Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Artifice Meets Edifice

There's an old saying that "beauty rests in the eye of the beholder." But how a person reacts to a piece of static or performance art depends largely on that person's approach to the world around him.
  • Is he a romantic or a realist?
  • Is he a voyeur or an exhibitionist?
  • Are his responses inclined to be objective or subjective?
  • Does he favor the implicit or the explicit?
  • Does he like his art blunt or subtle?
Sometimes an artistic representation of a difficult-to-comprehend fact may help someone make a quantum leap forward.
  • Under the supervision of child psychologists, adolescents have frequently used dolls and puppets to reenact the types of sexual abuse they have suffered at the hands of adults.
  • In Act II of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, The Mikado, Pooh-Bah describes his fake account of Nanki-Poo's execution as "merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."
  • In 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a five-tone musical phrase lays the foundation upon which aliens can begin to communicate with humans.
  • In 1997's Contact, an alien appears to Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) in the form of her deceased father in order to make it easier for Ellie to communicate with another intelligent life form.
The bottom line is that we see what we want to see (and hear what we want to hear). As digital media, stem cell research, and cloning have become more pervasive in our lives, this 1970s commercial that Ella Fitzgerald made for Memorex begins to look downright quaint:

How people react to contemporary art is the subject of three works currently before Bay area audiences. The first two puncture the inflated egos of artistic snobs and shatter the pomposity that inhabits much of the art world. The third, a classic example of the Theatre of the Absurd, is chock full of unexpected delights.

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The ongoing battle between art and commerce gets an interesting new twist in Jonathan Parker's comedy, (Untitled). Adam Goldberg plays Adrian Jacobs, a contemporary composer who creates music by crumpling paper, kicking buckets, breaking glass, and using a wide variety of percussive techniques to produce noise. Edgy, controversial and intense, Adrian is portrayed as a musician on the edge who is perpetually broke. As Goldberg explains:
"Adrian is someone who hides his true feelings of self-loathing behind a mask of obstinacy and self righteousness, which can make for some funny interplay. He takes his music very seriously, even more than he might if he were a success. He’s very beholden to this intellectual idea about what music is and isn’t, rather than playing from his heart. That puts him in a bind because it excludes a lot of people who might otherwise come to see him. The less people come to see him, the more he has to validate himself.

He probably thought he would be in a place other than the place he’s in at his age. Maybe he thought he would get the kind of accolades that American composers like John Cage or Steve Reich did. And then he sees his brother, with whom he’s obviously very competitive, being commercially rewarded for doing what Adrian considers god-awful hotel art. It all just fuels his pre-existing moodiness.”
Adrian's brother Joshua (Eion Bailey) is an extremely successful commercial artist whose vapid paintings are sold to corporate clients in the back room of a prestigious Chelsea art gallery (whose displays are devoted to the kind of over-the-top art that generates publicity). The art of Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), the gallery's artist-du-jour, creates is based largely on bizarre combinations of household objects and strangely displayed taxidermy specimens (such as a dead cow draped with jewelry).

While the front of the gallery is where its owner, Madeleine Grey (Marley Shelton), indulges her interest in controversial art, the back room is where she makes enough money to support her front room displays. Things get sticky when Josh brings Madeleine to one of his brother's concerts of new music. As Madeleine falls for Adrian and they start to build a relationship, she has to keep finding new ways to keep Joshua happy.

The problem is that, as a commercial artist, Joshua craves the media attention and éclat enjoyed by the front-room people, who are considered to be "serious artists." But Madeleine knows all too well that Joshua's art should not be taken seriously. That leaves her caught in an interesting love triangle: While one brother is sexy, intense, and daring, the other is a bland cash cow.

Adam Goldberg in (Untitled)

