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Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, (2017)Courtesy the Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles.

Nicole Eisenman’s Old Friend Keith Boadwee Didn’t Have a Career Like Hers. So She Gave Over Half Her New Show to Spotlight Him

In 2000, after seven years without seeing each other, Nicole Eisenman and Keith Boadwee ran into each other in Tompkins Square Park in New York City. A lot had happened since they first met in 1992, when Eisenman was opening her debut solo show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. Back then, the two emerging artists immediately clicked, but it was that encounter in the East Village, in a new millennium, that set in motion their intimate, decades-long friendship. 

Sitting on a bench, Boadwee opened up about his struggles in career and personal life, and Eisenman listened. Their relationship since then has both matured—they’ve become each other’s cross-country queer confidants—and remained the same: Boadwee initiates a daily text from the West Coast and Eisenman, who is admittedly not good at responsiveness, usually writes back. Art they’re working on or new songs they’re listening to are common subjects, but, these days, their back-and-forth is about the final touches on their new two-person exhibition at the FLAG Art Foundation, which opens December 12. 

“I want this to be about Keith,” Eisenman says from her Brooklyn studio during our three-way FaceTime conversation. 

Both artists started out three decades ago and both have always shared an interest in bodily functions as a way to illustrate the failures of heteronormative puritanism. But they went on to very separate career paths. On the West Coast, Boadwee studied with Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden at the University of California at Berkeley and enjoyed a rapid rise to success in the ‘90s, but his work soon fell into obscurity. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Eisenman, a RISD graduate, showed at the Whitney Biennial in 1995 and continued on to international acclaim that never let up. She has since received a MacArthur “Genius” grant, appeared at two more Whitney Biennials and a Venice Biennale, and is a regular fixture on the auction market, where her work can fetch upwards of $600,000.

Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, (2017)Courtesy the Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles.

Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, (2017). Courtesy the Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles.

“I believe in Keith’s lifelong project,” Eisenman says about her friend’s commitment to subverting consumerist ideals with in-your-face sexuality and human fluids. Boadwee filters familiar emblems of pop culture and mainstream art history—from Smurfs to Abstract Expressionism—through a subversive directness, comparable to his mentor McCarthy and the Viennese Actionists of the 1960s. “I never understood the art world’s criteria for who to reward or avoid, but in Keith’s case, it doesn’t make sense.” 

That’s why Eisenman is stepping in to make a correction. Last year, the painter won the inaugural Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize, which came with a $200,000 award and a traveling show first at The Contemporary Austin and later at the FLAG. After opening the show’s first leg, the sculpture-heavy “Sturm und Drang,” in Austin in February, Eisenman realized she could give Boadwee the show he never had. 

“This show is about our friendship more than anything else,” Eisenman says.

Today, the 59-year-old artist is probably best known for his performative enema paintings from the ‘90s. The images of Boadwee or his occasional collaborator, artist AA Bronson, squirting paint from their anuses onto canvas still hold a punch as a riff on the Jackson Pollock-style machismo salient in so much American art. 

Nicole Eisenman, Keith (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Nicole Eisenman, Keith (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Currently based outside of Oakland, Boadwee continues to draw humorous scatological scenarios in which feces stand in for human flaw and reason is tested by farce. “Since switching back to drawing from photography 12 years ago, I’ve been in a hyper-production mode,” he says. But he’s worried about not finding his critical and commercial footing in the industry. “As the work piles up, I existentially ask myself, ‘What am I going to do with all of this art?’” 

Eisenman has, however, been aware of a certain sterile sensibility in the art world that she thinks has kept Boadwee’s unabashed imagery off of museum and gallery walls. Her initial suggestion to FLAG was to entirely give both floors of the show to Boadwee, but the award’s regulations demanded the winner’s participation. They found a solution in each taking one separate floor and weaving together two shows, which include Eisenman’s new painting of a nude Boadwee, titled Keith (2020). 

Donning nothing but a pair of red socks, the artist reclines in a pose commonly in art history, but unusual in his gay-bear-daddy body. The painting greets the visitors to the joint show on queer liberation, which has been a shared experience and commitment in the duo’s friendship. “We come from a generation in which, after all that struggle, the reward was the most heteronormative ideal: marriage,” says Eisenman. And Boadwee, whose work deals precisely with this spirit of queer activism, and against its normalization and commodification, agrees.

Keith Boadwee, Various drawings, (2016-2019). Courtesy of the artist and The Pit, LA.

Keith Boadwee, various drawings, (2016-19). Courtesy of the artist and The Pit, LA.

In his small-scale drawings, Boadwee uses poop as a transgressive emblem of capitalist domesticity. Whether as cookies on a baking tray, a smear over a liberty bell, or as a patient on a therapist’s chair, turd is the protagonist. The artist explains his fascination with feces as an homage to Warhol’s non-hierarchical read on Coca-Cola as a unifier of social class—something everyone drinks: “We all have a butthole and shit in the same way regardless of wealth, gender, or anything else,” Boadwee says. 

Eisenman considers her friend’s sexual directness to be a distinction from hers. “Keith’s work has always been performative and open about the process. For me, it’s about the fantasy of bodily functions.” In addition to a large-scale pasted vinyl replica of his drawing of a man defecating inside a fishbowl, titled Shitbowl/Superbowl (2020), Boadwee is exhibiting more than 250 drawings, spread in grids across the FLAG’s walls, as well as vitrines on the upper floor, while Eisenman brings a selection of paintings, sculptures, and drawings that date as far as 1993.

The artist’s oldest work in the show, Charlie the Tuna, shows the StarKist mascot poking a woman’s buttocks with his fin, while her most recent, Just do it (Sarah Nicole) (2020), is a depiction of a nude woman in red hues calmly clipping her nails. The body and its humanly functions still prevail, but that “mystery” element coating her execution is evident in the later work. 

Keith Boadwee, Various drawings, (2016-2019). Courtesy of the artist and The Pit, LA.

Keith Boadwee, various drawings, (2016-19). Courtesy of the artist and The Pit, LA.

“I’ve cycled through my psychosexual, violent, and humorous phases, but I’ve made a decision to move away from those,” Eisenman says. She remembers getting harsh reviews in the ‘90s, particularly from white male critics, for making “juvenile” paintings. “My work was much funnier back then, but at some point, I just didn’t want to be fun anymore.” A struggling phallic power is a common thread across Eisenman’s depictions of frat guys, army men or wrestlers, rendered in her absurdist hand gestures with paint or plaster.    

The story behind the show’s connective tissue encapsulates why the two artists are not only friends but also each others’ support systems. When Eisenman needed pictures of a sphincter for the flower paintings in her Hauser and Wirth show in Somerset, Boadwee flew to New York to spread for her. 

“After I took photos of Keith’s butthole, he was sitting there in nothing but socks, and he needed to be painted,” she says about the moment she accidentally discovered her friend was the muse for her next show, too. 

“She’s telling it wrong!” Boadwee jumps in. “I had only my pants off when she started talking about needing inspiration for paintings in the new show. I pulled the rest of my clothes off and said, ‘here’s a fucking inspiration.’” 


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