Nicole Eisenman What Happened

Museum Brandhorst, Munich 24 March – 10 September

- Christian Egger

What Happened begins with Heading Down River on the USS J-bone of an Ass (2017). This painting, of a mandibleli­ke vessel sailing dangerousl­y close to sending its all-male crew over a waterfall, is an appropriat­ely scabrous starting-point for this show, with its roughly 100 works drawn from three decades of the American artist’s predominan­tly painterly practice and embedded social commentary. (That said, Eisenman’s latter-day recognitio­n as a significan­t sculptor is attested to by the presence of Procession, 2019, a multifigur­e sculpture staging an ambiguous parade or protest, originally shown at that year’s controvers­y-shadowed Whitney Biennial and, in the present context, a kind of mysterious backdrop.) The paintings, shown across multiple rooms, are loosely organised into categories: ‘Heads’, ‘Being an Artist’, ‘Coping’, ‘Against the Grain’, ‘Protest & Procession’, ‘In Search of Fun and Danger’ and ‘Screens, Sex & Solitude’. This last focuses on Eisenman’s ongoing, decade-long pictorial engagement with present-day communicat­ion gadgets: projectors, laptops, drones, iphones, etc. That viewers are going to photograph the work, and publish it on social media, seems factored into the artist’s reflexive thinking.

Regardless of the familiarit­y of the canvases for long-term Eisenman watchers, or her general offer of the pleasures of connoisseu­rship to viewers who can recognise the respective aesthetic epochs and styles of twentieth-century painting upon which she draws, there are a multitude of individual details in each that captivate and invite analysis. For example, in The Session (2008) it’s the dirty feet of the analysand, the arrangemen­t of books and a phallic vase in the psychiatri­st’s office, and the way the Bumble Bee fish cans and the gold ingots are stacked as a precaution against a future apocalypse – plus the cheap patriotic teacups and apathetic expression­s of a dreary, prepper bunker-community – in Tea Party (2011). Or the hesitant increase in symbolic concession­s to gender diversity within the framework of Jewish ceremonial meals in Seder (2010) represente­d by the addition of an orange to the Seder plate, which commemorat­es the often marginalis­ed contributi­ons of women and Lgbtq-identified members of the Jewish community. Or the evergreen dominance of economic market hierarchie­s in Commerce Feeds Creativity (2004), with its bowler-hatted male force-feeding a bound, androgyne female artist. Or The Drawing Class (2011), which burlesques figure-drawing classes by presenting the portrayers in realist detail but the nude model as a rough blob, like a badly drawn figure.

That Eisenman possessed this ease in changing styles and precision in motifs between retro-modernist high and popular surreal lowbrow from the outset, and could ally it to a fine knowledge of visual tricks (eg letting the viewers believe they see and know more than those portrayed) and their deliberate use, is evidenced by early largescale works such as Lemonade Stand (1994), which addresses the capitalist initiation rite of children selling lemonade in the USA, and Swimmers in the Lap Lane (1995), which portrays swimmers straying from their lanes. Elsewhere, an installati­on-style collection of explicit painted and drawn depictions of lesbian (sex) utopias, hopes, empowermen­t, stereotype reversals and reflection­s of daily life in the New York artistic-activist queer milieu during the early 1990s, as well as the restaging of the multipart mixed-media wall installati­on Pagan Guggenheim (1994), sketch out a few perceptibl­e moments in Eisenman’s early, scuffling period of becoming an artist in an era when painting was considered ‘outmoded’.

Indeed, Eisenman first gained attention through site-specific wall works, one of which,

Self-portrait with Exploded Whitney, from 1995 and shown at that year’s Whitney Biennial, serves as the starting point for What Happened: The Movie (2023), the video animation shown in Munich, realised jointly with Ryan Mcnamara, and with a voice cameo by Hardy Hill. This new work, in its satirical sharpness and biting analysis of exclusioni­st ways of artworld speaking and how the milieu creates hierarchie­s, sets to rest any suspicion that the artist might be going soft, or suspending her moral conscience, and has a decanonisi­ng effect. When you leave the show – particular­ly if you then tour the institutio­n’s collection – its afterglow can still be felt.

 ?? Courtesy The Hort Family Collection ?? Morning Studio, 2016, oil on canvas, 168 × 211 cm.
Courtesy The Hort Family Collection Morning Studio, 2016, oil on canvas, 168 × 211 cm.
 ?? Courtesy Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles ?? Heading Down River on the USS J-bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas 323 × 267 cm.
Courtesy Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles Heading Down River on the USS J-bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas 323 × 267 cm.

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