The white building that stands at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. is, depending on your viewpoint, an easily recognizable American icon, reassuring in its glory, or Neo-classically smug. Its interiors are less well known, home to more than a few ghosts and all manner of period decoration, from Victorian settees to Oriental carpets, sparkly chandeliers to cascading velvet drapes.
Throughout its history the art and décor of the house have changed considerably from administration to administration, with many first families leaving cast-offs behind. This creates a strange and interesting clash of domesticity and history. First Lady Jackie Kennedy is credited with creating staterooms that reflected the illustrious history of the presidential palace, rather than a hodge-podge of mix-and-match household leftovers. Within months of her husband's inauguration she appointed a committee of experts in historic preservation and decorative arts to unearth forgotten pieces and buy back others to restore the rooms to the idea, rather than the actuality, of some former moment of glory. Kennedy's strange notion of enforced history, that it somehow uplifts and ennobles a space rather than burdening it, seemed to sit well with the American public. In 1962, before a record audience of 56 million viewers, Kennedy conducted a televised tour, unveiling the newly redecorated Red, Blue and Green Rooms and the State Dining Room to great acclaim.
In her first solo exhibition Kirsten Everberg, in five White House-inspired paintings, recreates the experience of 1960s colour-saturated television. Her luridly hued rooms are painted on oversized, light-filled canvases that offer up her own quirky version of history painting, including many of the furnishings and objects that Kennedy assembled. Both impeccably precise and fuzzy at the edges, Everberg conjures an ethereal accuracy out of the gaudy and gilded public rooms, which have probably seen more taffeta dresses and corsages than the local high school prom. Traditionally used for weddings, teas and other social occasions, The Red Room (all works 2003) is Empire-style, decked out in red satin and dark carved wood. Everberg is an extremely tactile painter, excelling at all the agonizing, intricate details, such as the raised velvet wallpaper, so carefully edged in gold scroll that you ache to run your fingers over it. These and other lovely, highly ornamental nuances suggest a strong engagement with the history of painting, from Pierre-Auguste Renoir's bar scenes to Odilon Redon's flowers. Even her use of enamel has decorative implications, giving each canvas a delicate sheen. But for a painterly painter Everberg, in this body of work, deals explicitly with the historical record of photography. She cobbles together photographs from various sources and time periods and merges them on a single canvas. In The Green Room, for instance, a small pink and brown Georgia O'Keeffe landscape hangs above a leaded glass cabinet, and directly across from a matching pink armchair. One has to wonder if the painting was chosen for its colours, for its depiction of the American landscape or both. Either way, it is the token abstract artwork within a room adorned with portraits and busts. O'Keeffe looks stubborn, bold and staunchly anti-traditional, unwilling to conform to the dominant traditions of landscape painting (the America of which we should be proud). The rooms themselves are another story, riddled with French-style period furniture and fabrics manufactured by American artisans and designers.
Everberg paints the questions that critic Dave Hickey has been asking for years: who is the arbiter of taste, what is good taste, and how does it shape our national identity? These are particularly pertinent questions, particularly in a style-obsessed era such as ours, where style-for-the-masses maven Martha Stewart levels the playing field but Jackie Kennedy endures as a national symbol of class and refinement. It makes one wonder how, as eager as America was to make a break with Europe, none of our ideas about sophistication are homegrown.
Strangely enough, there is another young painter also making textured paintings about the White House - Andrea Higgins, who makes abstract, patterned canvases based on First Ladies' inaugural dresses. Like Everberg, Higgins also employs photography as a tool in her painting. The difference is that Everberg's paintings cover a wider range and scope of history, focusing less on persona than on the experience of national image-making. Everberg's sequence of staterooms provides an intimate portrait of America's historical identity crisis, and of our ongoing image and insecurity issues.