Nicole Eisenman: Tea Party, 2011; oil on canvas, 82 × 65 in.; Hort Family Collection. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
Nicole Eisenman: “Tea Party,” 2011; oil on canvas, 82 × 65 in.; Hort Family Collection. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Try to conjure a pantheon of great painters from the 16th through the 21st centuries — the likes of Brueghel, Rubens, Renoir, Munch, Beckmann and Pollock — channeled through the sensibility of a contemporary artist with a diabolical sense of humor, a darkly critical take on culture and society, an eclectic appetite for influences from everywhere and extraordinary painterly skills, and you’d still never imagine the paintings in Nicole Eisenman/MATRIX 248 at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Her “Tea Party”, 2011 (above), reveals a quartet of hardcore white Americans (one’s even in clown-like white-face) hunkering down in their windowless survival bunker awaiting… what? The end times? The zombie apocalypse? The lone woman dozes, clutching a rifle. Two men furl sticks of dynamite while a decrepit, ragged Uncle Sam, tea bag dangling from one hand, hunches glassy-eyed over his American-eagle-decorated mug. Man’s best friend curls at his feet, fast asleep, next to an all-American hooked rug. The shelves behind them are stacked with supplies: cans of Bumble Bee tuna, a jug of water, gold bullion. It’s a group portrait of deluded, impotent defeat in the guise of readiness.

Look again. The overall composition probably derives from a classic painting I can’t identify. The storage shelves create a minimalist yet suitably irregular grid. There are echoes of pop art (the tuna cans), Pollock drip paintings (the black-and-white shirt), Daniel Buren stripes (Sam’s trousers), expressionist paint handling (the dog’s coat), and pattern-and-decoration painting (the rug). The overall mood of this canvas, and the collage elements (gold leaf on the bullion, patriotic stickers on the mugs) might be a homage to the narrative tableaux of LA-based artist Llyn Foulkes. There’s a lot going on here, and almost all of it meets the eye.

Eisenman is a formidable painter; her works are as much about painting as about anything else. Ever since she emerged on the art scene in the 1990s, the New York-based artist has had a lover’s quarrel with the white male artists prominent in European and American art history. In her ongoing feud, based ambivalently on exasperation over their art historical hegemony and profound admiration for their achievements, all sides win.

Eisenman grew up Jewish and middle class in upstate New York. She shocked her family by coming out as a lesbian, traveled as an art student to Rome where she was blown away by Italian Renaissance painting, and settled in Manhattan (she now lives and works in Brooklyn). Her early works were cartoonish, wickedly funny yet brilliant subversions of the styles of the great Italian Renaissance masters. They dealt with the preoccupations of a young, newly out lesbian in that era: sex, gender identity, male privilege and feminist politics.

The current MATRIX exhibition of Eisenman’s recent paintings and works on paper reveals that she is still exploding conventional ideas about gender and questioning power structures. Her compass, however, has enlarged aesthetically and conceptually. She has absorbed even more influences from art history and popular culture into her bloodstream. Her purview embraces a wider vision of the power structure and its victims in U.S. society. And her painterly technique, always prodigious, is now phenomenal.

Nicole Eisenman: “Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste,” 2009; oil on canvas; 65 x 82 in.; Hall Collection. Photo courtesy Leo Koenig, Inc., New York

All these works comment on the economic and political decline of the United States since 2007 and its effects on the people who live here. There’s a general air of desperation and sorrow: even, or especially, in the densely composed beer garden paintings that echo both Pierre Renoir’s joyous “Boating Party” and the grotesque festivities portrayed in German expressionist barroom scenes. It may be happy hour but no one is happy, and Death lurks among the often androgynous-looking patrons, even sits at their tables.

“The Triumph of Poverty,” 2009, depicts a weird exodus of distressed-looking families on foot and in a tattered red U.S.-made automobile, apparently abandoning their homesteads and heading toward parts unknown. They are led, literally ass-forwards, by a grim-faced tuxedoed plutocrat who’s dropped his trousers but not yet lost his shirt. Eisenman based this composition on an allegorical painting of the same title (c. 1533), by Hans Holbein the Younger. The band of miniature figures tethered to a leash the dilapidated capitalist holds comes from “The Blind Leading the Blind” (1568), a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder based on the Biblical allegory of sightless men tumbling into a ditch.

Nicole Eisenman: “The Triumph of Poverty,” 2009; oil on canvas, 65 × 82 in.; collection of Dr. Thomas J. Huerter

While the analogy to our current condition may be obvious, the painting is not. Examined closely it resembles a history of American painting, with allusions to American regionalism, abstract expressionism and contemporaries like Kara Walker. It’s an elegy to the decline and fall of American civilization. But it also celebrates the triumph of art, or at least artists’ ability to show it like it is.

Eisenman’s works are tough, not conventionally pretty to look at.  But anyone who is a painter, or who loves painting as a medium, or who cares about contemporary art that speaks openly and imaginatively to our condition will find this show exhilarating.

One caveat: The exhibition is the debut effort of Apsara DiQuinzio, BAM/PFA’s new MATRIX curator. She could not overcome the limits of the MATRIX gallery; it’s a small, awkward corridor-like space with no natural light, and these pieces demand a larger space and better light. But bringing Nicole Eisenman’s current work to the Bay Area, even in such a selective show as this, bodes well for the future of the MATRIX program, as does DiQuinzio’s astute essay in the exhibition brochure.

DiQuinzio and Eisenman, with Stephanie Cannizzo, co-curated a companion exhibition, “Ballet of Heads: The Figure in the Collection.” A selection of figurative works from the museum’s collection, chosen for their affinities with Eisenman’s work, it’s on view at BAM/PFA through August 25.

Nicole Eisenman / MATRIX 248 runs through July 14 at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley 94720.

Inspired Appropriation: Ernest Chagoya at Kala [06.26.13]

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