In an art world hungry for fresh talent, artists at midcareer often inhabit an uncomfortable zone: The electrifying work that first made them art stars now seems dated, and they must often reinvent themselves, maturing their practice lest their early work be canonized as an art historical footnote, or worse, an iterative shtick they trot out year after year like a painterly Gnarls Barkley.
This question gets an implicit airing in Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993-2013, the magnificent midcareer survey of the artist's work that opened last Friday at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Eisenman came of age during the culture wars of the 1990s, when, along with a cohort of figurative revivalists, she made a name for herself with cartoonish drawings and paintings that turned a queer, satirizing lens on everything from heterosexual gender roles to art-world consumerism. Her clever early drawings use brisk, fluent lines to lambast art-school dreams as in Ye Old Ear Shoppe, where a bandaged Van Gogh points to the store where he presumably procured (and you can too!) that most memorable totem of artistic genius, or Richie Rich Beheaded, a reference to Judith and Holofernes, where a bikini-clad woman holds a sword in one hand and the severed head of the world's richest kid in the other.
As a body of work, these early paintings and drawings are witty, political and undeniably queer. Steeped in art historical- and pop-cultural references, they are occasionally hard to divorce from the toxic cultural battles of the Clinton years. But they can also be wild, laugh-out-loud bacchanals that move beyond the moment as in Untitled (Lesbian Recruitment Booth), where a line of clothed women wait demurely on the left for a raunchy bit of Sapphic lust on the right.
But this early work, often so fun, can also be uneven — and here associate curator Kelly Shindler should be commended for compiling this unflinching survey — heavy-handed, strident and formulaic. Take Hanging Birth, a work on canvas from 1994 that in the manner of painters like John Currin yokes the painterly techniques of the Italian Renaissance to edgy, politically charged scenes — blending cultures high, low, political and aesthetic in a mashup engineered to shock and arouse. In style and composition, Hanging Birth is an overt reference to the Madonna and Child paintings that were a staple of the Italian Renaissance. Only here, the Madonna, her breasts exposed and rendered in deathly blues and grays, is giving birth while hanging dead by her neck from a tree. In the painting's upper left hand corner, a figure uses a video camera to record the scene for posterity, while to the upper right an onlooker blows a party favor.
Subtle enough for you?
Had Eisenman's work stalled here, this midcareer survey would not be nearly so gratifying. But as her work matures, it also grows in range, and her treatment of art historical references becomes more subtle and interesting. Drawing on a tradition that includes everyone from Hans Holbein the Younger and the German Expressionists, to Picasso, Delacroix and the Italian masters, Eisenman often employs elements of these earlier works in the service of contemporary allegory, peppering her canvases with tiny surprises that are by turns funny, tragic and grotesque.
In one of the show's most arresting canvases, The Triumph of Poverty, Eisenman channels an iconic Holbein painting of the same name. Only here, Eisenman is responding to the failure of the U.S. auto industry, as a tattered woman sits at the wheel of a broke-down jalopy that is surrounded by ragtag group of refugees. The painting's sole authority figure, a blind man in a tattered tuxedo, has his exposed pelvis reversed — he's literally leading them ass-backward. Some figures are painted in close detail, while others are merely indicated with crude, gloppy dabs. To the painting's bottom right, tethered to the blind man, is a group of stumbling figures in sixteenth-century Dutch dress, a clear nod to Bruegel's The Blind Leading the Blind.
As Eisenman said during her artist talk, her paintings are not only cerebral, but they are progressively moving north, away from the Italian masters and toward the Germans and the Dutch. This migration is certainly apparent in Winter Solstice 2012 Dinner Party, which brings to mind the German Expressionists as it portrays a gathering of extravagant debauchery. Here, a figure in a death mask lifts fork to mouth while its dining companion wears a crown of feces. To their immediate right, a man who's obviously had his fill of drink dully prepares to penetrate a crudely rendered figure that lifts a wine glass in blind celebration. Meanwhile, at the head of the table, a woman straight from the pages of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster idly smokes a cigarette while holding her lap dog, while yet another figure, oblivious to it all, slumps on the table, his wine glass overturned.
Like many of the works in Dear Nemesis, Winter Solstice bursts with humor, frustration, pathos, wit and despair. At its best, Eisenman's later work, which includes magnificent scenes of the despondent at biergartens, sloppy barroom kisses and futile therapy sessions, goes beyond merely titillating viewers by applying the techniques of past masters to provocative contemporary scenes. Rather, Eisenman is in conversation with these artists, using their shared language to describe the world as it exists today — be it the rise of the Tea Party, or the loneliness of online relationships. In other words, Dear Nemesis shows an artist not only at midcareer, but perhaps at her peak.
Comprising more than 100 works (including several etchings and sculptures), Dear Nemesis fills but does not overwhelm the museum's main gallery, giving visitors plenty of opportunity to see the work of six other artists also on view. And those shows should not be missed: most notably, Joyce Pensato's I Killed Kenny, a series of tremendous canvasses (and one huge mural) that devilishly appropriate iconic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat — think Willem de Kooning meets Walt Disney in a back-alley knife fight.