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Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas, 10' 7 1/4“ x 8' 9”.

Nicole Eisenman

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Nicole Eisenman, Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, oil on canvas, 10' 7 1/4“ x 8' 9”.

If history painting aims to convey the course of empire through the depiction of mythic or moralistic episodes, then Nicole Eisenman’s canvas Heading Down River on the USS J-Bone of an Ass, 2017, is likewise a tribute to recent American history, our country’s progress allegorized as a one-way trip down a swampy cataract. More than ten feet tall, the work depicts a sailing vessel—the impossibly large jawbone of a donkey—with a torn sail, manned by a solemn piper, a ghoulishly pasty sailor, and a politician-like fat cat, who lurks in the shadows. Perhaps an update to Emanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, this scene takes place on a polluted, pea-soup-green river that rushes along barren banks toward a ferocious plunge. It depicts a place where democracy goes to die.

The epic canvas was one of forty-two works that comprised “Dark Light,” a sprawling

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