Until recently, Nicole Eisenman was best known as a figurative painter. Crafted with thick painterly brushstrokes, the bodies in her paintings oscillate between representation and abstraction, bright colors intertwined with neutrals and, more often than not, the pallid yellow skin tones we associate with seasickness. Her sculptural bodies are also burly, with thick, meaty hands and, in many cases, large, saucer-like eyes. The figures lumber forward, as if weighted (both literally and figuratively), or march in lockstep, or rest on makeshift pedestals—yet, as in the paintings, they are never humorless. According to Eisenman, to be a good painter, you have to have an understanding of sculptural material and texture. Yet, she points out, images affect us through the head, whereas we experience sculptures through our proximity to them. In sculpture, she is concerned with physicality, and it is through the physicality of a piece that she conveys feelings.
Eisenman began showing three-dimensional work in 2012, after a residency with Studio Voltaire in London, which encouraged straying beyond the confines of one’s previous practice. In Eisenman’s case, the exploration resulted in a series of unpainted white plaster figurative works, their armatures made of two-by-fours and chicken wire. Inspiration for the poses as well as some of the titles, came the Thoth Tarot cards, which feature paintings made by Lady Frieda Harris. Eisenman’s residency show brought together individual figures, but her sculptural work since then has been motivated in part by the question of how to tie groups of figures together—she wanted, in a sense, to write a story and use sculpture to tell it.
Perhaps none of her efforts better demonstrates this than Procession (2019), a sculptural group made for one of the outdoor terraces of the Whitney Museum of American Art for last year’s Whitney Biennial and now on view in “Sturm und Drang,” a selection exploring the sculptural dimensions of Eisenman’s work in two and three dimensions from 1994 through 2019 at The Contemporary Austin (which came about when Eisenman won the newly combined 2020 Suzanne Deal Booth/FLAG Art Foundation Prize). Procession consists of figures that function individually but also together, lumbering in a procession—a parade, perhaps, or a protest. Eisenman had previously employed simple devices for arranging groups of figures: positioning them around a pool, for instance, in Fountain (2017), which was first seen at Skulptur Projekte Münster; an edition of that work now resides permanently at the Nasher Sculpture Center.
Eisenman arrived at Procession after years of making drawings and paintings of ruminating people. Here, they are gender non-specific, with looming bodies made of bronze, plaster, epoxy, and resin, among other materials; their surfaces tend toward the roughly textured. Some are mythological hybrids resembling animals with human features, a contemporary amalgamation of bodies similar to the sorts of Cubist characters one might see in a Picasso painting. Eisenman emphasizes the physicality of her figures by imbuing most of them with the possibility of movement: either literally via a pulley system, or metaphorically, with torsos leaning forward as if walking into the wind. While these freestanding sculptures appear to be in transit, there are also several busts installed on wooden pedestals resting on logs. Each pedestal is fitted with a cinch strap, which functions as a pulley system, again implying movement.
Eisenman’s concern with physicality stems from how she views the relationship between viewer and work. As she said in a 2019 lecture at the Nasher Sculpture Center, “When you’re doing something to change someone’s feeling in painting, you’re doing it in the head, it comes through your eyes, whereas I think with sculpture, since your body is in proximity to the piece, there is more of a physical sensation. Feelings you can convey through the physicality of the piece…I think of painting as being from the neck up and sculpture as being from the neck down.”
Because freestanding sculptures convey feelings partly through our physical experience of them, the context of our encounter is crucial. Visitors to “Sturm und Drang” find Procession installed indoors, rather than outside as it was at the Whitney. The work was designed to contend with the elements. “You have to consider nature in tandem with outdoor sculpture,” says Eisenman. “Whether you are contending with bright light or a cloudy day, there is an honesty to sunlight. Whatever the weather is going to do, the sculpture holds it.” Consider for instance one component of the work, a bronze edition of Man at the Center of Men (2019): a man seated on the back of another who is on his hands and knees. The seated figure holds two mirrored garbage can lids that, for a few seconds each day, when the sun hits them, cause his head to erupt in a ball of fire. Although a bronze edition of this piece has been commissioned for long-term display at Laguna Gloria, The Contemporary Austin’s outdoor sculpture park, seeing the original plaster sculpture indoors during the exhibition necessarily changes the experience. Inside, beams of refracted light bathe the seated figure’s face.
The seated figure in Man at the Center of Men looks out on the world through googly eyes and holds his garbage cans with Muppet-like hands. Like many of Eisenman’s characters, this one has his humorous side. Another large figure in Procession, Museum Piece Con Gas (2019), wears nothing but socks, assumes a yogic cat-cow posture, and silently breaks wind with a hidden fog machine.
This humorous bent, like the abject postures of Eisenman’s walking figures, seems to have been inherited from the paintings. To take just two examples directly related to the sculptures, the amusingly titled Support Systems for Women, No. 1 and No. 4 (both 1998 and on view in “Sturm und Drang”) depict nude women resting on wooden armatures of the sort used as sculptural support. That Eisenman gives this visual joke a political undertone by posing the women like an odalisque in the former, while in the latter suggesting various resonant situations—using a walker, seated in a box, prone as if tortured by exercise equipment or something more nefarious—that make a clear implication: the support that women get is feeble or even designed to control. Indeed, whether working in two or three dimensions, Eisenman presents situations that whisper truths about class, gender equity, and human rights. Procession, she explained in the lecture, “was born out of an idea of togetherness and community and walking together, what that metaphorically means to me, to walk together.” As with any powerful artist, Eisenman proceeds by metaphor but hits us in the gut.
“Sturm und Drang” is on view at The Contemporary Austin though November 15, 2020. A related exhibition of Eisenman’s work with a selection of drawings by Keith Boadwee is scheduled for The FLAG Art Foundation in December 2020.