Figuratively Speaking: Nicole Eisenman’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ at The Contemporary Austin


Nicole Eisenman is on a roll, even if her wheels are shaped like squares. The recipient of the 2020 Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize is currently having her first solo exhibition in Texas at the Contemporary Austin. “Sturm und Drang” (don’t get too hung up on the literal translation from German) showcases her weirdly wonderful figural sculptures in addition to earlier works, including satirical and allegorical paintings which date back to the 1990s.

If every overnight success takes 10 years, perhaps the same applies to Eisenman’s sudden shift into sculpture circa 2011. They are something of a second act for the 55-year old Brooklyn-based artist.

After two decades of painting, in 2012 Eisenman rapidly produced and exhibited a series of life-size plaster figures at London’s Studio Voltaire. Soon after, at the 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, three of her sculptures from London— the only ones to survive a post-show demolition, as she was unable to ship the rest — were shown with four additional figures, catapulting her into a newfound realm.

But was that really new, wondered Contemporary curator Heather Pesanti, who wanted to retrace Eisenman’s success as a maker of sculpture through the first 20 years of her career as a painter? For Eisenman, who had dabbled in sculpting early on while an undergraduate at Rhode Island School of Design — with supposedly disastrous results that involved the fire marshall — painting became the long and winding road leading to her earliest instincts.

The Contemporary’s exhibition examines both sides of that coin, with the Jones Center’s ground floor featuring, among other pieces, her 2019 Whitney Biennial entry “Procession,” a sprawling installation of sculptural characters who spent last summer sunning on the museum’s sixth-floor terrace overlooking the High Line in Chelsea. The second-floor gallery contains earlier works, mainly paintings, but also prints, busts, and reliefs, all of which hint at Eisenman’s long-standing interest in form and shape, how bodies move through space.

“Nicole told me she had turned to sculpture because, in some ways, she had always been thinking about sculpture — which really struck me,” says Pesanti. She worked with Eisenman to curate the second-floor gallery as a way to explore that inherent relationship between her two-dimensional and three-dimensional works.

One of her earliest paintings (located on the ground floor gallery) includes a female figure — which is near identical in form to the most looming sculpture in “Procession,” conveniently just a few feet away for comparison. In “Support Systems for Women No. 1,” (1998) a zaftig female in repose on a rickety platform suggests a lack of solid support for her body — and perhaps for women in general in society.

In “Perpetual Motion Machine” (2019) the lumbering giant leading the way seems equally burdened, but for different reasons — starting with the wad of chewing gum he has annoyingly stepped in. He and his caravan of comrades are seemingly stuck despite their efforts: downtrodden, trudging, a bit deformed, mired in their own making. If Eisenman wishes to say that women aren’t sufficiently being held up, perhaps the men in her pieces are all too often being pulled down.

The giant in “Perpetual Motion Machine” has gone fishin’, his tuna catch (a bunch of old Bumble Bee cans) dangle heavily from a pole as he tugs a trolly with his free hand. But its wheels are square, a playful detail which might get overlooked, though it means missing the greater point Eisenman is trying to make about societal square pegs in proverbial round holes.

In the ultimate act of public humiliation, a naked form adorns the trolley, head bowed while on his hands and knees, wearing only a pair of New York Giants socks. Brightly knit with red, white, and blue (Rangers team colors), the scandal of  Eliot Spitzer as Client 9 immediately comes to mind. The figure’s ass, overgrown with sheared wool fleece, lets out a loud, smokey fart every few minutes. (A fog machine has been installed in his anus.) The fart plume is every fifth-grade boy’s laughing delight, and it seems to work well in a room of art snoots, too. If you find yourself unimpressed by the literal butt of this joke, the trolley’s bumper sticker conveys a message direct from the artist: HOW’S MY SCULPTING? CALL 1-800-EAT-SHIT. (The bumper stickers are for sale in the museum’s gift shop.)

