What Would Niebuhr Do?

Among other things, Eric Niebuhr paints Jesus -- loaded subject matter, indeed. Depicting Jesus has been the raison d'être for a whole lot of artwork, from Byzantine church mosaics to da Vinci's Last Supper. But art's long separation from church patronage and the intellectual climate of the 20th and 21st centuries has resulted in the presentation of Jesus in contemporary art in controversial, critical or ironic contexts. J.C.'s most notable/ notorious recent appearance was starring as a plastic crucifix in Andre Serrano's Piss Christ. In his paintings, however, Niebuhr seeks something much more indefinite. He walks the line between representation and abstraction as well as the line between belief and disbelief.

Niebuhr's Jesus comes from pop culture. He's the Jesus of holiday television programming, a blond, bearded savior far more Aryan than Semitic. He knocks on the door of your heart in schmaltzy cardboard "paintings" and performs miracles in cheaply printed Sunday-school literature. Niebuhr manages to abstract these storybook images, leaving only the faintest residue of kitsch. He transforms the insipid illustrations into formally elegant paintings rendered in a chromatically hip palette of restrained and grayed-down tones.

The inspiration for Niebuhr's work isn't restricted to Our Savior; all aspects of the otherworldly and the fantastic hold sway over him. After all, in childhood, Bible stories and Saturday-morning TV programming can carry equal weight. Land of the Lost, plus anything else by Sid and Marty Krofft, are favorites of Niebuhr's, as is the '70s science fiction series Logan's Run. They offer him a rich supply of images to cull from. He captures digital images from video, isolating scenes within a film. It's the equivalent of having the elaborate studio of 19th-century history encapsulated in VHS tape. You don't have to hire models, find props, arrange sets or sketch on site.

But the paintings Niebuhr derives from these scavenged images are far removed from their sources, which are often indiscernible. While the Jesus paintings are readily identifiable, a scene pulled from, say, a Logan's Run explosion, is impossible to trace. The artist is ambivalent about revealing origins; for Niebuhr, they aren't as important as the ultimate visual product.

And the ultimate products look like hip versions of paint-by-numbers. The paint is beautifully pooled in unmodeled puddles of color made possible by painting the canvas while flat with a complicated recipe of specific brands of acrylic paint and gel medium. As one viewer remarked, "the surfaces feel like melted chewing gum."

In Don't Carry It All (2002), Jesus prays against a rock in a scene straight out of the Children's Bible Treasury. He is thickly rendered in glossy dripping puddles of paint -- robe, beard and all. Touched (2002) shows him staring skyward, clad in a tunic with a laced neck. An indistinct apparition of poured icing floats in the sky next to him. This is a Lonely Place (2001) presents a flatly painted expanse of pale, dress-shirt blue with a horizon line created from layers of grayed pastel-toned paint. In the lower right corner is a lumpy skirted figure whose poured flesh looks like flattened Silly Putty or a melted action figure. It's a highly simplified and abstracted landscape with some sort of figure, but in the context of the other Jesus paintings it seems to be J.C. walking on water.

After Easter (2002) is, according to the artist, derived from that explosion scene in a Logan's Run episode. A field of mauve is speckled with the dulled colors of dirty office furniture upholstery (rose, putty, burgundy and pale blue). There's a lovely interplay in Niebuhr's paintings between the flat ground and the almost three-dimensionally dense puddles of color. In the radiating It Came Through (2001), something seems to be materializing where auras of color pool on the canvas's smooth, dark ground. I'd lay odds it's culled from a Land of the Lost episode, but that would be straying from the visual pleasure of the painting.

According to Niebuhr (and a million other artists), "The problem is always figuring out what to paint." For Niebuhr the answer lies in mining the images of his childhood. Niebuhr has an ambiguous relationship with these nostalgic childhood sources. He has neither embraced cynicism and irony nor maintained an unquestioning faith. The paintings are perfumed by a suppressed desire to believe, to be wholly subsumed by childhood mythologies, to be transported to the land of Sunday-school Bible stories and the fantastic otherworlds of children's television. The Son of God walks on water; dinosaurs roam in a parallel universe; in the future people will live in paradise but die before their 30th birthday, which is a long, long way off…This affectionate longing is tempered by the objectivity of adulthood, and the images foster an emotional as well as a visual exploration.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer