BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - — Mónica de la Torre

Pain­ters David Humphrey and Ni­cole Eisen­man dis­cuss fa­cial sym­me­try and mir­ror neu­rons, the in­ter­play be­tween im­age and tex­ture, and their shared in­ter­est in sto­ry­telling through fig­u­ra­tion.

In the fol­low­ing con­ver­sa­tion, pain­ters Ni­cole Eisen­man and David Humphrey men­tion that they once con­sid­ered, per­haps jok­ingly, the idea of pen­ning an anti- ab­strac­tion man­i­festo. They never fol­lowed up on it. Adopt­ing an ad­ver­sar­ial po­si­tion might have not been in keep­ing with their belief in com­mu­nal cre­ative shar­ing: ul­ti­mately, what­ever art’s achieve­ments may be as a whole, they are the re­sult of each artist’s in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions and ben­e­fit ev­ery­one.

What is more, pro­claim­ing them­selves against ab­stract art proved un­nec­es­sary. In the lapse of the twenty-plus years since Eisen­man and Humphrey have known each other—they met in the early 1990s—fig­u­ra­tion has been as reap­praised and de­cried as much as ab­strac­tion. We’re all the luck­ier for it, since one of the mark­ers of the cur­rent mo­ment in paint­ing is a fe­lic­i­tous syn­cretism of both strains, as can be seen in their own works and those of many other pain­ters in their co­hort. If the can­vas of­fers a site where pre­vi­ous mo­ments in paint­ing can be re­vis­ited and repo­si­tioned, both Eisen­man and Humphrey also mine the medium’s in­her­ent po­ten­tial for sto­ry­telling, of­fer­ing two vari­ants: Humphrey is keen on ex­plor­ing the fic­tions of the artist elicited by con­tra­dic­tory types of mark-mak­ing. His paint­ings ex­plore those lim­i­nal sites where the deeply per­sonal meets the mass-pro­duced, com­bin­ing the hands- on ges­tu­ral with slick ap­pro­pri­a­tions of im­agery from a range of found sources. Con­versely, Eisen­man de­liv­ers, through the utopias and dystopias she por­trays, slant re­flec­tions of our con­tem­po­rary world. She doesn’t set out to do so in­ten­tion­ally, but fol­lows a method more akin to the way the deep sub­con­scious works—man­i­fest­ing the ev­ery­day obliquely, with coded fears and wishes ful­filled, al­ways es­chew­ing log­i­cal sense.

DAVID HUMPHREY: Peo­ple will say to me that it looks like I can do what­ever I want in my paint­ings, since I pull im­ages from my imag­i­na­tion, throw in media im­ages, ab­stract ges­tures and shapes, and swerve in any di­rec­tion. I’ll say, “Well, no, it doesn’t feel that way at all, but my friend Ni­cole Eisen­man, that’s re­ally true of her!“

NI­COLE EISEN­MAN: ( laugh­ter) So we all feel like the other guy has com­plete free­dom?

DH: Yes, ex­actly.

NE: You don’t think I have “brand recog­ni­tion,” as I’ve heard you call it?

DH: You have to­tal brand recog­ni­tion, but it seems like you give your­self per­mis­sion to ex­er­cise any kind of pic­to­rial op­tion, even if that means ex­ag­ger­a­tion, ed­i­to­rial in­ter­ven­tion, or re­al­ism.

NE: I think we both do that.

DH: I be­lieve in flex­i­bil­ity as an ideal, but I do tend to look long­ingly at other peo­ple who seem to have more of it.

NE: That’s be­cause you’re such a maker at heart. You don’t have enough time or space to make all the things you’d like to make, so other peo­ple have to make them for you. So I’m mak­ing your art for you in my stu­dio, you’re mak­ing my art for me in your stu­dio, and we’re all mak­ing our art for each other in our own stu­dios.

DH: I hope so. Wouldn’t that count as some kind of sub- com­mu­nity where there’s pic­to­rial di­a­logue at a dis­tance, with­out artists ever hav­ing to talk to each other?

NE: It’s a mass col­lab­o­ra­tion. I hon­estly do think of it like that. We are all in this big pro­ject to­gether.

DH: It’s a hive struc­ture. And maybe we’re like neu­rons in some kind of big brain.

NE: Yeah. It’s a good at­ti­tude to adopt be­cause it can bring the joy back to a space that can be very hard for an artist, like when see­ing some­thing you wish you had made. DH: In terms of this open­ness, I feel like your work, your meth­ods, your pro­cesses, are very por­ous. You adapt sources, you make things up, re­mem­ber im­ages, and in­clude all of it in the pic­ture if it suits you. I like to think that I’m also that way, but per­haps I’m more source- driven.

NE: I can be source- driven.

DH: My fan­tasy about your draw­ings is that you can sit down in front of a page and cook it up—maybe from a ver­bal de­scrip­tion or a mem­ory—whereas that’s more trou­ble­some for me. I pre­fer hav­ing some­thing con­crete to jump off from.

NE: We both like some­thing to re­act to. You like a vis­ual div­ing board to push off of. For me it could be an idea I read or a phrase in a book. This past year, sym­me­try has come up a lot. I built those pieces in the MoMA paint­ing show [ The For­ever Now: Con­tem­po­rary Paint­ing in an Atem­po­ral World] around it. That’s enough of an idea for me—just drop­ping a line down the mid­dle of a page and build­ing off of it and see­ing what shapes be­gin to evolve.

DH: I think that the logic of faces un­der­lies your strat­egy.

NE: What is the logic of faces?

DH: It’s kind of a glyph. That face- like paint­ing over there ( points to the wall) looks like the floor plan for a game or a sport that we don’t know the rules of yet.

NE: But we do know the rules of faces, we ab­sorb them sub­con­sciously.

DH: Isn’t the face the pri­mor­dial, sym­met­ri­cal space that one peers into or that one projects from? The first ob­ject of at­tach­ment, and of look­ing?

NE: It’s the site of emo­tional learn­ing. I re­turn to the face again and again, but it’s also the re­la­tion­ship that is pri­mor­dial—ev­ery­thing hap­pens be­tween two bod­ies.

DH: Yes, be­tween two bod­ies or two faces. Think of ba­bies. When they emerge, they seem to have a spe­cial pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with faces. All the re­wards of nour­ish­ment and care come from their abil­ity to nav­i­gate faces.

NE: It’s true that gaz­ing into the mother’s face is cru­cial for brain de­vel­op­ment. Also the idea of mir­ror­ing and sym­me­try comes into play. Though I re­call see­ing some­where that it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what face you look at; it doesn’t need to be the mother, or maybe even the same species as you. All you need are eye­balls and an ex­pres­sion.

DH: You also have to be cute enough to be looked af­ter, be­cause you’re so help­less as a baby. Some­one’s got to take care of you, oth­er­wise you get pruned out of the sys­tem.

NE: Be­ing cute helps in al­most ev­ery con­text.

DH: Some­thing we share, but that you re­ally dig into, has to do with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­di­vid­u­als and groups. The psy­cho­log­i­cal space be­tween peo­ple is like the space be­tween a paint­ing and a spec­ta­tor, but then you ex­pand that space to con­sti­tute col­lec­tives, tribes. Some­times they’re wait­ing for the sub­way, as in that paint­ing over there ( points to a work), or they’re at a bier­garten, or hang­ing out around the pri­vacy of a ta­ble. This is a re­ally in­ter­est­ing sub­ject that doesn’t get a lot of play in con­tem­po­rary art— the res­o­nance of an in­di­vid­ual per­son within the pack.

NE: I think of Canetti’s Crowds and Power and the ec­static mu­rals of Michelan­gelo. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what the group is do­ing—what’s in­ter­est­ing is the sin­gle body, sep­a­rate and part of this as­sem­blage.

DH: I’m picturing an ide­al­ized plea­sure space, a space of con­tact and re­laxed bound­aries.

NE: And power. It’s a place where the in­di­vid­ual ego dis­solves and to­tal per­mis­sion is granted to do any­thing and act in any way.

DH: I guess it’s not quite you in the sense of the per­son sit­ting in front of me. It’s a you that’s been slurred—

NE: —a you that dis­solves into a rhythm.

DH: Do you think of fam­ily as a tinier, more prickly, and dif­fi­cult group that’s on a con­tin­uum be­tween the soli­tary in­di­vid­ual and the horde?

