The Human Painter Making Art Worthy of Aliens

Recently named a winner of the MacArthur "genius grant," Nicole Eisenman opens up about identity, her childhood, and the bizarre reason she got fired from Kmart.

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Nov 17 2015, 4:15pm

"Fishing" (2004), Nicole Eisenman. Image courtesy of Nicole Eisenman

As I break through traffic midway across Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Nicole Eisenman waves from an open doorway. We embrace as if we're friends. The door opens at the foot of a narrow stairwell. Art on either wall narrows it more. We climb. Her studio is a big room with high ceilings. There are a handful of seats distributed across the worn wood floor, I find a place on the far end of a deep-cushioned sofa.

Eisenman has been making art for 30 years. Her paintings are figurative and story-like, often illustrating civilization in deceptively simple tableaus. In Fishing (2004), titanic women in hooded white bodysuits encircle a hole in the ice of an arctic landscape. Over the hole a man in a blue business suit is bound with rope, hanging like a lure. In Hanging Birth (1994), there's another circle, this time made of men standing around a woman giving birth into their waiting hands; she hangs from a tree by a noose around her neck. Eisenman paints mankind's ugliness and our beauty, teaching us about ourselves through metaphor and symbolism. In some ways her work is ancient, and looks like it belongs on cave walls.

In September, Eisenman was one of 24 individuals to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur "genius grant," on a list of geniuses that is notably, refreshingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, sex, and skill. The MacArthur is mysterious; no one can apply for it, and the nomination and selection committees are secret to everyone outside them. Even the nominees are kept in the dark until just before their names are announced to the press. If you're Nicole Eisenman, you just a get a call one day—while you're out buying bacon—to say congratulations. And it's no small prize: In addition to being labeled a genius, you get more than half a million dollars paid out to you over five years to advance your brilliant work.

Eisenman in her studio. Photo courtesy of Nicole Eisenman

But the weight of that is distracting. In Eisenman's studio it feels inappropriate to even address. "Paint has so much life in it," she says. "Oil paint is elemental. It's oil and rock. It's real. It's not plastic, so it has a kind of life force to it that's infinite. It's so much like us."

"I like painting people I know," she adds. "It's nice to have a world that slips between reality and fiction."

Despite her engagement with material, human beings are at the heart of Eisenman's work. Her genius status was granted in part for her restoration of "cultural significance to the representation of the human form." In an art world overrun by men and abstraction, the socially relevant, figurative, and anthropological aspects of Eisenman's painting are honorable.

In Eisenman's studio, the giant canvases on the wall are bigger than many New York apartments. The painted figures on one depict a roomful of people at a party. There's a painted wooden cutting board with cheese and salami, people dancing, coming, going, and a couple collapsing into each other's mouths, one of them blue, like Buddha. There are many colors, many forms, and many styles to the figures. They all look different but somehow akin.

Being forced to call yourself something is an insult to your humanity.

It looks like Eisenman paints listening to jazz, so I ask her that. "That's so weird," she says. "I feel like I dreamt that someone asked me that just yesterday. Why did you ask me that?" We decide that we're psychically attuned. "Yeah, like it's Stan Getz or something?" She laughs, looking into her work. "I really think I did dream that."

Eisenman was born in France, but "that part of the story might be a bit of a disappointment," she tells me. "I'm not French. I'm an American, and my parents lived there; my father is in the military." She wants to know about me, so I tell her where I come from. Somehow that cuts into the bias and prejudice I encountered coming of age as a transgender person in rural New England. I tell her that I started writing when I was 12 years old, a poem called "Death" that I still remember. She insists I recite it, so I do.

"This sounds like you're telling my story exactly," Eisenman says when I finish. "It's not about death. It's about this moment of coming out: what comes next, what comes after, 'maybe it's happiness, maybe it's more depression'," she says, quoting me back to me. "There's a hopefulness in that statement. I think that 'Death', to me, when you read it—it [was] this moment of leaving the innocence, the free-floating, unsexualized, and all-inclusive being that childhood is, entering into the binary that our culture hoists upon us. It feels like death is coming."

Eisenman is like me, because she's not quite what the doctor ordered. Her gender and sexuality verge away from the normal, Freudian categories our world invests in. Her father, a Freudian psychiatrist schooled in the 50s, was a champion of that idea.

"It was not easy for me later in life," she says. "I feel like I didn't unpack that logic until I was well into adulthood. I lived with the emotional repercussions of his prejudices and his demented thinking around queerness for half of my life, and then spent [another] half of my life trying to reconcile myself."

That demented skew on reality was painful, but also useful to the art Eisenman was making. Who might we have been were we not embroiled in prejudice and conflict at a young age?

"It would have been a happier and easier life," she says. "But then I don't think I would have made the work I made for an entire decade in the 90s, trying to find myself in a world where I felt like I didn't have any place." That's how Eisenman's paintings feel: They're almost separatist, countering the male-centric keeping of history.

"I was a happy-go-lucky kid," she says. "I had a great, fun childhood. I had friends; we romped around the neighborhood. We had a good thing going, and then as soon as we went into middle school—as soon as sex came into the picture—all my little girlfriends became interested in boys, and I felt like an odd man out."

So, like so many odd people out before her, she made art. The cultural norms governing sex and gender altered the course of her life, and ultimately produced the conditions in which her work became possible. A friend once described Eisenman by saying that she was like a dog marking its territory with piss. She's always felt that was the best analogy, that one must make their own way in the world.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 80s, there were a few years before her first show in New York, when her art went from private to public. Everything happened pretty quickly for her. She was 27 years old when she was in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. "I felt like one of the youngest people in the show," she says, "but now people show younger than that."

Sometimes my work can vacillate between reflecting on the horror show that is our world and also conjuring a world that seems like a better place.

Her work began with installations, murals on gallery walls that would last for the duration of an exhibition and then be destroyed. At the end of the 90s Eisenman turned to sculpture, but there was "too much stuff." She didn't want to shop for objects; she wanted to make art. Although she has returned to sculpture in the last few years, most of her career is based on oil paint.

For me, I tell her, my identity feels firmly rooted in writing. Is it the same for her, as an artist, I ask. "Identity is such a hard topic heading," Eisenman replies. "It's too gross; the terms are too broad."

"You're nothing and you're everything," she continues. "You're a process. I like the idea that you're that thing in the millisecond of observing yourself. It's so fleeting you can't even hold onto it. The labels, the binary—they're a problem. Being forced to call yourself something is an insult to your humanity. Artist seems as good a label as any other, because it seems pretty broad. But I also know that I'm still me without the art. I just really love doing it."

My eyes keep returning to the figures in her party scene on the far side of the room. Though I suspect this question is also reductive, I ask why she paints people in such starkly contrasting styles. "I have this idea that every figure wants to be treated in its own way," Eisenman says. "I don't know if it always works, and there's moments where it's ugly and awkward and then it just becomes a battle to get it to behave nicely, and get it to be handsome in itself."

Here, she interrupts herself. "Who are these people? Here I am talking about how complex identity is and how unpinnable it is, and yet every time I paint a figure I am determining it to look like something frozen in time. Sometimes my work can vacillate between reflecting on the horror show that is our world and also conjuring a world that seems like a better place."

What about other worlds, I ask her. Does she believe in life beyond earth? "I do believe in aliens. Certainly. Of course. I'm really superstitious. I feel like if I think about them, or watch TV shows about them, or read about them too much, they'll come to me, and I don't really want to invite them into my life."

If aliens come, I would abandon myself to them, I tell her. "I just don't want to be experimented on," Eisenman says. She begins to tell me a story. "When I first moved to New York, one of my jobs was designing T-shirts for a line that was going to be sold at Kmart," she says. "All the T-shirts had frogs and kittens. This was the 90s, okay—it wasn't that cool yet."

On her first day, Eisenman came into work with a design of a basket full of frogs. "I got it wrong—it was supposed to be kittens in a basket," she explains, somewhat needlessly. "My boss took one look at it, and she freaked out. She started crying and had to leave work."

It turned out that Eisenman's boss had been abducted by aliens in her youth. "The frogs I drew, with their giant black eyes, reminded her of her abductors," Eisenman says. She was fired the next day.

"After that I was like, 'What is this alien abduction business?' And I read all these books and I really scared myself. I didn't really want to think about it too much. I think they're out there."

She wonders about this planet's future, what kind of world her daughter, who is in grade school, is inheriting. "Maybe it will be more of a challenge for her to stay grounded in reality," she says. "How do you not get lost in your screen? That's a concern. The state of the planet Earth is a concern—what's it going to be like when she's an adult? She's into science. Little smart girls who are into science, they're the hope."

Now Eisenman and I are standing in front of the painting of the party scene on the wall.

This painting would be a great document to share with the aliens, I say, and she looks excited.

"I would love to send this painting into space," she says. "That's a really nice idea. You wonder what all of this amounts to."