Co-writers Jonathan Parker and Catherine di Napoli got their inspiration partly from Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel, Doctor Faustus (in which a fictional German composer makes a deal with the devil in exchange for 25 years of great musical achievement), as well as their own experience attending a concert of avant-garde music. As Parker explains:
“During my youth, I performed with symphony orchestras, jazz quartets and punk bands, but the most puzzling gig was a Stockhausen recital at which I played the bongos. I was struck by the amount of talent and training devoted to the making of music that seemed unappreciated in its time -- or possibly any time. We decided that a contemporary music composer would make a great film character. It’s a pursuit that caters to a small audience and has this funny contrast between seriousness and silliness. When you play a gig and there are six people on stage and six people in the audience (and you’ve spent a lot of time writing and learning the piece), you can’t be too happy about it.”
As it spoofs the pretentiousness of artists, gallery owners, and art collectors, (Untitled) also explores territory that most people try to avoid. For one thing, there is the question of financial compensation for the artist. Parker's film uses two competitive brothers to illustrate how, while contemporary music rarely generates enough income to support a composer, there is a tiny segment of society that places a huge monetary and status value on contemporary art. According to the filmmaker:
“Collectors are ostensibly looking at art as providing a potential spiritual experience. But there also seems to be a social climbing motive. Collecting art not only shows the world how much money you’ve got, it also gives you entrée to a social world you wouldn’t normally be a part of.”

That would explain the presence of Porter Canby (Zak Orth), a former hedge fund manager who has retired early and become a passionate art collector. Porter likes to claim that "Art makes me seem like I'm not such a dull guy." His polar opposite is Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum), a pouty bad boy artist whose work consists of found objects. According to the production notes:
"The trials and tribulations of kindergarten led Monroe to his first experimentation with household items. In this case, glue was applied to his fingers and later peeled off, creating edible ghost fingertips. Public education proved too stimulating for his creative mind, thus he sought the refuge of his mother's pleated skirt and stinging ruler. Alone in front of his mother's blackboard, Monroe learned the basic rules of grammar and some geography before his mother went out one day to clap the chalkboard erasers and never came back.
When Monroe was found ten years later, every item in the house had been turned into a gem of modern art. His primitive squeeze upon the modern hand had transformed his one-bedroom house into a veritable gallery in and of itself. Using his house as his portfolio, Monroe was granted a full fellowship to study art at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, but years without formal education rendered Monroe a creative genius who was ill-prepared for the school's entrance exams.
On June 25, 1994, Monroe received two letters: One was a final rejection letter. The other was his fellowship check. What academia lost, the world won."
If you lack the patience to deal with self-important hipsters, you'll find a lot of laughs in (Untitled). The creative team knows the territory extremely well and has produced an insightful comedy about the contemporary art scene in which Adam Goldberg and Eion Bailey have been perfectly cast to represent opposing sides of the art world. I especially liked the irony of the film's ending. Here's the trailer:

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Down at Fisherman's Wharf, Boxcar Theatre launched its run of Tina Howe's brilliant play Museum at the San Francisco Wax Museum (where the opening night performance was followed by a reception in the museum's Chamber of Horrors). Written in 1976, this new production -- which will travel to several museums and art galleries around the Bay area -- was directed by Stephanie Renée Maysonave.

Photo by: Peter Lui

If you've ever wondered what it would feel like to be a fly on the wall during a major art installation, this is your chance to have a rollicking good time as a museum-based voyeur. With the audience seated on three sides of the playing area, 38 actors take their time exploring and examining works of conceptual art on the last day of a controversial run. The artists whose work is on display include:
  • Zachary Moe. Described as using acrylic emulsions and wax on canvas, the four works on display are essentially blank white canvases bearing names like Landscape II, Seascape VII, and Starscape XIX. According to the curator, "Moe's work has challenged the ideals of modern art as we know it. Members of the public who are interested in art are tempted to see only chaos in the proliferation of styles in modern painting. Lacking the perspective to differentiate real art from the impostors, they are biased witnesses of the frenzy of the original, which is the lot of the artist of our time. They are troubled by the excessive output of painters. This is one of the most ironic distinctions of art in our century. In one broad spray of an airbrush Moe attempts to eradicate the chaos of the modern painting and, instead, embraces the calm and simplicity of clean lines and lack of color. Moe uses airbrushing as a means of transferring paint to canvas in order to best replicate the texture of a blank canvas. His methods are of great social and critical importance and many are eager to see where he'll go from here."
  • Agnes Vaag. "She began painting at age four, choosing roadkill and dead birds as her subjects. In 1990, she began sculpting, at first capturing her paintings in three dimensional form. Soon she discovered a love for found materials, establishing her niche in the modern art community." The titles of Vaag's sculptures include A Flagrant Insertion of Inadequate Love, The Temptation and Corruption of William Blake, The Holy Wars of Babylon Rage Through The Night, Sacred Inquisition -- Daylight Savings Time, and Ode to Emily Dickinson.
  • Steve Williams. According to the museum's notes, "This artist first came to attention with his exhibition of animal heads in cement which,in their open framework and pitted surfaces, were a powerful refutation of the prevailing modern traditions of neat forms, clean surfaces, and truth to materials. His subsequent sculptures have presented anguished images of the anonymity of modern man, using cast off objects assembled according to an indisputably human framework. Although still governed by the principles of assemblages, his sculptures comprise more simply structured monumental components, incorporated with technological precision into quite different icons of modernity." Constructed with rope, cloth, papier maché , wire, leather, wood, plaster, fiberglass and clothespins, the piece currently on display is entitled Wet Dream Left Out to Dry.
Adam Simpson (Photo by: Peter Lui)

