‘This space between figuration and abstraction is an interesting borderland …My thing is that I’m really into narrative. It’s
not about the figure—it’s the storytelling that I’m stuck on’ (N. Eisenman).
Nicole Eisenman’s Marxist Symbol of the Corruptive Influence of Capitalism (2001) presents a face-of between two optical illusions. On the left, a hand holding a cigar morphs into a surreal, frowning face; on the right, the famous visual trick known as ‘My wife and my mother-in-law’ oscillates between a caricatured hag and a beautiful young woman seen from behind. Depending on how these images are understood, a number of configurations can be read: is the cigar an enticing offering, or a presence with belligerent intent? Is the old woman reacting with wide-eyed interest, or the young woman turning away? Eisenman, whose work is preoccupied with power, class, sexuality and gender, delights in such magical ambiguity.
This work, included in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 2007, revels in the variance of visual signifiers. The cigar was long seen as a stereotypical symbol of capitalist wealth, before famous cigar-smokers Che Guevara and Fidel Castro made it a communist accessory in popular culture; this semiotic instability is foregrounded in the light of the work’s title. The source image for the hand is taken from an advertisement for White Owl ‘New Yorker’ cigars created for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, adding a further layer of consumerist significance. Eisenman, who won the prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ in 2015 for her work, has long been a practitioner of figuration and the human form during an abstraction-dominated era. She also pointedly considers her own
position as a queer artist in a world of power driven by different prerogatives to her own. The disturbing allegory Commerce feeds Creativity (2004) features a trussed-up naked woman being spoon-fed by a topless man in a bowler hat and suit trousers, playing with similar signifiers to the present work; Guy Capitalist (2011) displays a blank, mask-like face with coins for eyes. Bubbling with tension between the light humour of the simple sight-gag and the potential menace of its meaning, Marxist Symbol of the Corruptive Influence of Capitalism poses a captivating and enigmatic riddle.