The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) proudly presents Nicole Eisenman / MATRIX 248, on view May 3 through July 14, 2013. The exhibition brings together approximately forty works by the New York–based artist, produced since 2009. Intermixing historical styles associated with American Regionalism and the Italian Renaissance with German Expressionism, Eisenman twists these themes, updating them with contemporary imagery and reimagining them with her own social commentary and aesthetic voice.
The first BAM/PFA exhibition organized by new Phyllis C. Wattis MATRIX Curator Apsara DiQuinzio, the exhibition focuses on a selection of paintings and works on paper that were motivated by the economic crisis and lingering political instability that continue to cloud post-Bush-era America. And though her works directly address the larger political sociological themes of our times, Eisenman goes beyond these concerns to explore a broader interest in the human condition, typified in the uneasy and disenchanted expressions that predominate the figures in her paintings and works.
Eisenman’s initial response to the prevailing social unease was to produce a series of colorful, shape-shifting, expressive monotypes of people weeping. She continued to channel this melancholia (for her inextricably linked to Bush’s terms in office) into psychologically charged works. Triumph of Poverty (2009), a contemporary reworking of Hans Holbein the Younger’s lost painting of the same title (c. 1533), is reinterpreted for today’s turbulent times. A dilapidated, made-in-the-U.S.A. sedan replaces Holbein’s mule-drawn cart, foregrounding the ruinous state of the American auto industry. Tea Party (2011), meanwhile, is fixated on the ever-growing political and social divides in the U.S. Learning about a notable New York art critic’s comment that there had been no good paintings of the Tea Party, Eisenman was inspired to accept the challenge. In her painting, a fractious foursome is holed up in a bunker, cut off from reality, preparing for their imminent apocalypse—perfectly articulating the absurdity of these times.
To alleviate some of the desperation she felt during that time, Eisenman began to paint beer gardens. In her hands, Parisian cafe settings found in late nineteenth-century paintings by Renoir and Degas become open-air beer gardens one might find in present-day Berlin or Brooklyn, with the smartphones on the tables locating the scene in time.
In conjunction with the Eisenman presentation, BAM/PFA also presents the thematic group exhibition Ballet of Heads: The Figure in the Collection, on view May 17 through August 25, 2013. Taking off from the Eisenman works, this complementary exhibition explores the polymorphous nature of the figure in art history drawing from paintings sculptures, and works on paper from the BAM/PFA Collection. The exhibition teases out many of the threads found in Eisenman’s paintings and works on paper—a blending of seemingly oppositional categories such as social realism, abstraction, folk art, and popular comics—and contextualizes those in the process. Eisenman cites many of the artists included in Ballet of Heads as important influences, such as William Blake, George Grosz, William Hogarth, and Pablo Picasso. While the work of more recent artists, including as Joan Brown, Nancy Grossman, and Sue Coe, bears striking affinities to Eisenman’s own.