Nicole Eisenman’s Tutorial on Sculpture, Politics, and Everything

.At the least, it’s entertaining to encounter and attempt to decode an artwork by Nicole Eisenman. But the experience invariably escalates. The speed by which that happens depends on many factors but venue is a key one. For instance, her current exhibition, Nicole Eisenman: With, And, Of, On Sculpture, at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Paris showcases a monumental, two-figure sculpture, Perpetual Motion Machine (2019). It dominates the central space of the first floor gallery. She leads with the showstopper.

However, Perpetual Motion Machine is actually a remix of Nicole’s 2019 Whitney Biennial sensation, the monumental mixed media sculptural group titled, Procession (2019). It isn’t unusual for her to rework a project for a different venue and, moreover, audience. In this instance, the hushed elegance of Hauser & Wirth and the controlled mayhem of a typical afternoon at the Whitney Biennial provide two very disparate viewing experiences: a sort of library versus arena vibe.

In its current incarnation as Perpetual Motion Machine, this bronze, plaster, and quirky mixed media behemoth about art-world yeoman’s work and larger world politics radically reconfigures the gallery space to the extent that the adjacent paintings displayed on three of the walls seem oddly displaced. They are the well-behaved antipodes to this unruly, anarchic mess: a brooding leviathan with its x-rated load, both of whom are understandably preoccupied. One hails from the high-art tradition: the load-bearer in bronze. The other is a darkly satirical mashup of artistic iconoclasm. 

Backing up, though– Procession raised a critical ruckus, in part, I think, because its maker was not a male artist and the figures were not explicitly gendered; thus, it eluded easy narratives. It was pronounced by Phyllis Tuchman, writing for ARTnews, “hands down, the standout entry of the 2019 Whitney Biennial.” I don’t disagree. 

Taking in the extensive installation, which Phyllis referred to as an “unusual caravan of fellow travelers” and Urban Art Projects (UAP) called “a nine-figure army of otherworldy characters” felt like sorting through the artist’s metaphorical junk drawer and finding an array of bafflingly disparate stuff, half of it bearing no relation to conventional artistic materials: a fly swatter, several empty tuna cans, a flagpole, urethane foam, a fog machine, and more besides some traditional substances like wax, bronze, and plaster. 

Across the spectrum of her oeuvre, Nicole embeds numerous references.

Across the spectrum of her oeuvre, Nicole embeds references to specific works by well-known artists past and present, historical styles, and art historical, critical, socio-cultural, and political discourse on art and everything else (but especially art). The references range from subtle or sly to audaciously direct. For example, the “smoke” generated by the fog machine emitting from an orifice in the posterior of the kneeling colossus is pretty unequivocal. The enormous pair of NY Giants athletic socks, though? Who’s to say? Liisa Salander from the Rhode Island School of Design (Nicole earned her BFA from RISD in 1987), who attended the artist’s talk, reported that Nicole wouldn’t comment on the “biting political nature of the piece” except to say, “We live in a political moment that is pornographic. And pornographic politics deserves a pornographic response.”

Although the dynamics of Perpetual Motion Machine are distinctly different from those of Procession, what they have in common is obvious sexual violence. The figures are grotesque. The scene is grotesque, which begs the question: Do we accept sexual harassment, exploitation, and violence depicted in art if the pictures are pretty? Images in which rape is concealed in allegory like The Rape of Europa (see Titian’s version), The Abduction of the Sabine Women (see Poussin’s version), or Degas’s mysterious, foreboding, Interior (also known as “The Rape”) populate the Western art historical canon and are some of the most valuable artworks in museums and private collections–in perpetuity, it seems.

A deeply intelligent artist prone to dark humor, Nicole ranges between the explicit and the subtle. There’s the chewing gum stuck to the heel of this unsung Sisyphus and there are those square wheels on the wagon, all of which make progress – or, motion – impossible. 

A deeply intelligent artist prone to dark humor, Nicole ranges between the explicit and the subtle.

The convincingly realistic tuna cans dangling by strings from a pole are reminders of Jasper Johns’ cast bronze Ale Cans (1964). The small, black-and-blue reproduction of Rodin’s Thinker trapped in the agglomeration of disturbing forms and goo such as a waxy penis propeller on the back of the figure (the titular perpetual motion machine) on the wagon makes deeply uncomfortable connections between the work, the narrative, and emphatically male artistic tradition and heritage. Furthermore, proceeding through the galleries, you can’t help but identify additional connections; they are abundant. 

I think this is the genius (or one facet, anyway) of Nicole’s artistic practice: her relentless reminders that, among other things, the concept of originality is a trap. Perhaps it goes without saying that, historically, critical reception of the work of a given artist has been emphatically gendered. Thus, if someone like Manet is quoting Titian or Picasso is quoting Manet or Currin is quoting Bacon or De Kooning, then they are carrying on an emphatically white male artistic tradition. 

