Art

Nicole Eisenman’s Portraits of Angry White Men

We have seen these men before; they are oafish and hapless, yet dangerous. They are Philip Guston’s Klansmen, back from the dead to ruin us.

Nicole Eisenman, “Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass” (2017), oil on canvas, 127.25” x 105” x 1.75″(all images courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

LOS ANGELES — Judging from the paintings and drawings on view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Nicole Eisenman has been thinking a lot about angry white men. They are almost the exclusive population throughout the expansive gallery. There is a large contingent of shooters, each confronting us from behind a firearm aimed directly outward, so that to look at the drawings is to stare down a gun-barrel. These shooter drawings are almost all from 2016, with a few from 2017 and one from 2018, elaborated in ink, charcoal, oil, acrylic, and pencil. This last is the largest, and the only one bearing a title, “The Shooter.” One of the untitled drawings, in pencil and blue ballpoint pen, shows a man pointing his gun at us with one hand while the other grasps his penis. Along the bottom margin Eisenman has written “BAMSPLOOSH.”

Nicole Eisenman, “The Shooter” (2018), ink, charcoal, oil, acrylic and pencil on gessoed paper, 41 x 34.5″ paper size; 51 x 43.75 x 2″ framed (photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

While there is nothing original about equating guns with penises, the full array of drawings in Dark Light reveals Eisenman’s mind ping-ponging through a number of visual rhymes, adding up to many of the show’s most compelling moments. The circle of the gun barrel becomes the end of a cigarette smoked by impassive men. In one case, smoke billows from a man’s right nostril; in another, a sooty cloud issues from a cigarette belonging to an African American in a drawing titled “A Moment of General Anesthesia” (2018), suggesting this man’s need for relief from pain of America’s continuous police shootings of black men. Further iterations of the black circle appear: in a small 2016 sketch it is a bullet hole in the middle of someone’s face, in others it is a darkened sun. A 2015 ink drawing titled “Black Sun” has the cheerless orb spewing fecal liquid that piles like a mound of pudding below, resembling a pipe depositing sewage in our waterways. Finally and inescapably, the circle is an anus.

Nicole Eisenman, “Dark Light” (2017), oil on canvas, 127.25” x 105” x 1.75″ (photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Two monumental oil paintings anchor the exhibit, each over 10 feet high and featuring four men. “Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass” (2017) shows three men on a vessel constructed from a giant mandible, the mast supporting a sail with a gaping hole. The men sit placidly in the boat as it heads downriver; the first plays a flute, the second (a sailor) grasps the line running to the boom, and the third is a businessman in a suit. The company, if not exactly merry, is oblivious to the fact that their ship is about to be lost over a waterfall. Behind them a man in a similarly endangered boat stands on deck and plays a bass drum, the kind one wears in a marching band. The entire painting is in sickly hues, the river a putrid yellow-green. “Dark Light” (2017) has four men in the bed of a pickup truck, three of them asleep while the last stands shining a flashlight emanating shade instead of light. This benighted figure, face set in a scowl, wears a camouflage T-shirt and a red trucker hat that doesn’t need the letters MAGA to be identifiable.

We have seen these men before; they are oafish and hapless, yet dangerous. They are Philip Guston’s Klansmen, back from the dead to ruin us. That a painter has resurrected these sinister buffoons indicates that little has changed politically since Guston’s figurative turn — America continues to embrace its foundational racism, brought to the surface in our new century by white horror at the first black president, and the consequent election of Donald Trump, racist-in-chief. Just as Klansmen once enforced oppression, the white majority of this country has installed an administration that perpetuates its coercive supremacy.

Nicole Eisenman, “The Tea Party” (2012–2017), ink on gessoed paper, 40” x 35″ paper size, 52” x 45.50” x 2″ framed (photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Although he did not make it directly into the two paintings, Trump appears in many drawings, usually being inaugurated, the ceremony often taking place on the deck of a ship about to plunge over a waterfall. His bizarre hair appears in these sketches as a large slug, a wonderful invention. In the paintings, Trump is everywhere but nowhere visible. His presence infuses the images, their atmosphere poisoned by a toxic masculinity that is not merely self-destructive but threatens to take us all down. Eisenman has a son, so these are not abstract concerns for her, and as a father of two young boys, I am in the same boat. But then again, aren’t we all?

Nicole Eisenman: Dark Light continues at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (6006 Washington Blvd, Culver City, Los Angeles) through April 21.

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