When viewing Nicole Eisenman's immense amalgam of paintings, photographs, installations and works on paper, one can't help but recall Marcel Duchamp's explanation for his antics: “I wanted to amuse myself.” Eisenman's witty works upend our culture's shallow disregard for flesh's vulnerability, as her characters exhibit strength and autonomy despite apparent limitations. Whether or not one appreciates Eisenman's somewhat grotesquely rendered brownish figures or gritty ready-mades, her controversial style reifies humanity's unattractive aspects. Spiral Car (1998), a painting that depicts the blank stares of scores of men seated in a single downward-spiraling stretch auto, establishes a spectator symbolically protected behind the windshield. Meanwhile, Blinded by Beauty (1998) explores the problematic response provoked by a female's radiant family jewels and is perhaps the exhibit's most hilarious painting, complete with an unflappable gaping gash in the canvas that parodies the bravado of “destructive” art. (An adjacent photograph features a woman's head eagerly poking through the crash site.) Another humorous painting, Divers (1998), poses a netherworld of copious oral copulation.
The series Support Systems for Women I-IV (1998) openly addresses the female body's aging process, offering empathy in a world that, not coincidentally, stood by as the media made a state emergency of Hillary's rather normally fleshy thighs. Here, women gain comfort from one another's nakedness, employ Flintstones-like breast lifters and tools to pull, drag and cart themselves, and lounge on armatures designed to counter gravity's undeclared war on breasts, arms, belly and knees. In contrast to the Spice Girls, who divvy up particular traits among members, Eisenman's Portrait of a Lady (1998) captures individual complexity. Her lady sports a flannel shirt, scary blue eye shadow, a posh zircon stud that pierces her painted ear, and a sexy flip hairdo that extends into an angelic baby's halo. A mini-installation, Bread Racers (1998), entails about a dozen clay-figurine racers and a motley crew of exhausted spectator-dolls seated in a grandstand before a backdrop of race-car-driver trading cards. With fast and furious female drivers gripping bread steering wheels derived from each car's corporate sponsor (Manischewitz Matzos, Weber's and Wonderbread, among others), one wonders whether the fans have grown weary waiting for economic parity, cheering on heroines to no avail or participating merely as passive spectators.
This exhibition's focal point is Behavior (1998), a massive installation that fills up nearly half of the gallery space. This operatic fairy tale restages the age-old morality tale known as “the birds and the bees” from the perspective of “S.W.A.T.,” a group of rather entrepreneurial chicks bent on destroying a swarm of pestilent bees (the letter “B” also crops up to connote “buggers,” “buddies” and “Bubbas”). S.W.A.T.'s tactical maneuvers entail luring bees from their op-art hive on one side of the gallery to a paradise island designed to seduce them (floral-scented candles, marshmallow chicks, bunches of faux flowers dripping with resin dew) on the other. Like Tamara Fite's thematic stage sets, Eisenman's War Room displays a wide variety of relevant S.W.A.T. products like S.W.A.T. uniforms, gold military fringe, fly swatters, Surge cola, honey bears, Wizard's Spring Floral (air freshener) and a tactical map revealing the bees' imminent menace to the Jersey Shore. Photographs depict S.W.A.T. members devising strategies to “stop the damn bees,” including an oscillating sprinkler hooked up to a propane tank ostensibly to spray fire. Dressed in a Barbie-size gown seemingly fashioned from tarantula legs, a Queen Bee presides over the Honey Pot, which is actually a disco that attracts “buggers” to its bug-friendly tunes.
One shouldn't dismiss this far-flung tale's silliness, since the battle's significance easily carries over into human relationships. Maybe the paradise island is really a “be-” trap, rich in alluring products that deter humans from experiencing being. Eisenman's work offers a raucous respite from life's trials – heroic moments, spaces where one imagines driving race cars, being Wonder Woman, surviving physical impairments and waging war on atrocity (bees, bodies and the booboisie).