The characters include a good cross-section of museum goers who will be familiar to most arts fans:
  • The security guard (Donald Currie) who keeps trying to prevent people from touching the art or photographing it without permission from the museum's director.
  • Young women claiming to be the museum director's daughter.
  • Art students attempting to make their own sketches of the art on display.
  • Young photographers trying to capture the art (as well as the people walking around the gallery) on film.
  • Intensely-driven aficionados who live their lives through other people's achievements.
  • Two suburban women who can't stop talking about which piece they think would fit best in the various rooms in their homes.
Sondra Putnam and Adrienne Krug (Photo by: Peter Lui)
  • A docent (Sarah Korda) lecturing a donor in nonstop "museum speak" about the art on display.
  • The sullen stalker who is itching to write on one of the blank canvases with his pencil.
  • A gaggle of giggling teenagers, including the young girl who thinks all museums should have big windows so the people on the inside could look at the real art outside.
  • A young woman who falls asleep on one of the benches and awakens to discover that her friends have left her behind.
  • Museumgoers who stand right in front of the photographer as he tries to shoot the artwork.
  • Two French tourists trying to understand what the artists are attempting to communicate.
  • Two piss-elegant art queens (Boxcar's co-artistic directors) whose effeminate behavior veers between extremes of art-world hysteria, high camp, and gay bitchery.
Peter Matthews, Donald Currie, and Nick A. Olivero
(Photo by: Peter Lui)

It's all great fun for the audience, which can see its own behavior reflected in the characters in Howe's droll, sardonic play. You can order tickets to performances at various locations around the Bay area here. As far as arts voyeurism goes, Museum a romp and a frolic not to be missed!

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Over at the Exit Theatre on Taylor, Cutting Ball Theatre is presenting a new translation of The Bald Soprano by artistic director Rob Melrose (who also directed). This groundbreaking play by Eugene Ionesco proved to be a lot funnier and infinitely more enjoyable than I had anticipated, in large part because Melrose was so intimately involved in bringing it to the Cutting Ball's stage. In his director's statement, he explains that:
"Ionesco's first play began with his trying to learn English. He noticed the absurdity of the dialogues of the husband and wife in his textbook. She would inform him that they live in London, that they have three children, that the ceiling is above them, and the floor is below them (all things that he already knew perfectly well). Ionesco's genius enabled him to take these strange seeds of dialgoue and grow them into an entire jungle of a play -- or anti-play, as he called it.

In this play there is no story, no conflict, none of he things we normally expect from a play. And yet, at the same time, there is definitely something happening -- something strange, surreal, and mysterious. It's as if language itself is a character in the play. And it is language that ultimately emerges victorious in a bold, pyrotechnical display.

With The Bald Soprano the sound of words, the rhythm, the rhyme, and even the tone are often as important as the meaning itself. My goal was to preserve some of the schoolbook formality and awkwardness that exists in the French and capture the sound and rhythm as well as the meaning. This led me to think of a language textbook come to life in three dimensions. It also made me look back at old videos of The Electric Company and Sesame Street in order to get that sound of speaking for the purpose of learning a language."
Cutting Ball's tight ensemble features David Sinaiko as Mr. Smith, Paige Rogers as his wife, Donell Hill as Mr. Martin, Caitlyn Louchard as his wife, Anjali Vashi as the maid, and Derek Fischer as a fire captain with a whale of a tale to tell about the common cold. It's hard to capture the spirit of the production in words because the isolated use of words is responsible for half of the play's comedic impact. As the characters babble on and continue to contradict each other, The Bald Soprano moves beyond absurd theatre to absurdly funny entertainment. Here's the trailer:

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