Nicole’s art demands: “Am I/is this derivative?” “original?” “radical?” “genius?” and so on. 

In contrast, gender outsiders and non-white males are under constant scrutiny. A sort of critical hazing, including relentless interrogation as to authenticity, originality, and artistic heritage, only intensifies with the success of an artist. Nicole’s art demands: “Am I/is this derivative?” “original?” “radical?” “genius?” and so on. 

Another case in point is one of her monumental paintings of jam-packed interior spaces, Archangel (The Visitors) (2024). Pivoting 180 degrees from Perpetual Motion Machine, the picture may well be a mirror of the viewer’s present moment. It depicts an exhibition of both fictional and existing 20th century sculptures. The gallery space in the painting seems to be an artist’s studio given the stacks of paintings stored above us in the foreground. Abstract modern sculptures on pedestals look like they’re conversing with the people facing this way and that. 

According to Juxtapoz the “pig-headed military figure” in the foreground “references John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter’s ‘Prussian Archangel’ (1920).” It hangs forebodingly above the scene like an angel of death, cementing the theme of looming political persecution (of artistic expression) suggested also by the work’s subtitle, The Visitors. The latter, explains Juxtapoz, refers to an ABBA song of the same title “about the persecution of political dissidents.” Far more than an art history pop quiz, these constant references to works by other artists don’t merely quote the so-called canon, they attempt to eviscerate it.

Click image to enlarge.

See, for instance, on the second floor of Hauser & Wirth, Nicole’s smallish oil on linen painting titled Cubist Female Innards (2022). In the picture is a roughly anthropomorphic, lightly ribbed, red Modernist sculpture. This does not remotely resemble the Cubist style. It seems to kneel, vanquished, on its pedestal. Its head is a cup-like object – a sphincter, no doubt. 

Rodin makes another appearance via a large, joint-smoking, helmeted bronze head titled Mad Cat (2024), which evokes a similar, earlier bronze piece of a massive nose with a huge purple nose ring, Sherpson (2018). Mad Cat’s helmet is the base of a white chair resembling Duchamp’s infamous inverted urinal from Fountain (1917). It’s a gesture similar to the one in which Duchamp altered a cheap postcard of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa by adding a mustache and an inscription. The end result was L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). Touché.

Something fascinating happens at Hauser & Wirth with regard to venue and physical proximity: providing the backdrop for Perpetual Motion Machine are three colorful two-dimensional works, Shape Driven Head 1, 2, and 3 (2024). These Dada-head-like compositions provide comic relief. Each figure holds up 1, 2, or 3 fingers in reference to the titles. Plus, more to the point, it references the conceit of the no-narrative art prophets’ refusal to give their works titles.

The exhibition is infused with the multiplicity of styles that is now so characteristic of Nicole. Thus, opportunities for referencing her own work and that of others are abundant. Of course, there’s far more to her art than that. For instance, she’s well known for her figurative work and frequently explicit cartoon-style works and, notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “wide-ranging subjects address issues of power, representation, gender, and sexuality, especially queer sexuality, intermingling elements of fact and fantasy, history, and autobiography.”

However, With, And, Of, On Sculpture is specifically about sculpture; thus, themes of works are relevant to that and works themselves like Tutorial (2018), which resembles a child’s drawing of a face on a Rice Krispie treat, may well bridge the gap between painting and sculpture. That seems to be entirely, at least process-wise, what Nicole is doing with this show.

© Debra Thimmesch (6/23/2024) FF2 Media


Learn more about Nicole Eisenman’s With, And, Of, On Sculpture at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Paris, France.

Read about Nicole’s piece for the Whitney Biennial in NYC titled Procession.

ARTnews’ Phyllis Tuchman wrote about Nicole’s art — read her piece here.

Check out coverage of Nicole’s Perpetual Motion Machine piece from her alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design.

Read about Nicole’s The Abolitionists in the Park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Visit Juxtapoz for more on Nicole’s Paris exhibit.


Featured photo: A front view of Nicole Eisenman’s sculpture Perpetual Motion Machine on display at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Paris, France.

Middle photo: Nicole Eisenman’s painting titled Cubist Female Innards on display at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Paris, France.

Bottom photo: Nicole Eisenman’s sketch for Procession on display at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Paris, France.

All photos, provided by Debra Thimmesch, were taken for FF2 Media on 6/8/24. Therefore, they are both authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Debra Thimmesch, female sculpture artist, France, Hauser & Wirth, Nicole Eisenman, Paris, Perpetual Motion Machine, Women Sculptors

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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