54 Andrea Eis


Born New York, 1952/BA, Beloit College/BFA, Minneapolis College of Art and Design/MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art/Lives in Royal Oak, Michigan

With a virtual wave of the hand, Andrea Eis beckons all seekers of enlightenment to traverse an enfilade of tall columns for a consultation with the Oracle of Delphi. In this 1992 installation, a large, impassive visage of the priestess awaits the curious visitor at the end of the processional way. Once in her presence, red vinyl letters affixed to the photograph announce: SHE SPOKE HER MIND. Simultaneously, the truth seeker notes that at her feet, embedded in rocks on the floor, another phrase claims: THEY HEARD HIS. This startling contradiction, like a wallop to the head, swiftly apprises the visitor of the phallocentric dynamic between genders—then and now. As Eis asserts: “From Antigone’s battle with her conscience and her sense of moral duty, to Demeter’s conflict over separation from her daughter, mythic people struggled with dilemmas we still encounter.”

As an undergraduate, Eis focused on learning ancient Greek and translating the classics before segueing to photography, film, and video in the late 70s. Her long association (since 1983) with Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, saw her move from art and art history teacher to professor of cinema studies in the department of English. Her art practice has ranged as well, from photography to film to installation to graphic design.

The publication of Ancient Finds in 1993, devoted to images in which Eis combined cropped photographs and laconic texts, set forth her revelatory explorations of consonances between ancient and modern mores. In Persephone’s Mother (1993), one of several diptychs in the book, a mother, Demeter, is torn by the double bind of neither being able to release nor hold onto her daughter Persephone. The fragmentary figures, here and in subsequent series, were shot from Greek or Roman sculptures at sites stretching from Detroit and Chicago to numerous European settings.

In “Selective Memory” from 2000, Eis lasers in on her marmoreal subjects, capturing telling details—a close up of a smile, the arch of a foot, the motion of a hand. The preternaturally white hue of hand and drapery in She left it all behind captures the decisive, dismissive gesture of a person’s hand. Perhaps one thinks of Lot’s wife, or Ibsen’s protagonists Hedda and Nora who so decisively take charge of their destinies by play’s end.

Writers also wend their way into Eis’s oeuvre in 2006, among them Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, Par Lagerkvist. Her I dwell in possibility— links Dickinson’s poem about the heady, wide-ranging possibilities of poetry with the flowing, fluid drapery of a chiton-clad woman. Printed on chiffon, the warm, burnt orange hue attests to the boundless fervor of inspiration. Conversely, the stark simplicity and pale gray palette of Stand (2006) poignantly highlight a welcoming, open-palmed, androgynous hand seeking emotional attachment.

Words, in frame-filling compositions, emerged in two subsequent series: “Marginalia” (initiated 2008) and “Greek Grammar” (begun 2006). The former originated when Eis unearthed a bevy of early 20th century tomes replete with marginal notations by Meta Glass, classicist and long-time college president. Here Eis could layer Greek text, notations by Glass, sculptural details, and her own thematic embrace of human connection across centuries. In Getting what one wants, Glass’s handwritten note, appended to Sophocles’ Antigone, is superimposed across the marble bicep of a muscular male figure. Alpha arrogance figures in the “Greek Grammar” compositions as well: Power proves, a sizable print (35 x 38”), associates the accusative case with the imposing, colossal head of emperor Constantine.

Recently, Eis has embarked on a cycle, titled “Palpable Knowledge” (2015), which might be described as images of books qua books. These sensual, dramatically lit compositions home in on the bindings, edges, and pages of various texts collected by the artist. While print, and marginalia, may be discernable in some of them, it is BOOK as resplendent icon that is foregrounded, its significance heightened by amplified proportions and golden, Rembrandt-like illumination, as in the five feet tall Edge Light. The title of a modestly-scaled example from the series, To be at the beginning, signals Eis’s perennial, anticipatory thrill upon cracking open a new book, however aged it may be. Or, especially because, despite its antiquity, it pulses with reverberations for contemporary life.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, June 2016

Copyright Essay’d 2016