Unbearable Lightness of Bee-ing

Anyone familiar with Nicole Eisenman's raucous murals, paintings and drawings will probably expect her show at the Rice University Art Gallery to depict something along the lines of brawny female warriors castrating defenseless men. In the past, her madcap displays were often kindled by rage at sexual oppression and social injustice.

But in Behavior, the massive installation at Rice, the New York artist has staged a whimsical "birds and bees" fairy tale. Eisenman's graphic narratives have always excelled when depicting upheaval -- art-world rampages, nightclub sexcapades, even Minotaur hunts. Behavior takes aim at the gender wars from the perspective of "S.W.A.T.," a group of renegade chicks (gleefully enacted by Eisenman's friends in color photographs) who are called upon by delicate flowers to destroy a swarm of pestilent bumblebees. You're bombarded with sensory information at the gallery entrance. A video of a finger-puppet bumblebee speeding through a residential neighborhood is accompanied by the adrenaline rush of Rimski-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee." Nearby, the "Honeypot," a local bee nightspot which cunningly fronts the Bee War Room, pounds out a driving disco beat. Directly ahead, the S.W.A.T. war room displays a wide variety of relevant products and materials: Surge cola, pink fly swatters, air freshener, Bit O'Honey candies, Honey Kiss perfume and S.W.A.T. "superfly" glasses with yellow lenses. A tactical map pinned to the wall traces the path of the bees toward the Jersey shore.

Other strategies to "stop the damn bees" include an oscillating sprinkler hooked up to propane to spray fire, and conical drinking cups filled with tar and flowers as bait. The S.W.A.T. team intends to lure the bees from their hive (a "Mountain Size" fire-log box lined with Honeycomb cereal) to a paradise "island" filled with marshmallow chicks and artificial flowers, floral-scented candles and boxes of potpourri. The entirety is umbilically connected with plastic Hot Wheels tracks and curlicue coils of orange rope that trace flight patterns.

And there's more. Considerably more. Sprawled on a huge white circular table are dozens of painted ceramic bees poised in formation like B-52s ready for takeoff. A blond female figure with exaggerated breasts and in a position of sexualized submission braces for a bee "attack." Hundreds of bee stickers adhere to the far gallery wall, becoming increasingly dense as they swarm toward the center. Here, Eisenman has sketched a tangle of lines, the frenzied chaos of bees in their death throes. A perky little bluebird presides over the scene. On the floor below, cardboard boxes with red flowers poking through the lids are filled with piles of the expired bumblebees.

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Taken as a whole, Eisenman's immense assemblage looks like something between a construction site and a teenager's bedroom. It gets its force from the astounding multiplicity of objects, rather than by focusing attention on single, discrete works. It's hard to know where to look, and when you do, the connections between symbolic and narrative links aren't always clear. What does it all mean? In the end, the specifics of this allegory of art, hedonism and inspiration matter less than the buoyant spirit in which they are offered.

Eisenman wants to get under your skin and take you for an imaginative ride. As you enter the "Honeypot" -- an eight-foot-square plywood and sheetrock chamber -- a rotating strobe ball bounces reflections off Mylar mirrors. Orange cheese puffs are strewn all over the floor and piled in corners, as are purple combs and pots of orange paint. On one wall are portraits of famous bees from the past -- menacing mug shots, really, with red stingers for noses. Another drawing features weighty figures in an orgiastic brawl; the lines are fluid, restless and speedy, and their slapdash appearance belies an undeniable sureness. (The few drawings in this show prove Eisenman a virtuoso draftsman. She makes classical drawing technique seem like untapped artistic terrain.) In this mannerist scene, excess is all: The "disco" provides the setting in which Eisenman can play out the depths and extremes of sexual desire in a manner that jars as much as it seduces. The claustrophobic "Honeypot" gets a little twitchy, like something conjured in a sadistic fever dream.

Though Behavior sweeps you along, it seems decidedly haphazard, content to wow viewers with attitude and jive rather than revelations about human relationships. Eisenman has energy to spare and a sure way with materials, but she needs clarity. The tired cliches of Behavior never add up to something greater than the sum of its buzzing parts.

Behavior is on view through December 13 at the Rice University Art Gallery, 6100 Main, entrance no. 1, 527-6069.

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