Nicole Eisenman: Sturm und Drang, The Contemporary Austin
Detail of “Perpetual Motion Machine.” Installation view of “Nicole Eisenman: Sturm und Drang,” The Contemporary Austin . Photo: Sightlines.

New elements, such as eagles, have been incorporated into the Austin exhibition. Their symbolic presence seems appropriately geared toward Texas and its fierce brand of freedom. A large-beaked bird bust wears a retractable dog leash around its neck, which appears both kinky and noose-like. Elsewhere, a small eagle (which is either sleeping or dead) rests in a nest-like crate on the gallery floor at the foot of a fallen flag pole; an oversized white coffee lid dangles from its rope rather than stars and stripes. The flag pole rests flaccidly on the shoulder of yet another character doggedly marching in this procession, the long beam dripping with testicular metal details.

“Procession” manages to be irreverent rather than unfunny in its ode to gender identity and uncomfortable sexuality. Though each sculpture possesses an individual title, the installation’s strength is that it’s a series: a group of figures, some more indeterminate than others, heading in the same direction — square wheels and all.

Installation view of Procession
Nicole Eisenman, “Procession,” 2019–2020. Installation view from “Nicole Eisenman: Sturm und Drang,” at the Contemporary Austin. Photo: Sightlines

I ask Pesanti why she thinks Eisenman spent 20 years as a figural painter (hardly a waste of time, since it resulted in both a Guggenheim and MacArthur “genius” grant). “When you’re an artist just starting out, it’s very hard to be a sculptor,” Pesanti explains. “You need space — which you don’t have — you need money to move things around — which you don’t have — and you need big materials, which are all also hard to get.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that a neo-painting movement, which included folks like Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, emerged in the early 1990s, around the time Eisenman was just starting out. “Painting had been out for a couple of decades, and then there was a return to figural and representational work,” Pesanti adds.

Upstairs, a selection of prints and paintings (including a 1994 self-portrait, Eisenman’s earliest work in the show) complement an assortment of sculptures, busts, and funny-faced masks. The second-floor gallery wastes no time in examining her interchangeability with 2-D and 3-D objects. A series of eight wall masks make the strongest case for her paintings as sculptures, each face flattened into a pancake of form and color. “The Shooter” (2018) is a painting which all but protrudes from the canvas, its big black barrel angled outward. “Under the Table 2” (2014) a clever visual pun about drinking, its perspective placing you underneath the table with everyone else as a bottle of booze tilts toward your own parched lips.

A series of sculptures titled “Sleeping Frat Guys” (2013) turns the notion of classical busts, well, on its head, with funny penises scribbled onto the distorted faces of passed-out college bros. A juvenile prank which seemingly never gets old, since there’s always someone powerless to pick on.

“Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass” (2017) impressively dominates the back wall of the second-floor gallery. The approximately 11-foot by 9-foot painting is yet another fun pun mixed with a morality tale: Washington crossing the Delaware minus the glory. “J-Bone” contains two boats: one, made of a donkey’s jaw, its broken sail a mortal wound, and the other, a stalwart red tugboat. Both are equally doomed; the male passengers on each ship, either unaware or unconcerned. (Much like a sleeping frat guy.)

I ask about the show’s title “Sturm und Drang,” which literally translates to “storm and stress.” Did Eisenman choose a German phrase in reference to pre-World War II Europe? A way to comment on the rise of autocracy around the world?

Although originally “Sturm und Drang” was the name of literary movement that emerged in 18th-century Germany, in this case, Pesanti explains, Eisenman employs the phrase in its contemporary usage, as a synonym for bluster. Says Pesanti: “The bluster of our country’s political atmosphere, but also the bluster of a German beer garden in Brooklyn. The bluster of this show.”

“Sturm und Drang” runs through Aug. 16 at the Contemporary Austin-Jones Center, with an outdoor sculpture to be added at the museum’s Laguna Gloria campus this spring.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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