At the Dinner Table…

Nicole Eisenman. "Seder," 2010. Courtesy Leo Koenig Gallery.

This is Nicole Eisenman’s Seder: a painting about differences coming together at the dinner table.

On the right, there’s an orange-skinned man, rendered flat against the picture plane by the intensity of his color; he calls to mind an R.B. Kitaj character in his dark suit and strange appearance. In fact, all of the sitters seem strange if taken out of the context of the picture:

A pink Gustonesque diner, heavy on the nostrils, sits right next to a cherubim girl, who harkens back to many a Renoir painting.

On the left, a pastel green-pink wine-drinker casts a beady, tipsy glance; he or she (the gender is ambiguous) seems to have been cut-and-pasted from a James Ensor canvas.

An acid-yellow lady recalls the lithe women from the gloomy world of Edvard Munch.

There’s a boy in a baby-blue sweater, waiting sleepily for dinner to be served; he reminds me, too, of an Ensor character, or maybe a George Bellows street urchin.

The two women at the far side of the table are harder to place in style. Perhaps sisters, these earth-mothers look Picassoid and Munchian at the same time; the one directly across from the viewer’s gaze has a hint of Paul Cadmus in the way she is modeled.

This is a lesson in art history, then, one that Eisenman knows very well. She culls the works of famous modernist painters; from the sources I’ve noted, it is an exclusively male canon of artists. But in Seder, collaging and riffing from the repertoire of those history-made men, Eisenman reworks and reinvents the pre-existing, male-dominated modes of representation, as if to say: yeah, this is the language and history we’re taught, but we’ll do with it what we want and need to do. The traditions and conventions handed down to us—Seder meaning “order” or “arrangement” in Hebrew—might inform our identity, but they do not limit us. Despite their different textures and styles, what connects the sitters is a shared Jewish identity. This unites them as much as the geometry of the table unifies the composition, creating a pictorial whole that merges together these various ways of painting. Another sitter is situated in the viewer’s place, with only his or her hands visible in the space of the painting; the viewer, too—in the act of looking—unifies these people together in “the big picture,” bringing his or her own collaged existence to the table.

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This past weekend I joined a circle of writers, artists, activists, and community organizers for “Not Over: You, Me, Us & AIDS.” Organized by L.J. Roberts, Quito Ziegler, and Ted Kerr for QuORum FORUM, “Not Over” was, as the trio described, a town hall meeting of sorts, whose participants come from all walks (saunters, swaggers, etc.) of life to talk and share and pose questions about queerness and our relation to the history of AIDS. While the first two events staged a story-telling in remembrance of friends who had died from AIDS and a screening of the film Untitled, the third event was a discussion about living with HIV. Living with HIV means not only the experience of a person who is HIV-positive, but also the experience of a community living in a world where HIV and AIDS are a reality.

Thinking about AIDS globally and not limiting it to the 80s was central to the discussion. The room, like Eisenman’s Seder, was a diverse arrangement of the young and the more experienced. Most of us were not old enough to have witnessed and processed how AIDS affected the queer community in the 80s, let alone considered its global resonance; others expressed being in a weird phase in their lives when they were just becoming aware of themselves as queer and not yet able to comprehend the political and social implications of AIDS. But also in attendance were seasoned activists and “cultural caregivers” like Amanda Lugg, Amy Sadao, Nelson Santos, and Laura Whitehorn; and younger, but nevertheless prolific activists like Che Gossett and Michael Tikili. Each speaker brought a different perspective to the table with the history, actions, and questions they shared.

How have HIV criminalization laws in the U.S. influenced the laws pertaining to HIV disclosure in other countries?

What happened this day, this month in the history of the epidemic?

How do you bring information about AIDS and harm reduction to sites of repression and surveillance such as prisons?

Doesn’t healthcare mean empowering the people?

How much are we beholden to the State, to tradition, to convention? How much are we defined by our relationship to it?

How do you negotiate differences between interconnecting movements?

What can art do? Is it enough?

These questions and the responses they engendered were difficult; sometimes there were no answers, just more questions. I sat there listening as others spoke and shared stories about growing up and being a person of color,  or being Jewish, or being transgender, or being queer in the Midwest. I was drawn to the words that trailed off with “I don’t know.” I observed how people sat with this uncertainty, with the not-knowing. I identified with the sense of displacement you experience when you’re reorienting your view of history or something you thought you knew well. Seeing it through the eyes of others and comparing your views with theirs: what comes up? What didn’t you know before? Where can this new knowledge go? There was a lot coming up in the few hours of conversation between a few dozen people, and at times it felt overwhelming.

I was reminded of Untitled (by Jim Hodges, Encke King, and Carlos Marques da Cruz) and its montage of images that span many decades: a flow of newscasts, interviews, and performances that create a non-linear picture of the world seen through the framework of AIDS. Some clips did not originally address AIDS, but in its context they shed light on the relationships between the epidemic and its figures, events, and politics. In turn, seeing those images in the context of AIDS offers the viewer a larger visual field; images and ideas do not exist in isolation. “Not Over” is kind of like that. The conversations it sparks brings together varying points of view and individual experiences. The questions above, dovetailing with Ted’s questions from my first post, are meant to generate more discussion about AIDS. “I’m always looking for those who aren’t in the room,” one of the participants said. In response, I thought about the places where conversations about AIDS do not occur and about the people who do not speak or know how to begin speaking about AIDS. About the parts of us that do or don’t get awakened, that run away out of fear. What if the table were different ? What if these conversations occurred elsewhere? Where are they not occurring?  How can we perform them in those places?


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