity of approach between Eisenman's painting and the paintings of Basquiat and Dubuffet. I mused over the speculation that all three used a "stream of consciousness" approach in creating their works. With Eisenman, this may be the case but discovering the underlying geometric structure of her painting, along with her more deliberate approach to realizing her imagery, leads me to believe it is more of an extension of the approach of these two artists than a direct similarity.
Another factor engendered by the large scale is time. Without knowing for a fact, I suspect "Progress: Real and Imagined" must have taken close to a year to realize. Since this painting is not a repetition of sequential permutations but rather an aggregation of images, the time spent in its execution probably had an affect on the development of the paintings imagery.
A little digression, that afternoon, I also saw Jenney Holtzer's exhibition "Archive" at Cheim & Read. The Saturday crowd of viewers were dutifully arrayed, necks craned, reading the text of the paintings. This struck me as somewhat odd, but there was text to be read and they did.
I also observed how the viewers looked at Eisenman's painting. Since there is nothing to be read sequentially, the dance was different, eyes darted as they walked along, back and forth, in front of the painting. I believe painting is a language, what do viewers see when they cannot read something? The viewer is compelled to reconcile an image, or sequences of images, to imply or decode meaning. A painting is a "random access" visual experience, imagery can be perceived non-sequentially without the structure of a grammar and is processed differently. The eye-brain decodes a gestalt, three dots and a line might be a face, and then proceeds with a cascade on finer distinctions which may eventually be classified linguistically. This also evokes the viewers experience and memory about images, about painting, other images and other experiences. It is a more fluid and complex process than just decoding a word.
Eisenman's imagery can frequently be raw, grating, horrific, disturbing, sexual and not always ingratiating for the viewer. When confronted with the complexity of a painting like "Progress: Real and Imagined", the viewer may suffer overload or the anxiety of interpretation. It is this anxiety which creates the emotional tension, is there progress? Is it real or imagined?
Reading from right to left, we scan from the caveman to the artist in the studio, is this progress? Or not, since reading in the more familiar mode from left to right, goes the other way encountering the more brutal signs of a throwback, a decapitated head and a severed foot. During the paintings gestation period, the news was flooded with stories of a continuing war, of atrocities, natural disasters and corruption. Paintings have a mind of their own, once started they take the artist in a direction, and either subconsciously or by intent, life events become part of the process. This is in part what I was referring to above about how the time affects the imagery of the painting. Is that just a vase with flowers in the center of the painting, or is it some dreadful fireworks from a bomb which just killed a family? This kind of recursive interpretation, could go on for hours, the painting is an sheaf of images capable of constantly unfolding to engage the viewer.
One final observation. "Progress: Real and Imagined" is also complex in its stylistic resolution. Eisenman's painting, firmly structured, runs the stylistic gauntlet from the sweeping to the intimate. The little "throwaway" pictures in the studio are fully resolved in their own right. Her painterliness traverses a range from cursory to crusty congealed passages. It is obvious these variations are by choice, not constraint, for her observational powers are keen as seen in the rendering of the jeans of the artist at work. By expanding her range of execution, she in effect, detaches it from "style" and allows it to function as a tool of expression.
Nicole Eisenman's painting, Progress: Real and Imagined is an ambitious statement, an expansion of her vision. It is the type of painting I was hoping to see at the start of a new century, it is Future Modern.
Nicole Eisenman "Untitled" 2006
Oil on Canvas, 18 inches x 14 inches
All photos from the Leo Konig Gallery website, used without permission
I wanted to extend a special thanks to James Wagner and Barry Hoggard for introducing me to the artist.