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Mermaid Catch

Mermaid Catch
signed and dated 'Nicole Eisenman '96' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
77 ½ x 63in. (196.8 x 160cm.)
Painted in 1996
Jack Tilton Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, New York.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 12 January 2009, lot 193.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
New York, Jack Tilton Gallery, Nicole Eisenman, 1996-1997.
Special notice

This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Anna Touzin
Anna Touzin Specialist, Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

Beneath the surface of a placid sea, mermaids jostle and writhe in Nicole Eisenman’s Mermaid Catch. Painted in 1996, the large canvas depicts a solitary boat of jeering fishermen who cast their lines into the navy waters. Below, voluptuous sea creatures struggle to break free from the silver hooks that pierce their flesh, their forms contorting and trembling in a tightly rendered aquatic ballet. The mermaids’ otherworldly blue skin is remarkably tactile, as if Eisenman had modelled her figures on the Renaissance statues of Michelangelo and Bernini. Indeed, Eisenman fills her canvases with art historical quotations and jokes and she is known to borrow liberally from a range of artists. Gesturing towards Classical figuration, Mermaid Catch is rich with narrative allusion. Its emphasis on the body’s materiality also prefigures the sculptural work that has recently occupied a central place within Eisenman’s practice: her 2020 solo presentation Sturm und Drang at The Contemporary Austin featured several sculptures, including her celebrated installation Procession, first exhibited as part of the 2019 Whitney Biennial.

After completing her BFA at Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Eisenman worked as a mural painter, and the legacies of this foundation can be seen in the monumental, almost Amazonian figures of Mermaid Catch. Eisenman went on to exploit both the language and scale of murals, most famously in the 1995 Whitney Biennial for which she painted the thirty-foot-long Self-Portrait with Exploded Whitney. Consigned to a wall in the basement of the museum, Eisenman created a panoramic scene depicting the collapse of the museum’s Breuer building, crowds of fleeing men and helpless victims, and, surrounded by chaos, a single figure steadfastly painting in the eye of the rubble storm. Since the exhibition, wrote critic Peter Schjeldahl, ‘[Eisenman] has led a kind of one-woman insurgency, bidding to reshape the field, with figurative works that collapse the political into the personal and the personal into an erudite devotion to painting’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Seriously Funny’, The New Yorker, 16 May 2016). Her work has subsequently been exhibited at the New Museum, New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, among others, and Eisenman was included in the 2019 Venice Biennale as well as last year’s critically acclaimed group exhibition Radical Figures/Painting in the New Millennium at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Like murals which must compress expansive narratives onto a single wall, Eisenman’s canvases contain multiple, overlapping temporalities. Not only does she pull from all of art history, but her compositions often bend perspectives. As the artist explains, ‘The narrative makes the body have to be a certain way. In that way, it’s like dance, a little bit’ (N. Eisenman quoted in I. Parker, ‘Every Nicole Eisenman Picture Tells A Story’, The New Yorker, 22 February 2021). Stories, as Eisenman’s canvases demonstrate, are inscribed into bodies and in turn shape their presentation. Such awareness itself can be a radical act. As critic Holland Cotter notes, Eiseman’s art is ‘always deeply, forwardly political’ and her compositions reimagine not just the history of art by women and queer artists, but also their role in the world more broadly (H. Cotter, ‘A Career of Toasting Rebellions’, New York Times, 25 September 2014). In Mermaid Catch, Eisenman wrests Classical forms away from the titans of the Renaissance and lets them be shaped by a complexity of sentiments: contempt, dread, agony, pain. These are figures with authentic, profound feelings, whom Eisenman gives space to yield to or rescue their destinies.

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