NE: What hap­pens in fam­i­lies is that we’re try­ing to put our own egos for­ward and in­di­vid­u­ate, and we’re push­ing up against this small pack of peo­ple who are ba­si­cally try­ing to kill us.

DH: Es­pe­cially if they love you.

NE: A mob is the in­verse of that. To­tal per­mis­sion is granted to not be a crea­ture of ego.

DH: It has ec­static po­ten­tial. Fam­i­lies are never ec­static—oh my God, they’re the op­po­site.

NE: What is the op­po­site of ec­stasy?

DH: Some kind of im­plo­sion. ( laugh­ter)

NE: Emo­tional ni­tro­glyc­er­ine! Your work is right in the mid­dle of that. It con­tin­u­ally comes back to the pair­ing of bod­ies and what can hap­pen in the space. It can be a com­pletely lib­er­at­ing and ego­less ex­pe­ri­ence to be part of a cou­ple, or it can kill you.

DH: That’s, like, the most pro­found lone­li­ness imag­in­able.

NE: It can be. Lone­li­ness ex­ists in how we per­ceive our re­la­tion­ship to oth­ers.

DH: That is the de­vel­op­men­tal drama of be­gin­ning one’s life as a deeply, rad­i­cally un­sin­gu­lar en­tity and nav­i­gat­ing, or con­struct­ing, or hav­ing forced upon you, a sin­gu­lar­ity that al­ways has a trace of its un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated ori­gins.

NE: What a cer­tain Vi­en­nese psy­cho­an­a­lyst told us is that we are al­ways seek­ing to re­con­nect. It’s a pain in the ass.

DH: A real pain in the ass.

NE: In the fu­ture this won’t be an is­sue, when ev­ery­body is born from a test tube or some­thing, and we won’t have to be search­ing for the com­fort of the womb the rest of our lives.

DH: Our paint­ings won’t be as good un­der those con­di­tions, though. NE: Yes! Strife feeds the beast, though more and more I need to be in a good, com­fort­able, and bal­anced mind­set to be pro­duc­tive. When per­sonal stuff is hard, it takes up too much thought space. Do you feed off of the hard stuff?

DH: Well, I suf­fer, and I don’t re­ally en­joy paint­ing un­der those con­di­tions, but the work turns out to be just as good, which is very con­fus­ing.

NE: As long as you keep work­ing, it’s okay. All that emo stuff finds its way into the work. It only be­comes prob­lem­atic when that jizz jazz in­ter­feres with process.

DH: You were say­ing ear­lier that some­how con­tent leaks into your work with­out you ac­tu­ally will­fully putting it in. I feel that way too. I guess it comes from lis­ten­ing to in­stincts, im­pulses, and in­tu­itions with the faith that some­how your de­ci­sions are go­ing to mean some­thing even­tu­ally. In the process of work­ing some­thing will emerge—al­most al­ways an as­pect of your­self that you weren’t con­scious of.

NE: Yeah, it’s not even sub­con­scious. It’s down there be­low that. Your brain al­lows you lit­tle peeks into your sub­con­scious via dreams. But what fil­ters into paint­ing is like sub- sub­con­scious. You don’t know it’s there un­til you’ve painted it and, even then, it can take years to un­der­stand and see what’s there. I think you are right to use the word faith.

DH: I be­lieve it was Christo­pher Bol­las who talked about the “un­thought known.” The knowl­edge is in there, but you haven’t got­ten around to think­ing it.

NE: The “un­thought known”—that’s great.

DH: Cer­tain kinds of paint­ing are a good place to ex­er­cise these oc­cluded states of mind. There’s some­thing about the phys­i­cal­ity of it too. Your paint­ings are em­phat­i­cally touched. Your hands are all over them, even though they’re com­pli­cated hands. Some­times they’re very sen­si­tive and thought­ful; other times they come punch­ing in, maybe de­liv­er­ing slaps.

NE: Who doesn’t en­joy a lov­ing slap ev­ery now and then?

What do you think about tex­ture? You ar­rive at a sur­face that says some­thing about the world we live in. Your sur­faces cir­cle back to the idea of ar­ti­fice; there is a qual­ity of silk or ice—like, my eyes slip around when I look at your paint­ings.

DH: I want to make paint­ing that has a kind of skin, with a history. It’s got some scars and bruises; you can feel that there’s some­thing be­hind it. At the same time, I never build it up so much that I can’t ad­just col­ors and shape lo­ca­tions. There’s a cer­tain tex­tu­ral even­ness that is a re­sult, but which sus­tains the pos­si­bil­ity that I can move an im­age an inch to the left, or change it to green, with­out hav­ing to fight the ghost of what was there be­fore.

NE: There is a liq­uid qual­ity to your paint­ings’ sur­faces; they’re smooth and milky.

DH: ( laugh­ter) That’s sat­is­fy­ing.

NE: I can have mo­ments of milk­i­ness, but I have more mo­ments of awk­ward weird­ness.

DH: Jen­nifer [Coates] and I have a paint­ing of a head in our apart­ment that you gave us be­cause you hated it so much.

NE: Oh yeah, that sil­ver head.

DH: It’s got skin prob­lems.

DH: Maybe you were pun­ish­ing some­body in that one.

NE: Prob­a­bly! But mostly it’s about putting shit on the can­vas and look­ing at tex­ture. I made it at the be­gin­ning of 2004 or 2005, when I was start­ing to push the sculp­tural qual­ity of oil paint.

DH: So was it some­thing to re­sist or some­thing that en­hanced the im­age? How did it func­tion for you?

NE: The sur­face be­comes more im­por­tant than the im­age. The im­age is slip­pery; it doesn’t mat­ter what it is. There’s some­thing un­der the im­age—a qual­ity of pat­tern and tex­ture—that’s the heart of the paint­ing. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to get it in a pho­to­graph.

Paint­ing needs to be seen in

real life. I’m never happy with how it pho­to­graphs be­cause the strug­gle, the touch of the artist, goes miss­ing. It’s amaz­ing when you go to the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum and you look at some­thing like Van Gogh’s sun­flow­ers. Isn’t it as­ton­ish­ing, that paint­ing? This is such an ob­vi­ous, dopey thing to say. But you can look at Van Gogh’s paint marks and al­most shake his hand. As a pain­ter, you have this mir­ror neu­ron thing that starts ric­o­chet­ing around; you be­come Van Gogh stand­ing in front of his paint­ing.

DH: The time be­tween then and now snaps shut; there’s no loss of res­o­lu­tion. The paint dried. It was wet for a while and then it dried for Van Gogh more or less as we see it now.

NE: And whether he made it or I made it, it doesn’t mat­ter. Some­body in our hu­man race made it. We all kind of made it and it be­longs to all of us. I get these feel­ings of one­ness with all peo­ple. It’s deep and won­der­ful and then I start cry­ing. ( laugh­ter)

DH: Oh, Ni­cole, I’m go­ing to cry now.

NE: Dude, it’s pro­found! The con­nec­tion is via tex­ture, not im­age. Im­age is all up here, above your neck, in your brain. Tex­ture is all be­low your neck and about your body and how your gut feels. I don’t know how those mir­ror neu­rons work, but I know we have brain cells in our stom­ach—it feels like it’s from there that deep em­pa­thy and an un­der­stand­ing of paint­ing comes.

DH: There might be some neu­rons like six inches be­low the stom­ach, too.

NE: Yeah, down around the anus. I’m very smart down there.

DH: Yes, neu­ral ac­tiv­ity is a lot dum­ber on the front side.

What is the vi­car­i­ous re­la­tion we, as artists, have to hand­made im­ages? We can feel what it was like to make the thing, es­pe­cially when stand­ing about arm’s length from it. It can be a re­la­tion of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, to track the pres­sure and ex­tent of a mark­ing ges­ture. Maybe peo­ple who love sports feel that way when they watch an ath­lete do some­thing.

NE: I read a sci­en­tific study about couch pota­toes who watch sports; they ac­tu­ally burn calo­ries sit­ting still.

DH: That’s much eas­ier than go­ing to the gym. Let’s talk about sculp­ture for a minute.

NE: Oh, I know, we’re both pain­ters who sculpt. We have some cross­over with ma­te­rial too, be­cause you’ve been work­ing with plas­ter for ages.

DH: I love it. It’s like paint: it has a liq­uid state that you can push around be­fore it be­comes frozen.

NE: Are you still do­ing plas­ter?

DH: I am, but I’ve been work­ing more with pa­per pulp mixed with hy­dro­cal. I’ll build up the form with that, and then use the straight plas­ter as a fin­ish­ing skin.

NE: You use found ob­jects in a way that is ut­terly bril­liant and hi­lar­i­ous. You tear apart ob­jects that de­serve to be fucked with and mash them into a new con­text that makes them bet­ter. You are a kind of bri­co­lage healer or tchotchke whis­perer.

DH: Maybe that’s part of the way we were talk­ing about sources—some­thing

to push off of, a way to bring the world into the work.

NE: I’ll never for­get that show you did up in Har­lem with those gi­ant blow-up snow­men. You had like twenty-five gi­ant blow-up snow­men ly­ing on top of each other in a room.

DH: It was kind of an orgy.

NE: It was a dream come true.

DH: I love the chal­lenge of an oc­ca­sion— a room, a du­ra­tion, a bud­get—and just charg­ing into it.

NE: You need a grant so you can cast that en­tire thing in bronze and put it in Cen­tral Park.

DH: Some­day. I know you were stalk­ing sculp­ture but then you de­cided to jump com­pletely into it. Was in it Lon­don that you made the sculp­tures in the gallery?

NE: Yeah, it was a con­tin­u­a­tion of some­thing I started as a stu­dent at RISD with my friend Molly Brad­ford. We built maybe six or seven re­ally large, full- on plas­ter bod­ies. We took over a room in the Met­calf build­ing at RISD. We got into a lot of trou­ble be­cause we made a huge mess with the plas­ter. They were threat­en­ing to sus­pend us, and they tore the pieces apart be­fore we could pho­to­graph them. It turned out to be kind of trau­matic; Molly pretty much dropped out of school af­ter that. It was such a weird dis­con­nect, mak­ing the best thing ever and get­ting into that much trou­ble for it. They sent my par­ents pic­tures of out­lets that the fire depart­ment had taken with plas­ter in the sock­ets… I didn’t touch plas­ter again un­til a cou­ple of years ago.

DH: That’s a great ori­gin story for sculp­ture.

NE: What’s your ori­gin story?

DH: My dad was a Sun­day sculp­tor who had tools and ma­te­ri­als in the base­ment. There was a mo­ment when I was ten or eleven when I had the idea of cov­er­ing chicken-wire with burlap soaked in plas­ter. My first sculp­tures were these big blobby things that I like to think of as be­ing comic-mod­ern, like Franz West.

NE: That’s so awe­some, a chip off the old block.

DH: Yeah, I loved it. I could al­ways make one if I needed to show off for some rea­son. I went to art school at MICA, where you had to wait un­til the ju­nior year be­fore you had ac­cess to the fancy sculp­ture stu­dios. I went there think­ing I would make big, welded things. I had never re­ally painted or drawn any­thing. In those first two years, though, I fell in love with the odd dis­ci­pline and free­dom of draw­ing and paint­ing. I was se­duced.

NE: Wow, that’s nice; you moved to­ward the new and un­known.

DH: Art school sto­ries.

NE: Your sculp­ture seems to slide seam­lessly into paint space and vice versa.

DH: I guess there’s im­agery in them. It’s the idea that a sculp­tural ob­ject can have within it the qual­ity of a fic­tion, some­thing like the way a flat pic­ture can de­scribe a third di­men­sion— cow­boy fig­urines sit­ting around a fire or a cou­ple of stuffed dogs tell sto­ries about dogs and men but also about who might have owned the orig­i­nal ob­jects that I’ve con­scripted. Of course, my sculp­tures are em­phat­i­cally in the room with you, and re­late to fur­ni­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Your sculp­tures tend to be fig­ures, right? My fa­vorite mo­ment with your sculp­ture was at the 2013 Carnegie In­ter­na­tional, where they were in a large atrium comin­gling with clas­si­cal stat­ues.

NE: They were all there with their fore­fa­thers. It felt re­ally good to build big, queer bod­ies and put them on pedestals next to bod­ies that are the stan­dard bear­ers of Western form. DH: They were scruffy, bo­hemian

Im­age is all up here, above your neck, in your brain. Tex­ture is all be­low your neck and about your body and how your gut feels. — Ni­cole Eisen­man

great- great- grand­chil­dren of those gods.

NE: The clas­si­cal Greek sculp­tures that dot­ted the room around my pieces felt like ut­ter fic­tion to me. My lumps of plas­ter ac­tu­ally re­flected some truths about messy and mis­be­hav­ing bod­ies in the world.

DH: We’ve learned a thing or two about flawed char­ac­ter and the beauty of stink­i­ness. I’m think­ing about hu­mor, or the bur­lesque, or—what is it?—the hy­per­bolic, in re­la­tion to your work, and maybe mine a lit­tle.

NE: Yeah, pu­trid hu­mor.

DH: I am happy if I can make a paint­ing that causes me to crack up or say, What the fuck is that? It hap­pens rarely but it does hap­pen oc­ca­sion­ally.

NE: Your work has got­ten fun­nier. When I first en­coun­tered it, it was heav­ier. I as­sume you were putting out some very per­sonal stuff—the themes were fam­ily and mother.

DH: I imag­ined it be­ing funny but no­body else thought so.

NE: It wasn’t. I’m sorry. ( laugh­ter) There was some irony, which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily funny.

NE: Maybe I’m remembering it wrong. It seems like you’re on a tra­jec­tory to­ward hu­mor. I’ve stood in front of your work and chuck­led. I’m on the op­po­site tra­jec­tory. I started off funny and I’ve com­pletely lost my sense of hu­mor.

DH: I dis­agree. How can any­body have any per­spec­tive on their own hu­mor?

NE: You know when you’re be­ing funny.

DH: I’m look­ing at this paint­ing of peo­ple on a train. One per­son has got a lap­top that seems to cover and sub­sti­tute for his or her crotch. It’s a skewed elab­o­ra­tion of self-touch­ing. NE: That’s hot. What a read! DH: And then there’s this other per­son ab­sorbed into look­ing out the win­dow. That per­son is not only in their own world, but ex­ists in another mode of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in a re­al­ity that’s fo­cused only on look­ing, caus­ing the eye­balls to grow mon­strously large. And then there is the sleep­ing per­son, cut off, in yet another au­ton­o­mous con­scious­ness.

NE: Yeah, there is a lit­tle hu­mor in that, I guess. The gi­ant eye­ball is kind of funny. Back in the day I ac­tu­ally made jokes.

DH: I un­der­stand that. Some­times you tell a joke at a party and say, “Okay ev­ery­body lis­ten up, I’ve got this great joke.” Then when you tell it, ev­ery­one is obliged to laugh, be­cause they know this is the so­cial pro­to­col.

NE: Oy.

DH: Whereas it’s much fun­nier when the joke slips in when you’re ex­pect­ing some­thing else, some­thing se­ri­ous.

NE: When you take the con­ver­sa­tion in an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion.

DH: Right, and the ex­pec­ta­tion gets thwarted. The comic is a method of cre­at­ing and di­vert­ing ex­pec­ta­tions. Your paint­ings al­ways do that!

NE: You seem to use hu­mor to off­set dis­com­fort. You set up a sit­u­a­tion that can feel nox­ious and weird, like a bad dream. And then there’s an el­e­ment that serves as the es­cape hatch, or a pres­sure- re­lease valve. These days I’m look­ing for the ground un­der­neath my feet all the time; in a way, the work I make is self- sooth­ing. It starts out with a prob­lem and the strug­gle is to feel like I’m stand­ing on level ground by the time the paint­ing is done. Or if it goes well, stand­ing on top of a moun­tain.

DH: So you can re­store or cor­rect—

NE: Yeah. Maybe that’s where this new in­ter­est in sym­me­try is com­ing from. I’m look­ing to re­store some or­der right now.

DH: The world could use that.

NE: I’ll tell you I could use that.

DH: I’m remembering a mo­ment when we were hang­ing out and you said to me, “Let’s make a man­i­festo against ab­strac­tion!”

NE: That was awe­some. Why did we never do that?

DH: We never lived up to it. Lit­tle did we know that ab­strac­tion was go­ing to roll in as an even big­ger tide.

NE: The red tide of ab­strac­tion. It’s on us.

DH: I feel sucked into that tide. Ab­strac­tion is hav­ing a life in my stu­dio that’s a lit­tle bit per­ni­cious and hard to shake. Some­times I’ll be mak­ing ab­strac­tions and I’ll think, How can I semi­o­tize this? How can I or­na­ment it or ac­ces­sorize it so that it’s not ab­strac­tion? We should have writ­ten that man­i­festo.

NE: We should have. At the mo­ment, it was im­por­tant. We felt, as fig­u­ra­tive pain­ters, in de­fen­sive mode. I’ve of­ten felt like a sec­ond- class citizen in the art world be­cause I rep­re­sent bod­ies. I’ve felt that up un­til re­ally re­cently—like yesterday, or some­thing.

DH: I know some­times I feel like a dork com­pared to, say, re­search-based so­cial prac­tices and the­o­ret­i­cally ir­ra­di­ated re­duc­tive work.

NE: ( laugh­ter) We are dorks; it’s true. Some­how re­cently the art world has caught up with fig­u­ra­tive art. Ev­ery­one caught up with us. Right?

DH: It’s hard to imag­ine that it will ever go away.

NE: It won’t. Noth­ing is ever go­ing to go away at this point.

DH: The For­ever Now.

NE: Oh God, have mercy. ( laugh­ter) This space be­tween fig­u­ra­tion and ab­strac­tion is an in­ter­est­ing bor­der­land. There

I want to make a paint­ing that has a kind of skin, with a history. It’s got some scars and bruises; you can feel that there’s some­thing be­hind it. — David Humphrey

are cer­tain artists out there who have ex­plored that line deeper than I have: Amy Sill­man is the ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple. My thing is that I’m re­ally into nar­ra­tive. It’s not about the fig­ure—it’s the sto­ry­telling that I’m stuck on. The meat and bones in my prac­tice is some­where be­tween tex­ture and sto­ry­telling.

DH: Some­thing comes alive right when you’re try­ing to solve a prob­lem in the pic­ture. It might be: What kind of shoes are on this per­son? What kind of hat is that? Is that a swivel chair, is there a pat­tern on it? And in the ag­gre­gate of all that prob­lem- solv­ing you end up with a nar­ra­tive that’s both big­ger than, and in­ter­sect­ing with, the man­i­fest nar­ra­tive of peo­ple rid­ing on a train or eat­ing a meal or what­ever.

NE: Some­how what’s hap­pen­ing in the pic­ture gets eclipsed by the mean­ing of the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of those ob­jects and mo­ments smooshed to­gether. You can look at how those ob­jects and things in­ter­sect with tex­ture and struc­ture to deepen the story.

DH: There’s the story of the la­bor that went into mak­ing the pic­ture, of the be­hav­ior of the artist, let’s say.

NE: See, to me, la­bor for la­bor’s sake is the least in­ter­est­ing thing. There’s a kind of prac­tice where the artist will make a line, and then another line off of it, and then a line off of that line. If you keep go­ing, even­tu­ally you have a piece of art. But who gives a darn? La­bor is la­bor. Okay, Agnes Martin made some­thing that way, she gets big ups.

DH: Maybe the la­bor makes a fic­tion of the artist’s de­vo­tional feel­ing—

NE: I like what your im­ply­ing. I don’t know. The pic­ture be­comes noth­ing more then a palimpsest of an ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s very self- re­flex­ive and cir­cu­lar—like chas­ing your own tail. Some lin­ear sto­ry­telling or dis­rup­tive event must be in­tro­duced. I want sto­ries that hap­pen out­side of the self, out­side of art prac­tice. This is my crotch­ety mo­ment.

DH: Isn’t there a side of the Ni­cole Eisen­man story in which you make pic­tures of peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties that con­jure a sort of homo- utopia?

NE: Homo, queer, what­ever, yes. But so not utopian. I am re­flect­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence of the world as I move through it. To an ex­tent it’s about me, but I also want to re­flect some­thing that’s not about me.

DH: So is the ideal that your ex­cel­lent con­jur­ing gives the pic­ture an au­ton­omy that thrives in­de­pen­dently with­out re­quir­ing a Ni­cole Eisen­man fic­tion at­tached to it?

NE: Of course my work is in­de­pen­dent of me, hell, I barely feel re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing it. But are you in­ter­ested in that?

DH: I’m not in­ter­ested in any­thing that has to do with a fic­tion of David Humphrey at all. I do like the idea, though, that I could some­how ex­er­cise dif­fer­ent roles in­side the pic­ture. If I make a big, gi­ant ges­ture, I do it as though I were a cer­tain kind of artist. Then I zoom out and as­sume another role—call it a sub­ject po­si­tion—in which I’m a ren­der­ing du­fus mak­ing pic­tures of a chair or a per­son. Ul­ti­mately the pic­ture has dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters or roles in­side of it, in­clud­ing the de­picted fig­ures, the fic­tion of a per­son who made it, and the con­ven­tions or modes of rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­ing em­ployed.

NE: Fixed po­si­tions are dull and not even real. Sub­jec­tiv­ity is su­per slip­pery.

DH: It’s like act­ing in or­der to per­form with clar­ity in the pic­ture.

NE: That sounds like fun, and stands in con­trast to the kind of navel- gaz­ing that can hap­pen in work that only en­gages with process or con­stantly refers to it­self in an end­less feed­back loop and thus be­comes small.

DH: That both­ers me too. This is the prob­lem with a lot of ab­strac­tion.

NE: But then it can look “beau­ti­ful” or,

bet­ter yet, cool. But it’s not enough.

DH: Es­pe­cially if it’s only at­tached to art—pre­cur­sors, the history of art, and other artists. Then the work col­lapses into a closed- off, par­al­lel world.

NE: Maybe it’s bet­ter not to get too hung up in the con­ver­sa­tion about what we don’t like. I’ve no­ticed, amongst my ab­stract pain­ter friends, that they talk about their work in fig­u­ra­tive terms. Then my fig­u­ra­tive pain­ter friends talk about their work’s ab­stract qual­i­ties. The grass is al­ways greener…

DH: I like the ques­tion, and it seems like ab­strac­tion goes into it: How does the pic­ture hang to­gether? What are its prin­ci­ples of or­der? Its com­po­si­tion? I guess that would be the old-fash­ioned way to talk about it. What is its dis­po­si­tion, its pos­ture, or its mood? All of these ques­tions are re­lated and talk about the paint­ing in­de­pen­dent of its sub­ject mat­ter. That’s in­ter­est­ing to me.

NE: Yes, that is the in­ter­est­ing part, and the one we’re not in con­trol of at all.

DH: Mostly. I don’t know about you, but the ideal is to have some­thing that’s well- built but not too well- built. You want it to fall apart or be a lit­tle bit at the lim­its of your con­trol.

NE: Ha! Damn. I try to con­trol it as much as I can. I set my­self up for fail­ure.

DH: Sym­me­try is a chal­lenge, be­cause it risks be­ing static—

NE: Sym­me­try is false. Only true in the ideal. It seems like a science-y word. Maybe sym­me­try isn’t the right word. Mir­ror, or mir­ror­ing, sounds bet­ter to me. There’s a re­flec­tive qual­ity in the im­age.

DH: Bi­lat­er­al­ity.

NE: There are things that will throw sym­me­try off, but as a place to build from, it seems use­ful right now. To­ward what ends, I don’t know.

Ni­cole Eisen­man, CLOSE TO EDGE, 2015, oil on can­vas, 82 × 65 inches. Cour­tesy of the artist and An­ton Kern Gallery, New York.

David Humphrey, PROUST’S DOO­DLE, 2014, acrylic on can­vas, 72 × 60 inches. All Humphrey im­ages cour­tesy of the artist, Fred­er­icks & Freiser, and Mar­cia Wood Gallery, At­lanta.

Ni­cole Eisen­man, IT IS SO, 2014, oil on can­vas, 65 × 82 inches. Cour­tesy of the artist, An­ton Kern Gallery, New York; Ga­lerie Bar­bara Weiss, Ber­lin; and Suzanne Viel­met­ter, Los An­ge­les. Photo by John Berens.

op­po­site: David Humphrey, CAMP­FIRE, 2014, pa­per pulp, hy­dro­cal, and wood, 46 × 48 × 22 inches.

right: In­stal­la­tion view of Ni­cole Eisen­man’s PRINCE OF SWORDS, 2013, plas­ter, graphite, and quartz, 2013 Carnegie In­ter­na­tional, Carnegie Mu­seum of Art. Cour­tesy of the artist. Pro­duced in con­ver­sa­tion with Sam Green­leaf Miller.

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