Fall 2009

A Breath of Life: Seeing Motion in the Static

By Erin Pruckno

Against the austere, angular white walls of the Tang Museum’s gallery, the canvases of Nicole Eisenman and ceramics of Arlene Shechet leap forward from their picture wire and pedestals, with the stagger of a drunkard and the twist of a contortionist. Though unrelated in form or function, the art of Eisenman and Shechet allies to ght the architectural asceticism of the space, bringing color, depth, movement and life to the museum.

“Blow By Blow,” Shechet’s exhibit of ceramic sculptures, features pieces with a wide range of nishes. Some, like Rock in the Form of a Big Breath & A Stubborn Thought, sparkle in the light; the bumps and bulges of the metallic glaze gleaming like castings by Auguste Rodin. Other works are matte, like the chalky off-white of Pucker Up. The chalky or rusty surfaces show greater imagination and experimentation than simple slick metal sculptures.

The acrobatic sculptures take on a variety of organic forms that twist and inate, reminiscent of gnarled wood, porous coral, and circulatory organs. From the central shape of Even and Perhaps Especially, tentacles stretch out from the gure like a statue of a multi-armed Hindu deity, perhaps a nod to Shechet’s inuence from the East. The sculptures, though sitting placidly upon their perches, give off a hum of potential energy.

In the next room Eisenman’s “The Way We Weren’t,” a series of her oil paintings, confronts the uncomfortable. In Brooklyn Biergarten II and Biergarten at Night, Eisenman lls the canvases with revelers and their glasses of beer, a twist on café paintings like Edward Hopper’s odd cast of characters in Soir Bleu and Renoir’s cheek-tocheek dancers in Bal du Moulin de la Galette. But in Eisenman’s paintings, no one is reveling. Among the crowd of sallow yellow faces, sloppy drinkers grope on the dance oor and Death hides amongst the sea of characters. Around the long wooden tables of the biergarten, unusually angled up and away, people engage in conversation or wallow in their mugs. The colors of Brooklyn Beirgarten II are especially vivid, with sporadic oil paint impasto. I wonder what’s beneath the thick paint, or under the masks on all the faces.

The other paintings in “The Way We Weren’t” continue similar unsettling themes. In The Fagend, a cartoonish a town drunkard—top hat askew and bowtie undone— stares at you blankly, or would stare at you, if he were sober enough to focus. The scenes of Eisenman’s paintings seem pulled from a Wonderland-like nightmare of addiction. They challenge us to recognize psychological realities we’d rather ignore. With color and character, Eisenman’s paintings are full with life, with its highs and lows, sharing the same breath that lls Shechet’s sculptures around the corner.