Outside of the box
by Sura Wood
"I'm a dyke, and I love being gay and I love women, but I was born to be an artist, not a female or lesbian artist," Nicole Eisenman has asserted. Neither a slave to fashion nor captive to a single approach or medium, and not defined solely by sexual orientation, this refreshingly down-to-earth, Brooklyn-based artist refuses to be consigned to a box.
Although she has explored overt LGBT themes in previous bodies of work, she branches out in her latest show, now at the Berkeley Art Museum, expressing but not trumpeting a social conscience and a grasp of art history, and looking beyond herself to the wider world. The show's arresting monotypes, lithographs and paintings, done in a range of styles, respond to the fallout from the financial crash. Note the ominous "Guy Capitalist," an oil and mixed-media vision of the Dark Lord of Greed, and "The Triumph of Poverty," a modern mash-up of art-historical references, politics, horror and humor that takes off from Holbein the Younger's "lost" painting of the same name. In Eisenman's version, a motley group clustered in and around a broken-down Hugo is going nowhere fast; a man in a tuxedo, his pants down around his knees, is literally ass-backwards, his forward motion impeded by faulty anatomy; Brueghel's blind men, in miniature, nestle in the lower right corner, and a small green boy, a refugee from Oliver, proffers an empty bowl.
Born in France 48 years ago, Eisenman draws from a multiplicity of sources – European painting, Italian Renaissance and American art, Weimar Berlin before the hammer came down, and German Expressionism – while not forsaking lesbian experience, romance, and an active dream-life. Attachments clearly play a significant role in her life and art. Her works are populated with all manner of people, many of them friends, and sometimes the artist herself, who appears in a top hat, like the MC from Cabaret, in the background of the exuberant "Beer Garden Ulrike and Celeste," in which a couple sits at a table, one of them cradling an orange cat. (The artist's color choices are, shall we say, unexpected.) In spirit if not in style, Eisenman's disarming inclusiveness recalls the effervescence of Renoir, whose paintings of joyous gatherings invite the viewer to join the party. As she has pointed out, the beer garden is Brooklyn's 21st-century answer to the Parisian bistro. The latter could easily be the setting for "Sloppy Bar Room Kiss," where two empty bottles of wine stand like sentries near two newfound lovers. Collapsed on the table, their heads face each other, lips locked in the smooch of the century. (Through July 14)
Down the rabbit hole
In a town mad for animation and in the vanguard of technological advances in the field, the Walt Disney Family Museum goes back to the medium's artistic roots. Since opening its new building in the Presidio in 2009, WDFM has struggled to get off the ground exhibition-wise. But in the last year, they've found their footing; now comes a pair of new shows, both of which feature book illustrations. Billed in some quarters as Alice Goes Goth, Camille Rose Garcia: Down the Rabbit Hole updates Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and gives the 1865 classic a kinky makeover. The L.A.-born Garcia, the daughter of a Mexican filmmaker and muralist mother, grew up in the 1970s on a diet of 60s sitcoms, cartoons, comic books, outlaw rock and outsider art, influences she's channeled into her art. The palette for Garcia's watercolors may be girly bubblegum pink, sunshine yellow and baby blue, but her Alice is a gangly, raccoon-eyed bleached blonde with mascara so generously applied as to make a proper English mum shudder. But hey, if Tim Burton can turn Alice into a Joan of Arc figure in chainmail, anything is possible. Witness Alice imbibing mysterious liquids from glass bottles, legs protruding akimbo from the roof of a house after her unexpected growth spurt, and demurely sipping tea with a very Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts, whose fearsome countenance is an emblem of let's-hurt-someone feminine peevishness. Modernist paintings for Disney's 1951 film by Mary Blair, his imaginative in-studio colorist, provide an interesting counterpoint. (Through Nov. 3)
Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons , also at WDFM, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the gay author/illustrator's Where the Wild Things Are, a book child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once denounced as too frightening for children. (Thereafter, Sendak referred to the good doctor as "that creep.") This modest, short-term exhibition displays drawings, watercolors and lithographs alongside less-than-scintillating comments from celebrities opining on Sendak.
So what connection, you may ask, does the cantankerous master of children's night terrors have with Disney, the purveyor of soft-edged, sentimental, family-friendly entertainments? (OK, I, too, never fully recovered from the demise of Bambi's mother.) The museum is mounting the show because of Sendak's boy crush on Mickey Mouse, a love affair that reached its peak when the author saw Fantasia at 12, and reportedly decided right then and there to become an illustrator. Lore has it that Sendak wrote Walt and asked to be adopted so that he could be Mickey's little brother. Now that's devotion. (May 23-July 7)