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Femme Power

by Elizabeth Kley
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Gender-bending creativity runs amok in “Leidy Celeste Nicole,” an exhibition of works by artists Leidy Churchman, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and Nicole Eisenman at Museum 52, curated by Rhizome executive director Lauren Cornell. The three artists look hard "with their entire bodies," Cornell suggests, adding that their gaze is "amorous, politicized, witty." It's also fresh and imaginative, as the show mixes old-time macho painting with a sense of post-gender lesbian freedom.

The show’s rambunctious leader is Nicole Eisenman, whose enormous, nose-thumbing mural of the Whitney Museum in ruins dominated the museum’s 1995 Biennial. Eisenman has been omnivorously busy ever since, co-founding an art collective called Ridykeulous in 2005 with feminist artist A.L. Steiner and exhibiting regularly in New York at Leo Koenig and in Los Angeles at Susanne Vielmetter, where she currently has a solo exhibition.

At Museum 52, Eisenman presents a number of notebooks containing 15 years worth of sketches, collages and altered photos that she has tucked into plastic sheet protectors. These include an erotic snapshot of two pregnant women rubbing bellies, a drawing of a woman gleefully holding up the penis she’s just severed from a man who is tied to a pole, and a card addressed to Alaska Governor Sarah Palin that reads “WHAT THE FUCK” and is postmarked “Eisenman, Gowanus, NY.”

Eisenman fans may be interested to see three new works drawn by dripping navy blue paint with a stick, Jackson Pollock-style. Titled This Drippy Paint Tomb of Energy Where Vision Goes To Die, My Spirit, Has Spoken! I, II, and III, the pictures prompted Invisible Export gallery owner Benjamin Tischer, who hosted a Ridykeulous exhibition last year, to enthusiastically dub the works “dirty lesbian Pollocks.” One even might depict a voluptuous, masturbating Eloise, an appropriately grown-up version of the Plaza hotel sprite invented by Kay Thompson in 1955.

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer is a straight-forward figurative painter -- her monumental mural of cavorting women and dogs was included in a show curated by Eisenman’s Ridykeulous collective at Leo Koenig in 2009 -- whose subjects seem to be the everyday socializing of her female bohemian set. She has an eye for leftovers, like overflowing ashtrays and lingering plumes of smoke. “I quit smoking a year ago, and I’ve been painting cigarettes ever since,” she explains.

Abstract, colorful patterning, exotic dinner party scenes and androgynous people dressed in plaids figure in her work. In Tarot Reading (2010), a bunch of cock-eyed, slack-jawed characters with scraggly, rock-star hair crowd around a kitchen table, peering at the cards. How to Scare People and Alienate Your Friends (2011) is a portrait of a solitary ghost -- who could come straight from some Philip Guston doodle -- reading a book of the same title while chain-smoking and drinking a bottle of wine from a rainbow mug.

The transgender artist Leidy Churchman, embraces transformation in his art as well as his body. His whimsical, trompe-l’oeil sculptures of quotidian things like strawberries and cheese painted on rocks were included in last year’s edition of "Greater New York" at MoMA PS1, and a video mash-up of his painting and performance was featured in a solo exhibition last year at the Horton Gallery's Berlin outpost.

Abandoning his traditional attention to the human form -- painting the bodies of his naked friends with everything from leather whips to paintbrushes -- Churchman’s latest works are more process-and-material oriented. NEW VIDEO (2011), on view at Museum 52, concentrates on abstract shapes and figures; the lens is aimed at the floor, which has been painted white and decorated with colorful patterns and forms, like a theatrical set. We watch a number of objects -- a toy snake, a pear, a knife, a baseball mitt, some toilet paper -- pushed here and there with a stick from off camera, mixing and mingling with the painted ground.

The show includes a kind of floor painting-assemblage that started out as a set for one of his videos. “It’s the first time I’ve shown a floor work as an actual painting,” Churchman explains. In the center of a sheet of vinyl measuring approximately 10 x 10 feet is a circle painted in light blue, which is in turn surrounded by rectangles of white, black and green pigment. On one edge of the un-painted vinyl sits a knife; on another, a small pile of books. The juxtaposition of these items ironically suggests the danger of contemplation and consideration.

Outside of the central decoration, most of the vinyl is bare, save a few accidental smudges or splashes of vibrant red scattered across the surface. These make the theing look something like the mat of a boxing ring in the aftermath of a fight; its stains might represent the battle of some existential action painting in which Churchman has transformed Abstract Expressionist torment into total artistic liberation. Pollock and de Kooning, those macho, homophobic masters, must be turning in their graves.

“Leidy Celeste Nicole,” June 3-July 31, 2011, Museum 52, 4 East 2nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10003.

ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.