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Reflection: Nicole Eisenman's Broad Range On View At CAM

Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011. Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 inches. Collection of Cathy and Jonathan Miller. Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Provided by CAM

Those who say they do not understand contemporary art or who question the talent needed to create the art they encounter need to see the work of Nicole Eisenman. The survey of her last 20 years of painting, sculpture, print and drawing at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) is powerful enough to singlehandedly answer these sort of rumbles. She clearly knows how to draw, how to paint and has something to say.

CAM’s Dear Nemesis exhibit gives a broad view of Eisenman’s capacious artistic range. Eisenman identifies evidence of the evolution of her painting technique from a traditional Italian light touch during her younger years to a more thickly applied paint associated with German influences.

She consciously samples from contrasting traditional painting techniques. She borrows discordant stylistic fragments to collapse all historical artistic periods, constructing sophisticated painted remixes. Baroque history painting, German Expressionism, Italian Renaissance, Social Realism and American Regionalism comment upon each other within her work.

Eisenman is actively in love with art. She is engaged with its history. That engagement is often very funny. A New Yorker who grew up in France, her humor is often turned on the French icon – the painter, the psychoanalyst, the modern critical theorist.

A strand of her thematic subjects alternates between images of violent patriarchy and a gender-equal promised land. Eisenman turns gender tropes upside down. She places male nudes at the point of the viewer’s gaze that is typically saved for female figures. She points out passive gender roles by reversing them. Women are shown as doers, actively collaborating at tasks that are more commonly depicted as male enterprises. In the latter themed paintings, Eisenman builds a grand narrative of a society that, through its visualization, is important for its introduction into our collective understanding of the spectrum of human behavior.

A selection of Eisenman’s drawings and watercolors from the early 1990s addressed the lesbian recruitment myth years before Ellen DeGeneres addressed the subject in her sitcom character’s explosive coming out “Puppy Episode” in 1997. A joke about “national lesbian headquarters” giving toaster ovens to successful lesbian recruiters is strung throughout the Ellen episode, an allegation of homosexual indoctrination that continues to get play among anti-gay hysterics.

Her practice includes teaching and collaboration that reflects the supportive position she advocates for in her utopic art visions. A project that addresses this purpose is installed in the second floor space at CAM. Eisenman and artist A.L. Steiner organized a group show of work by 40 artists and activists: Readykeulous by Ridykeulous: This is What Liberation Feels Like. As part of that didactic effort to use her art as an embodiment of a differently envisioned society Eisenman will exhibit her paintings at the European biennale Manifesta held this year at the State Hermitage Museum in Russia (June through October).

The basics

Where: 3750 Washington Blvd., 63108

When: Through April 13

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday & Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday

Information: camstl.org

Cost: Free