‘Like the paint-intoxicated masters she reveres… [Eisenman] takes the whole raging world as her subject. It’s a generous and prolific and courageous art- one that never stints on feeling, however messy or delirious in the moment, and finds in the uncensored push-pull of human life grounds for passion and meaning.’
(T. Castle, ‘The Youngest Old Master’, in Dear Nemesis, exh. cat., Cologne, 2014, p. 77).
‘Painting carries within it the spirit of the painter’
(N. Eisenman in conversation with B. Johnson, The Bad Shepherd, exh. cat., London, 2014, p. 158).
In Nicole Eisenman’s Beasley Street a myriad of characters congregate in a town square at midnight, some emerging from the shadows while others are glimpsed briefly through a distant window. Examined in detail, the clusters of individuals and pockets of personalities, from elderly ladies marshalled by their mummified carers, to drunken brawls and fishnet clad prostitutes, pervert the Brueghelian scene to create a rich graphic allegory of modern society. Taking inspiration from one the most notable works by punk poet John Cooper Clarke, whose poem of the same title addressed poverty in inner-city Salford in the 1980s, Eisenman’s animated canvas is rich in narrative allusion. Consistently drawn to figures and faces throughout her career, Eisenman’s work overflows with a skilful combination of humour and pathos. Her intertwining of classical painterly tropes and her personal view of the modern world has earned her an international reputation as ‘The Youngest Old Master’. Recently the subject of an expansive mid-career survey at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Eisenman’s work has created a versatile vision that combines high and low culture, fusing contemporary subject matter with art historical conventions from Flemish renaissance painting, Impressionism, and social realist painting. Her most powerful later works, of which Beasley Street is an example, act as a commentary on the economic and political landscape of the United States since 2007 and its effect on the people who live there.
Drawing on Pieter Brueghel’s 1559 work Netherlandish Proverbs, as well as the pathos and political satire present in works such as Gin Lane by William Hogarth, the complex narrative of Beasley Street thrusts traditional painting and old master themes into a dystopic view of the present. As with Brueghel’s didactic tale, the scene is alive with activity. However the central narrative of Eisenman’s scene isnot one of community or family life, but rather a modern tale of poverty and debauchery. Permeating the scene is a sense of death and moral depravity; the hand of the mother in the foreground morphs before our eyes into a gruesome deathly claw, while the mummified bodies in the square insist on the presence of death even in the carers of the infirmed. For Eisenman, each character and detail invite a closer reading, every element an important addition to the narrative whole. Stitched into the knitting of one of her characters appears the names of G.W Bush and Rudy Giuliani, affirming her engagement with contemporary politics, while the tears in the eyes of a despondent resident indicate the artist’s emotional sympathy with the scene; a sentimental attachment which is most present in these later works.
Although through the years Eisenman has explored different mediums, from woodcuts to plaster sculpture, she has consistently returned to painting as a means of exploring her expressive impulses. The present work demonstrates her appreciation and command of the medium: from the stark, almost Fauvist figure in the foreground to the ghostly figures in the background rendered with delicate brushstrokes and an almost sheer palette. For Eisenman painting has recently taken particular significance: as the artist explains, ‘The over-abundance of disposable and meaningless images gives oil painting more value … Painting carries within it the spirit of the painter; it is an artwork’s physicality through which a deep connection with the viewer occurs’ (N. Eisenman in conversation with B. Johnson, The Bad Shepherd, exh. cat., London 2014, p. 158). With its varied narrative and sense of moral commentary emerging through layers of paint, Beasely Street perfectly exemplifies Eisenman’s unique approach to image making.