Two Complementary Exhibits at Berkeley Art Museum 

The socially critical paintings of contemporary artist Nicole Eisenman are situated in an art historical network extending hundreds of years.

In its latest stroke of programming brilliance, the Berkeley Art Museum pairs its 248th Matrix exhibition, featuring recent work by Brooklyn-based painter Nicole Eisenman, with Ballet of Heads, a sprawling and diverse exhibition of works from the museum's permanent collection. While the painter's vivid, expressionistic works are generous and easily accessible in and of themselves, the complementary collection prompts viewers to situate them in a perhaps further-reaching art historical network than one might have originally assumed, in effect adding depth and richness to both shows.

As noted by curator Apsara DiQuinzio in a text accompanying the Matrix exhibition, Eisenman produced most of the works on display at the beginning of this decade or the end of the last one, placing them squarely in the shadow of George W. Bush's two terms — far from a sunny period, in the artist's view. Often operating with an overt political edge, one series of paintings satirizes the Tea Party in a manner somewhere between political cartoon and allegorical history painting. In one painting, a defeated-looking Uncle Sam, tea bag in hand, slumps in his chair beside a couple of men wiring dynamite and a woman cradling a shotgun in what appears to be a basement stocked for the apocalypse. Another, reflecting on the ongoing economic depression, features a tuxedo-clad capitalist with his trousers down, revealing a curious lower anatomy.

Another series depicts scenes in beer gardens, which Eisenman sees as the contemporary answer to the 19th-century promenade as a place to gather and commingle — or, if you are of Eisenman's disposition, commiserate. Rendered in rich, often unexpected tones (a bright-orange cat occupies the foreground of one) and adhering to a woozily beer-goggled sense of space, the garden appears here as a chaos of oddball characters, sloppy hookups, and vacant smartphone stares. Spiraling between deadpan and ebullience, depression and play, these exceptional paintings will likely prove hauntingly familiar to many young, Bay Area viewers.

Eisenman's paintings are rife with art historical references that, in and of themselves, would probably be of little interest to a casual viewer. Fortunately, the accompanying Ballet of Heads exhibition offers more than supplementary trivia.

With works ranging from the Baroque era to the contemporary, the exhibition functions as a hall of mirrors with respect to the Matrix show downstairs, echoing and amplifying many of the themes and positions in Eisenman's paintings. Eighteenth-century etchings by William Hogarth depict rowdy feasts and public gatherings with an engagement similar to Eisenman's in her beer garden pieces. Documentation of Carolee Schneemann's feminist performance piece "Interior Scroll," meanwhile, brings into relief the recurring presence of exposed female genitalia in Eisenman's paintings. The dark expressionism of an Edvard Munch drawing aligns with the dark, often anxious undertones of the contemporary artist's work, while a piece by Max Beckmann mirrors the forms of her figures, which range from naturalistic to cartoonish to abstract.

Refreshingly wary of didacticism or forced interpretations, this pairing should satisfy both camps of art viewers: those who prefer curatorial-forward statements, and those who simply want to look at artists' work in the richest possible light.

Matrix 248 runs through July 14; Ballet of Heads: The Figure in the Collection runs through August 25; both at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-642-0808 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu

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