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Nicole Eisenman: What Happened at Whitechapel Gallery

A reflection on Nicole Eisenman's practice and major retrospective 'What Happened' at Whitechapel Gallery

By Melis Dumlu


Nicole Eisenman 'The Triumph of Poverty' 2009. Oil on canvas, 165.1cm x 208.3cm. From the Collection of Bobbi and Stephen Rosenthal, New York City. Image courtesy Leo Koenig Inc., New York.

Our state of living and being is changing at a rapid speed, and as individuals in a mass society, we are bound to reinvent ourselves to improve and adapt. People often try to cope with daily life by avoiding major issues happening in the world and by talking over the silent chaos that clouds our times, an understandable yet problematic response. Artists also reinvent themselves by practising unthinking and unfeeling to understand the meaning behind those thoughts and emotions. But instead of avoiding facts, they tend to highlight them even more. The core of creativity lies in its ability to create landscapes of possibility.

Observing what it means to be an artist and endeavouring not to get trapped by the system and to keep improving is part of being an artist today. Artists whose work reflects their time are therefore bound to have political undertones. Whoever finds this controversial enough to avoid it is seemingly content with the way things are within society.

Nicole Eisenman’s exhibition ‘What Happened’ at Whitechapel Gallery is her first major UK retrospective, including over 100 works from across her career. The exhibition presents an eclectic collection of large-scale paintings alongside sculptures, monoprints, animation and drawings. Eisenman’s abstract works respond to themes of gender, identity and sexual politics, recent civic and governmental turmoil in the United States, protest and activism, and the impact of technology on personal relationships and romantic lives. Although her works are often considered to have a political undertone paired with a humourous criticism of society, the frame of reference is much broader, expanding deep into art history and humanism.

Nicole Eisenman 'Sloppy Bar Room Kiss' 2011. Oil on canvas, 99.1cm × 121.9cm. Collection of Cathy and Jonathan Miller, Image Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles, Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer.

Since the 1990s, Eisenman has been anchored in the New York Queer scene, yet she does not confine herself to the borders of her queerness. Instead, experiencing and witnessing confrontations on sexuality and the supposed otherness it brings allowed Eisenman to constantly question the role of the artist in society.

Eisenman is floating through the waves of our time on the colossal recurrence of history. She navigates between narratives of today and the power of the individual, or the estranged outsider, as the ultimate force to find a connection. The idea of connection is prominent in her works, hence the fact that it is always possible to separate the single characters, but also see them in their full assemblage. There is a point of contact within the work, amongst society and our time.

Nicole Eisenman 'Fishing' 2000. Oil on panel, 121.9cm x 142.2cm. Collection Craig Robins, Miami, Image courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo: Bryan Conley.

The exploration of connection and collectivity is valued in her practice just as much as the texture and structure. Subject matter and composition are often not about what you see in front of you but how you experience what is underneath as well. Eisenman’s work is not just about understanding what is on the surface, but what you pay attention to in the full picture. The subject matter becomes public but the presence of the artist remains individual, visible through texture and brush strokes.

The surface becomes the value in an image because of what it holds beneath and within it. This allows a collective connection to happen right on the canvas. Eisenman believes when she paints a work it is not only hers, it is shared and belongs to everyone.

Esienman’s paintings can be seen as the intersection of narrative and texture. Deeply embedded in art history, literature, and the function of the artist, whilst attempting to solve a problem in the painting, they end up with a larger narrative than that of the public. In a superb meditation on William Shakespeare, writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin once said that "the greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of people".

Nicole Eisenman 'Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste' 2009. Oil on canvas, 165.1cm × 208.3cm. Hall CollectionImage courtesy Hall Art Foundation. Photo: Bryan Conley

Society is loud yet subtle, mysterious yet audible, all at once, and we are so accustomed to its presence that we often cannot see what is really there. Therefore, nothing seems to be used up in her paintings nor anything is discarded for that matter.

As the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, "The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being". Mere being in a mass Society is a state in which most people submit to in an effort of avoidance. They avoid facts that can paralyze the world they know if acknowledged. This includes the knowledge of our aloneness, the aloneness in life, death, suffering, or that of love.

Nicole Eisenmann 'Morning Studio' 2016. Oil on canvas, 167.6cm x 210.8cm. The Hort Family Collection, Image courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

Society creates a barrier against the inner and outer chaos, which at times feels more chaotic than ever. If we still collectively avoid kindling a light through this barrier, we might be doomed to live in a constructed delusion of a society. Awareness and action are our only hope.

Eisenman creates painterly scenes that allow this chaos to be seen and even breaks the barrier to reflect on the desires and anxieties of our culture at large. In another sense, she does disturb the delusion that we often find comfort in. And she does this without even taking credit for it, and that is an artist this world needs.

It is an important time for Eisenman to ask “What Happened”, but also to consider what will and should happen from now on.

The exhibition Nicole Eisenman: What Happened at Whitechapel Gallery in London can be seen until the 14th of January 2024.



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