Nicole Gordon is a self-described good suburban Jewish girl whose sweetly colored paintings and installations at Peter Miller disturbingly reflect on cultural displacement. Her goal is to cut through viewers’ complacency using her work’s studied prettiness. “In the very protected suburbs I grew up in,” Gordon says, “you hold yourself in your own little world and pretend that things around you aren’t really happening. I want to draw people in with my atmospheric colors and decorative surfaces.” Harvest is based on a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters, but Gordon has her workers collecting land mines rather than harvesting hay. The composition is nicely balanced, the colors almost soothing, yet some of the peasants resting in the foreground have missing limbs, and fires burn in the background.

Three of the 13 pieces here are even more provocative, partly because Gordon takes her imagery into the gallery space. Airs and Graces centers around a painting of elegant women in 18th-century dress apparently dining at a table outdoors. Oddly, there are construction barriers in the foreground, one of which continues onto a panel protruding beyond the picture’s edge, and on the floor in front of the painting sits a construction barrier Gordon made, papier-mache stones, and tufts of grass that look like those in the painting’s foreground. The three-dimensionality gives the imagery an unsettling mix of realism and fantasy, as Gordon recasts a toys-come-to-life fable. Though her ladies are copied from an 18th-century tapestry, they’re holding margarita glasses, and the construction barriers relocate the scene to the suburban present.

Gordon’s parents emigrated to the United States from Cuba and South Africa and took their three kids on regular trips overseas, including an African safari when she was 11. She also remembers visiting an uncle in Johannesburg who’d take half an hour to “put the house on lockdown” before he’d go out. Gordon’s grandparents were Polish and Lithuanian Jews who moved to Cuba and South Africa in the 20s, so she has relatives all over the world. A “Jewish heritage” trip in high school took her not only to Israel but to concentration camps in Poland.

Though Gordon’s pieces are based on older works, her undergraduate art history classes at the University of Michigan bored her: “You sit in a room with 200 people taken slide by slide through hundreds of artworks with nothing really explored in depth.” A semester in Florence was better: “When you go to a church it’s not just about the paintings on the walls but about the whole experience of the architecture and how the artist interacted with the architect.” A college design professor recommended that students choose a single concept to focus on so that “what you do the whole semester would evolve from that, as long as a tiny bit of your first project is a part of the next one.” This is a method Gordon still uses. Two years ago she did “intricate landscapes” based in part on 18th-century wallpaper and tapestries, which led to the present show, where figures have become more prominent.

After receiving her BFA in 1998, Gordon decided to become a teacher. But the summer before she started studying art education she did a residency at a women’s art colony–the Millett farm in Poughkeepsie, New York–that supported itself partly by raising Christmas trees. She worked from 7 AM to noon pruning and weeding and loved being free to paint for the rest of the day, an experience that lessened her enthusiasm for being a teacher; she lasted only a semester as an art ed student. Since then she’s been a salesperson at Utrecht, done pet sitting, and worked for a company that created custom cows (after the summer of cows) for clients. Recently she’s gotten a few larger commissions, including a mural for the 54th and Cermak stop on the CTA’s Blue Line.

For the most elaborate of her pieces, Unifying Themes, Gordon took small details from another Brueghel painting, The Procession to Calvary, which included a tall rock topped by a wheel–“a weird construction on which they placed corpses for ravens to eat,” she says. The painting shows a similar construction in the front yard of a suburban ranch home; football players tower over the other figures in the scene. On the floor in front of the painting are Gordon’s model of the tower and tiny sculptures she made based on Brueghel’s figures, who were “congregating for a public execution,” she says. Painted paper birds on the adjacent wall echo the white birds in the painting’s sky. Bringing the work into the surrounding space, she makes its discordant, foreboding content all the more affecting.

Nicole Gordon

Where: Peter Miller, 118 N. Peoria

When: Through April 23

Info: 312-226-5291

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.