Inspired appropriation redux: Nicole Eisenman in Berkeley

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

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.

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]

Would you like the latest Berkeley news sent to your email inbox once a day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • Tizzielish

    In the first painting, I also see Norman Rockwell (ironically presented) and maybe some American primitivism. This woman is a genius as she stands the male art history cannon on its head. Thanks, Berkeleyside, for the head’s up on this show. I’ll be going many times.

    The second painting clearly references Toulouse-Latrec’s famous Moulin Rouge painting, which is at my home art museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. There are many other art history references in it. I love the waiter’s filthy apron. And the cat, what does the cat refer to?!!!

    And the Joad family is evoked in fascinatingly complex ‘Triumph of Poverty’. Wow. This gal has vision. The string of tiny historical-appearing figures on the ground, the string held by the weird-while-naked in a tux guy, is particularly intriguing. Is she reminding us that poverty has triumphed through the ages, and she only shows males in that historical figure string.

    Wow. I can’t wait to see her stuff live.

    She doesn’t just evoke visual art history. She evokes literature. Not only does the Triumph of Poverty evoke ‘Grapes of Wrath’, it evokes Dickens with that little boy with the bowl. Please sir, can I have some more?!!



    Zowie wow.

  • The show ends July 14th, FYI.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Good comment: thanks for mentioning allusions that I didn’t notice.

    I also appreciate this fierce satire of modern America.

    Searching around, I see that Holbein’s Triumph of Poverty is now lost, but you can see Vorstermann’s Triumph of Poverty after Holbein at,_by_Lucas_Vorstermann_the_Elder,_after_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

  • DisGuested

    If this sort of crude stereotyping were applied to any group but “hardcore white Americans” [sic] it would never get out of the gate. Here it is praiseworthy. Shame on you, Berkeleyside.

  • guest

    She can get away with it because she’s Jewish.

  • juxtaposition

    ” If people want the outcome to change, the culture at home has to change.”

  • Chris

    Why shame on Berkeleyside? They just ran an article about an art exhibit. If you have a problem with the art work talk to the artist or Berkeley Art Museum. Sheesh…

  • DisGuested

    This is advocacy, not coverage. (And it is not even good or perceptive criticism.)

    For that matter, Why hang Julius Streicher? He just ran some articles.

  • GistDusted

    In that first painting the blank boxes in the background and the spiderweb seem lazy and rushed. The relation of the female figure to her chair and the uncle sam character to his chair seem off. The chair that uncle sam sits in seems geometrically vague, at best. The jug of water on the shelf is a geometric mess. The painting seems to rely on tickling people’s crude, contemporary political stereotypes to give it any substance at all. Take the painting out of its immediate political context and it is hard to see how it would convey that context or hold much interest. Within its contemporary political context it preaches to a prejudiced, uncomprehending, choir. Personally, I have no problem at all with pointed criticisms of patriarchy and white privilege. We need more of those, if they are done well. This attempt, though, is too shallow in both its political content and graphical execution. Sometimes the dignity conveyed by the gallery or museum wall is misleading. Given the aspect ratio and blankness of the top third, was this painting conceived as a magazine cover?

  • The_Sharkey

    What got deleted?

  • Marcia Tanner

    Charles, in her brochure essay Apsara DiQuinzio mentioned that Holbein’s “Triumph of Poverty” is now lost, and also that Nicole Eisenman had done considerable research to try to reconstruct it from other sources. Sorry I didn’t get that into the review.

  • DisGuested

    A statement offensive to a group of persons who are not “hardcore white Americans” and thus whose sensitivities are a matter of concern to Berkeleyside.

  • An anti-Semitic comment.

  • DisGuested

    Agreed on pretty much all points here. I don’t mind well-considered criticism of anyone, though to see junk thought and junk execution like this praised as thoughtful and “painterly” is demoralizing in the extreme. Not to mention the glaring double standard, which seems now to be established Berkeleyside editorial policy.

  • DisGuested

    I think the commenter was “exploding conventional ideas” and “questioning power structures.” We can’t have any of that, but of course cartoonish daubings such as the works discussed here are deserving of praise for those very qualities.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Trying to read the Latin in Vorstermann’s Triumph of Poverty, I get the idea that it is not at all ironic or critical. It actually does admire the sort of moral or religious triumph that the poor can have. It says they are confidant in the good, and “who is poor has nothing to fear and nothing to lose except hope of the good [=salvation]”

    Not directly related to the review or to Eisenman’ painting, but the contrast is striking.

  • We’re happy to have comments that defy conventional thinking. We won’t tolerate anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and other abhorrent language.

  • DisGuested

    Well, I personally thought the comment was in poor taste, though not as ethnically assaultive as the work shown in this article. I hope you are at least *considering* that some people consider this kind of ethnic abuse of white people to be hypocritical and offensive.

  • Marcia Tanner

    Thanks, Tizzielish! I agree: Eisenman is a great artist. It was a privilege to write about her work. Thanks too for pointing out even more art historical and literary allusions, references and connections. You could spend hours deciphering her paintings. I just realized that the rats at the base of “The Triumph of Poverty” refer to both the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend (here, the tuxedoed gent, possibly a banker, is the piper) and the notion that rats are the first to desert a sinking ship. You will definitely enjoy the work live! Hurry up, though, the show closes on July 14.

  • guest
  • guest

    Mentioning someone’s ethnicity is poor taste?

  • And the relevance of that is…?

  • DisGuested

    There’s an interesting lecture on YouTube called “Against the Turner Prize” by the late Jonathan Bowden, which is kind of startling in its refusal to accept the enforced orthodoxies and canned “transgressiveness” of the contemporary art world.

  • guest

    Just pointing out some local context about the policing of local media for anti-semitism, real or perceived.