Sculptures at Carnegie Museum bend historical allusions

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 7:02 p.m.

It's a clunky, ludicrous display. Thick, white-plaster sculptures of thick, seemingly malleable figures lackadaisically lounging on and around the classical casts of Greek and Roman sculptures in the Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Sculpture.

These malcontent characters, part of the 2013 Carnegie International, may seem haphazardly placed, and, indeed, they are meant to. Just enough to draw the attention of the jurors of the Carnegie Prize — museum director Lynn Zelevansky, two board members and five former Carnegie International curators — to their creator, New York City-based artist Nicole Eisenman.

When the exhibit opened in late October, they gave Eisenman the esteemed honor, which carries with it a $10,000 award and the Medal of Honor, designed by Tiffany & Co. and cast by J. E. Caldwell & Co., just like the one first issued at the 1896 International.

In years previous, the Carnegie Prize has been awarded to highly regarded painters such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning.

Now, Eisenman, primarily a painter herself, takes company with those greats, and not without good reason, Tina Kukielski, one of three curators of the 2013 Carnegie International, says.

“She's a master of historical allusions in her work,” Kukielski says. “I always call her a sort of ‘historian at will,' because she will pull anything from graphic novels or comic books to more traditional forms of portraiture, Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance portraiture.”

The plaster sculptures are not without their historical references, as well, with a nod to the classic figures of the tarot card deck, such as “Prince of Swords” and Untitled (Three of Wands), just two of five sculptures visitors will confront on the mezzanine that were commissioned specifically for this 56th International exhibition.

“Nicole was really compelled by this idea,” Kukielski says in regard to the Hall of Sculpture installation. “She is very interested in mythmaking and the stories and narratives that humans create for themselves, but also representations of human beauty and, certainly, is interested in kind of subverting our expectations of classical ideal beauty and complicating that through the portraits that you see upstairs.”

And the portraits are a plenty — 19 in all, filling the walls alongside the sculptures, comprising a mini-retrospective spanning the years 1993 to 2011.

“She's certainly the kind of artist that has developed her own personal iconography,” Kukielski says. “You might see things that come from popular culture and comic books, like there's one painting that shows The Thing from the Fantastic Four, but she also has her own idiosyncratic way of depicting humans.”

Take, for example, the painting “Little Shaver” (2005). Here, in a straight-on portrait of a man, chin covered in shaving cream, he is taunted by the women in his life, one of whom is cutting his throat with a razor.

Likewise, in “Commerce Feeds Creativity” (2004), a bound female figure (Creativity) is being coerced by a seedy male character (Commerce). And in “Tea Party” (2011), a family of bomb-building white-supremacists, one dressed as a forlorn Uncle Sam, share company in a bomb shelter rife with rations.

“I love this painting because it sort of riffs on the classic style of American genre painting that you might have seen in collections of the 19th century,” Kukielski says. “(Here) we might expect to see a family eating dinner by the fire, but instead this family has been completely morphed into a rather sad, abject and disassociated group.”

In other works, like “Portrait of a Lady” (1998) and “Amazon Birthday” (1993), thick, stocky women predominate, many with bulbous noses, which is, Kukielski is quick to point out, a common thread, on the earlier paintings especially, as well as the recent sculptures.

“There's oftentimes this overgrown nose that you see in a number of the portraits, and sometime the nose is bright orange or bright red, or, in the case of one of the plaster sculptures, it's full of warts and covered in a layer of black graphite,” Kukielski says. “She's certainly interested in this sort of abject quality that you get from that style of portraiture.”

That quality is perhaps best recognized in the painting “Fishing” (2000), in which nine similarly suited women hold a man as ice-fishing bait above a hole cut in the surface of an iced-over lake. The women's faces predominate among the twisting mass of off-white bodysuits. Eisenman's paintings depicting large groups like this are especially compelling, bulb noses and all.

“She very powerfully wrestles with a full range of human emotion from tragedy to ecstasy, to joy to pain,” Kukielski says. “You see that especially in these pictures of large groups, but also in the individual portraits that she has made. And, I think, that is also true in the group of sculptures that she created.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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