Nicole Eisenman: What Happened; Re/Sisters; El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon – review

Nicole Eisenman is a riot. The French-American artist has filled the Whitechapel Gallery top-to-toe with her raucous, pungent, tumultuous pictures, running from all-out japery to tragicomic narrative. At 58, and with a MacArthur Genius Grant, she is an art star in New York for her lesbian satires and Brooklyn bacchanals, her mordant take on contemporary US life.

A New York shrink pockets his patient’s money – the victim lies red-nosed and freezing, bare feet dirty on the couch. Sex takes place while people’s eyes flit distractedly to the telly. A big doleful head, all dark-eyed sorrow with brows a deepening purple, looks down into the fatuous little gadget between his poor hands, getting the break-up by text.

In Seder, Eisenman paints the Jewish meal from the viewpoint of the leader, whose huge hands snapping the matzah dominate the foreground. One child stabs at her food, while another falls asleep. An old lady glazes over as the rabbi reads aloud; her neighbour, tensely aware of it, pays the closest attention. Each figure is painted in a different register – goofy, caricatural, expressionist, nearly abstract: an idiom for every emotion.

Eisenman is a consummate pasticheur of all kinds of art, from the Renaissance to the present day. Her licks and riffs can be gleefully waspish. A fabulous parody of Ingres’s sub-porn painting of Angelica, in chains, updated with a basket of fake flowers, becomes a teenager rolling her eyes at the exhaustions of spring break. Commerce Feeds Creativity shows a man in a Magrittean bowler hat force-feeding a roped-up woman suspiciously reminiscent of John Currin’s oleaginous (and super-successful) porny nudes.

The Triumph of Poverty, from 2009, presents a pageant of figures on a starvation march through a picket-fence America, some of them masked figures out of James Ensor, others conflating hints of Munch and Paula Modersohn-Becker. One holds a string to which are attached, like puppets, tiny versions of the blind leading the blind, suggestive of Bruegel. Eisenman aims here at something more proverbial.

Flagrant sex, lesbian orgies, hordes of writhing bodies servicing one another: the figures Eisenman unleashed in the 1990s were deliberately outrageous. And her allegorical self-portrait as a downcast deadbeat sloping ruefully through a crowd of busy people – The Humiliation of Being an Artist – perhaps hints at the public response.

But then she shifts away from cruising, parties and outright satire. The transition in this show appears to arrive with Coping (2008). Here, all sorts of characters from her art – past and present – mill about in a small town: smoking, chatting, having a pint, wheeling a bike, solitary or in pairs; all of them up to their waists in a tide of brown mire.

Getting on or getting by, despite the obstacles, might be her shtick. The pictures are period pieces of our times. The props are familiar – laptops, mobile phones, Zoom calls – where people try to breach the prophylactic screen to achieve any kind of intimacy. The underground train rushes forwards, unnoticed, by a giant eyeball staring into a screen. A sad-eyed monster holds a rejection letter in his disappointed hand; From Success to Obscurity (get it?) is the painting’s title.

There are plenty of sharp one-liners about the business of art itself. Here is the werewolf artist, the backs of whose hands are beginning to sprout beastly hairs even as the paint grows in thick smutches on his (and our) canvas. He reappears as one of the klutzes trying to draw a female nude in a life class full of men. And what is Inspiration, in Eisenman’s eponymous painting, but a muse raising her eyes sarcastically to the skies, her paintbrush like a flapper’s cocktail cigarette.

But as the brushwork gets less wilfully cruddy and coarse – and perhaps with Eisenman’s own mounting success – the paintings lose their power. In America, she has been praised for her political bite in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, ecological disaster, the depredations of Donald Trump. But I can’t see it at all.

The artist who once painted Wilma Flintstone having sex with Betty Rubble can’t bring herself to depict Trump himself. Figures in red Maga hats appear in opaque scenarios; policemen are pictured upside down; the ship of state is going over the rapids to certain disaster – to British eyes these images are just impotent and toothless. Walking back through the show and its abruptly comic scenarios, it seems that the best of Eisenman’s art is pure (or impure) vision – a coining of images that elude caption, unlike the latest work.

Nearby at the Barbican, Re/Sisters is unexpectedly moving. A show that presents women’s responses to eco-destruction might sound solemn and necessarily archival – which in part it is. Here are Simryn Gill’s aerial images of open-pit mines, lying like deep wounds in the Australian landscape; Sim Chi Yin’s shots of Malaysian villages decimated by sand mining; Chloe Dewe Matthews’ photographs of a gas-emitting crater, caused by Soviet drilling in 1971, that is still ablaze even now.

Here too are tremendous images of the Greenham women, day and night; of their Himalayan counterparts protecting local trees against destruction with their bare encircling arms; of mothers in Flint, Michigan protesting against the chemical poisoning of their water. There is a melancholy beauty to all of these works.

The Earth convulses, bleeds, gives birth. It is, of course, raped. Perhaps the most potent works here are those in which women identify most closely with the land. Judy Chicago setting off fireworks in the baking desert; Francesca Woodman lying like Ophelia in fronded rivers; Ana Mendieta making herself almost invisible in a forest, at one with the bark of a tree that may soon be felled.

The show’s atmosphere is both fierce and gentle, an absolute sincerity to every work. And right at the end is an enchanting installation in which viewers are invited to sit on plush beanbags, among giant prawn cushions, watching the courtly dance of aquatic species. Even the tiniest creature, subaqueous, usually unseen, is connected to us through planetary coexistence.

Tate Modern’s latest Turbine Hall installation, Behind the Red Moon, by veteran Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (born 1944), is also devastating yet exquisite. A great red sail billows high above the entrance, a lunar disc caught in its shimmering chainmail fabric. It is fashioned from thousands of Anatsui’s repurposed bottle-tops, alluding to a drinks industry built on colonial trade routes (only consider Henry Tate of this ilk, and his slave-plantation sugar).

Walk beneath and you come to diaphanous forms, made from the residual metal, floating and turning in the light. They appear anthropomorphic, something like human figures in flight. And finally, in the far distance, is a third act: dark and sombre, the bottle-tops now glittering black, bronze and blood red, in a colossal woven curtain that drops into turbulent folds on the ground. Still beautiful – with the appearance of a sequined dress, yet bearing hints of flags, elements, geographies – its folds mass into turbulent oceans.

From human labour came this base metal, and from human vision came this entrancing poetry of aerial forms, conjured out of recycled junk. Anatsui transforms the Turbine Hall into a ship in full sail, carrying such a burden of history so lightly in its glimmering fabric.

Star ratings (out of five):
Nicole Eisenman: What Happened
El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon