Morgan Meis in The Easel:
The contemporary painter Nicole Eisenman tells a rather moving story about winning a MacArthur “genius” grant in the late summer of 2015. She went to a quiet place and wept. Similar experiences have, no doubt, beset many MacArthur recipients. The grant is a crowning glory to an artist’s career, conveying recognition at the highest level along with no small amount of legal tender ($625,000 as of last year). You too would probably cry.
It should also be said that, for Eisenman, the tears were related to art, and to painting in particular. That’s because Eisenman has, for many years now, been making paintings that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to meet the favor of critics, curators, and academics. Since those are the sorts of folk who act as judges at the MacArthur Foundation, it seemed a safe bet that Nicole Eisenman wasn’t going to be in the running. Why is this? Mostly, it is because Eisenman adopts a cartoony painting style and a light, joking attitude on many of her canvases (though by no means all). Take, for instance, a painting called The Session, from 2008.
Stylistically, the painting verges on being a panel from a cartoon strip. A figure resembling Eisenman herself reclines on a couch at her analyst’s office. She has dirty bare feet and a hole in her pants. She clutches desperately at a box of tissues as she weepingly shares tales of woe to her analyst, who jots down notes in a chair nearby. A vase near a bookcase at the left side of the painting is shaped like a phallus. It is a cute and gently self-mocking painting, but not obviously the stuff to put the contemporary art world on notice.
On second glance, however, even a relatively “light” painting like The Session is making a strong argument about what painting can and should be.