Frieze Writer's Prize 2016

Daniel Culpan wins the 2016 prize for his review of Nicole Eisenman's ‘Al-ugh-ories’ at New Museum, New York

frieze is delighted to announce Daniel Culpan as the winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize 2016 for his review of Nicole Eisenman show ‘Al-ugh-ories’ at the New Museum, New York, earlier this year.

This year the prize was judged by frieze associate editor Paul Clinton, writer Olivia Laing, and writer and artist James Bridle.

Commenting on the winning entry Paul Clinton said: ‘Daniel Culpan has written a lively review which shows that art criticism should be playful as well as analytical.’

Co-judge Olivia Laing added: ‘Culpan won me over with his boob buns. I loved his gusto and phrase-making, and especially the appreciation of Nicole Eisenman's paintings as sensual objects in their own right.’

Frieze Writer’s Prize is an annual international award to discover and promote new art critics. The winner will be commissioned to write a review which will be published in frieze and will be awarded 2,000 GBP.

James Bridle is an artist and writer based in Athens, Greece. His artworks have been commissioned by galleries and institutions and exhibited worldwide and on the internet. His writing on literature, culture and networks has appeared in magazines and newspapers including Wired, Domus, Cabinet, the Atlantic, the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Observer and many others, in print and online. His work can be found at http://booktwo.org.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic, based in Cambridge. She's the author of To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (all published by Canongate). She writes for the Guardian, the Observer, the New Statesman and The New York Times and is a regular columnist for frieze

Paul Clinton is a writer and associate editor of frieze and Frieze Masters magazines. He has taught on art, stupidity and queer theory at Goldsmiths College and the University of Manchester. Previous publications include a special issue of parallax on stupidity and articles on Bonnie Camplin and Gustav Metzger. He was also a founding member of the band No Bra. He recently co-curated the exhibition ‘duh? Art & Stupidity’ at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea (2015–16).

Nicole Eisenman, ‘Al-ugh-ories’ 
New Museum, New York, USA
4 May – 26 June
 
‘I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories.’

That was the painter Philip Guston’s spirited defence when, in the 1970s, he re-embraced the cartoonish, larger-than-life imagery that he’d left behind decades earlier.

A similar zeal for narrative, questioning what it means to assume this strange shape we call ‘human’, lies at the heart of Nicole Eisenman’s expansive, unruly body of work, captured in her retrospective ‘Al-ugh-ories’ at the New Museum.

Largely working in that most reverential and unfashionable of forms – oil on canvas – Eisenman queers the classical impulse through the rich strangeness of her subjects: lesbian couplings, oddball family units, intrepid artistic explorers and lone misfits. By ransacking an unabashedly eclectic range of references, from the Old Masters to high literature, Eisenman’s bold reimaginings combine subversion with seriousness: a tongue-in-cheek phantasmagoria with tears in its eyes.

In The Triumph of Poverty, a dystopian civilization has lurched, quite literally, arse-backwards: a dishevelled ringleader dropping his tuxedo trousers to moon the spectator with oddly back-to-front buttocks. A tumbling conga line of pygmies are carried along by rats, while the residents – including the naked, clown-faced driver of the getaway car – appear marooned in their dopey sadness. The scene recalls the awkward pathos of Stanley Spencer, but shot through with comic despair. Whether seeking exodus or return, these unfortunates are going nowhere fast.

Biergarten at Night teems with Hogarthian humanity. Sickly-looking drinkers and nightcrawlers overspill their tables; the figure of Death locking lips with a punch-drunk reveller reminding us that hedonism can never escape its own shadow. A palette of jaundiced greens and livid oranges, like the various stages of a bruise, create the impression of a monstrous hangover to come.

A recurrent theme in Eisenman’s work is the artist’s high-wire walk between creation and failure. Progress: Real and Imagined is a portrait of the artist adrift, storm-tossed on the tides of the creative imagination. Burgers, broken light bulbs, Swiss postcards, a firework-like explosion of flowers: all the detritus of artistic fuel and inspiration surround the painter at work, bobbing obliviously in the fraught, fragile moment of composition. Whether drowning or docking, for the artist it’s always impossible to tell.

In Commerce Feeds Creativity, the uneasy symbiosis between art and the market is compressed into queasy miniature. A zaftig woman, her body squished and constricted, is spoonfed by a gaunt figure in a trilby. Her catatonic, drooling expression and bandaged head nod to the institutionalisation of contemporary art, and the eternal dilemma of the artist: at what price freedom?

Eisenman salutes the irreverent impulse, the gleeful shock of the absurd. In Hamlet and Deep Sea Diver, mock-heroic self-portraits juxtapose the elevated past with a wryly fresh interpretation of old archetypes. Is this the exaltation of the genius’s individual struggle, or the puncturing of its pretences?

Elsewhere, the more terminal aspects of our modern condition – disconnection, abjection, isolation – are skewered with painful precision. In I’m with Stupid and Selfie, two bulbous, red-nosed figures, faces like blown-up pink kitchen gloves, discover the joke’s on them – whether it’s their sad, snail-like penis or lonely smartphone reflection. Dysfunctional Family depicts apple pie Americana come undone: Mom crocheting on the couch, knickerless leg lasciviously cocked, Dad toking on a crack pipe, baby flashing its self-mutilated genitals.

Eisenman enjoys the friction of unconventional pairings. In Is It So, sex meets the cerebral, with one lover going down on another, spread-eagled and supine, a sleeping cat curled in the foreground. This act of erotic worship, with all its intimacy and almost studied seriousness, is reflected in the stack of bedside books, their spines boasting such heavyweight names as Homer, Llosa and Ann Carson.

Sex and death, the two great poles of mortality, are mordant motifs throughout. Death and the Maiden sees a bedraggled-looking woman, breasts jauntily exposed like pink iced buns, sharing a glass of wine with a pensive Reaper. It feels like your funny bone is being bashed: Beryl Cook colliding with Edvard Munch.

Eisenman’s singular gift lies in conjuring a visual world that’s alluringly off-centre: where the poignant rubs up incongruously against the banal, and the touching meets the absurd. Often serious when she’s at her funniest, and funniest where it hurts the most, Eisenman’s hyperbolic eye turns excess into a subtle and penetrating art form.

Too much is never, finally, enough.

Daniel Culpan is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He is currently working on his first book.

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