- Nicole Eisenman born 1965
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 3260 × 2670 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by Alireza Abrishamchi 2019
The Darkward Trail 2018 is a large painting on canvas by the American artist Nicole Eisenman, measuring over three metres by two and a half metres. It shows three characters in a desert facing left, as if in the midst of a journey. The tallest figure appears on the right side of the painting. Dressed in what appears like a patchwork of pale yellow bandages, the man’s skin is a corpse-like blue-grey; Eisenman rhymes the skin with the dense ray of blue that emerges from the torch held in his outstretched arm and that seems to darken rather than illuminate his way, as hinted at by the title of the work. To the character’s immediate left, though somewhat further back in the landscape, a second male figure rides a small ass. His obesity contrasts with the first man’s emaciated appearance; he appears at least as heavy as the creature below him. His back is arched and his arms are tucked into his striped shorts. On the left of the image, a third figure is directing a drone. The drone flies right above his head and its eye meets the single eye protruding from his skull. The landscape that these characters inhabit is sparse and resembles a wasteland after a chemical disaster. The sky is yellow, with clouds on the horizon; the desert floor is empty but for a dead spindly tree and a small cactus. A tiny sun glows above.
The painting brings together images and ideas that have appeared in the artist’s earlier works. Overall, the processional composition recalls The Triumph of Poverty 2009, a painting made in the wake of the global recession of 2008, which quotes the sixteenth-century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind 1568 (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). The figure with the drone is a development from the painting Selfie 2014, which shows a bearded head holding a phone above his face so that his eye is mirrored in its screen. Eisenman has drawn from the New York School painter Philip Guston’s (1913–1980) work to create the characters in Selfie and the drone-man in The Darkward Trail, in particular Guston’s unmasked heads from 1973, such as the one in Painting, Smoking, Eating 1973 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). Eisenman first painted a figure holding a darkness-emitting torch in Dark Light 2017, the immediate precursor to The Darkward Trail. It is significant that the man with the torch in Dark Light was wearing a red baseball cap: this was the emblem of Donald Trump’s US Presidential campaign of 2016, when red caps were emblazoned with the motto ‘Make America Great Again’.
Indeed Trump’s America is the implied subject of The Darkward Trail. The picture was painted in Brooklyn, New York in late 2017 and early 2018 alongside another painting of the same size, Huddle, which overtly depicts Trump and a number of businessmen staring at a mound of sewage on top of Trump Tower in midtown New York. In The Darkward Trail Eisenman takes a more allegorical approach, creating a scene whose setting and characters cannot be identified as real-world people, but which nonetheless expresses the artist’s disgust at America’s conservative turn. The characters cross a toxic landscape, spreading darkness and crushing nature (the burdened ass). In the figure operating the drone, a machine developed for warfare is turned it into a toy to satisfy the user’s narcissistic impulse. While it is impossible to tell the figures’ intent, they appear ghoulish, uncouth and monstrous, perhaps loyal only to their own desires, and to their Commander in Chief.
Amy Sillman, ‘How to Look at Nicole Eisenman’, in Nicole Eisenman: Selected Works 1994–2004, Cologne 2008, pp.7–10.
Samantha Topol (ed.), Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993–2013, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia 2014.
Massimiliano Gioni,(ed.), Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories, exhibition catalogue, New Museum, New York 2016.
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