Born in 1965 and raised in suburban New York, Eisenman found her niche “somewhere between the art room and the parking lot, where the kids smoked pot” (Ibid.). She recalls being aware of her sexuality and how different her experience was to that of her heterosexual peers during those formative teenage years; an experience she remembers as being “oppressive” and isolating (Ibid.). In the present work, there is an overriding sense of wistful loneliness, a tender focussing-in on a singular human experience that draws on Eisenman’s impetus as a figurative painter. To quote poet and critic, John Yau, “Eisenman is interested in the individual, what he or she does when alone, with someone else, in a domestic situation, or at a social gathering. The situation may be private or public, real or imagined, or both. Reality and dream have slipped into each other” (John Yau, ‘A Truly Great Artist’, Hyperallergic, 5 June 2016, online). Daughter of a psychoanalyst, Eisenman’s work is emotionally charged with the contemporary cult of self and radical individualism that is perhaps the defining psycho-social character trait of twenty-first-century life. Whether portraying individuals alone or in a crowd, Eisenman paints human isolation and loneliness as well as moments of reprieve brought on by flashes of intimacy, however fleeting or tenuous. In Close to the Edge, the delicate relationship between the two sleeping bodies, the drowsy repose of overlapping limbs echoed across both forms, is beautifully tender. Eisenman’s masterful use of colour here serves to formally accentuate this harmonious rapport. Juxtaposed against pastels and high-key tones, accents of black luxuriously punctuate the composition to guide our eye as it moves from the figure’s crumpled t-shirt, to the cat’s velveteen black coat, to the glossy ellipse of spinning vinyl on the turntable.
Enthralled by and indebted to the great painters of art history, Eisenman is nonetheless acutely attuned to the historically ingrained gender binaries, prejudices, and unconscious biases at stake in the politics of representation. Inspired by the surreal-expressionism of James Ensor, the high-key emotion of Edvard Munch, and bright colour palette of Fauvism, she is driven by a Manet-like urge to chronicle modern life. Yet, as a gay woman, hers is a practice that speaks from a markedly different perspective. Butting against – or queering – the established male canon, Eisenman’s paintings at once pay homage to and challenge convention. As is typical of the Brooklyn based painter’s work, gender and racial signifiers are nimbly elided: the figure in Close to the Edge is neither identifiably male or female and skin-colour is non-specific. Indeed, by employing varying degrees of cartoonishness (somewhat reminiscent of Philip Guston), often within the schema of a single work, Eisenman dislodges or unsettles our understanding. Subjects are rendered abstruse, gender fluid, and racially ambiguous, all in service of a more open and inclusive approach to storytelling that is aligned with what painting can be for the Twenty-First Century. Indeed, wielding her consummate painterly ability and masterful assimilation of styles and influences, Eisenman tells a story, delivers narrative, and ignites the imagination in novel and exciting ways that have courted great critical acclaim in recent years, winning her the famous MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ in 2015 – the very year the present work was created.
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