Monday, August 25, 2008

Poor Impressions

I was reluctant to see Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past at the Seattle Art Museum. I’m not a big fan of Impressionism and the idea behind the exhibit – putting works of Impressionists side by side with works by the old masters (mostly 16th and 17th-century Spanish and Dutch artists) who inspired and influenced them - seemed a little pat, a little too earnest and educational, like a college art course assignment – compare and contrast. But after having seen the exhibition I’m glad I went. It was very educational, although not necessarily in the way the exhibit’s organizers may have hoped.

What came through most forcibly from this exhibition is the sheer superiority of the older artists. While it is true that none of the Impressionists’ masterpieces is included in this show, neither, for that matter, does this show include any masterpieces from the earlier artists. Goya’s Still Life with Golden Bream (above) is no Clothed Maya and yet it carries far more power than Sisley’s tepid rendition of the same subject (below). Now the reason for this is simple: Goya was a genius and Sisley was not. And no amount of study or inspiration can undo the fact that Goya can turn a heap of dead fish into a meditation on death and brutality in a dark, indifferent universe (or at least in the dark and somewhat crazy imagination of Francisco Goya) whereas Sisley renders us nothing more than a pretty painting of dead fish accompanied by some unnecessary elements from a still life (towel, vase, parsley sprig!). Sisley’s painting has a charm to it, yes, but Goya’s is better.

All through the exhibit I kept getting this feeling– old painting, good; new painting, meh. Titian beats Renoir. Raphael sends Degas back to school. Chardin trumps Renoir. Velázquez defeats Morissot. The only Impressionist who can hold his own against the past is Édouard Manet. Velázquez bests him, but to my mind he bests Frans Hals and ties El Greco.

Overall one comes away from this show feeling that the impressionists were a sad and disappointing lot and that perhaps the exhibit should have been called “Uninspiring Impressionism” (OK, that’s a cheap shot, I admit it) – which is unfair to these artists. In fact, it strikes me the whole conceit of this show is bound to diminish the unfortunate artists subjected to it. What artist, in the end, doesn’t pale in comparison to his or her influences? Picasso? Probably not. Da Vinci? I doubt it. Maybe only Michaelangelo or Rembrandt could live up to that criteria. Maybe. And falling short of one’s cultural heritage is not merely restricted to artists. How many of us have lived up to the sum total of all the books and movies and music and plays and paintings and ideas and other cultural bric-a-brac we’ve been exposed to over the years? I think I’ll leave that question unanswered.

* * *

Search and Destroy, at the Balagan Theater, tells the tale of Martin Mirkheim, a low-level entertainment promoter (think Smurfs on Ice) who finds himself owing the state of Florida $37,000 in back taxes. He decides to dig himself out of this hole by turning a novel written by a self-help guru into a movie. The problem, of course, is buying the film rights and the rest of the play shows Martin’s increasingly desperate and dangerous efforts to do so.

Set in the 1980s and first produced in 1990, Search and Destroy is meant to be a depiction - “a withering indictment” to put it in blurbspeak – of the twisted values of the Reagan era. Denouncing the 80s, by the way, was very popular in plays written in the 80s; that’s how one proved one was a serious playwright. And on that count, playwright Howard Korder has done a good job. His characters are motivated by, in no particular order: greed, fear, cocaine, and an insatiable hunger for psychobabble. Korder can be very funny and is at his best in lighter moments. One character at a party tells Martin that his financial advisor suggests that he invest in fear; the 90s, he says, will be “the fear decade.” In the play’s most hilarious moment, one character describes the climax of a slasher film she’s written which involves aliens, chainsaws, and penises with lobster claw heads.

The problem with Search and Destroy is that it comes across more as a pastiche of popular plays from the 80s than an accurate or insightful account of that decade. It takes a little from Hurlyburly (the film industry), a little from Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll (over-the-top cokeheads), a little from True West (unexpected killings-and the film industry, again), and a little from Speed the Plow (weird secretaries). The biggest influence, oddly enough, was clearly Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy (Scorsese would produce the film version of Search and Destroy in 1995). The protagonists’ name even have a similar rhythm: Martin Mirkheim, Rupert Pupkin.

But it’s the clichés and shortage of originality which harm Search and Destroy. The first half of the play is entertaining, if derivative, but by the second half Korder has fallen back on the dreariest of clichés: southern bounty hunters, New Jersey cokeheads who says “Fugget it”, even gun-wielding Honduran drug dealers angrily shouting “Choo tink I’m fonny?!” If only, Howard, if only.

Despite this play’s shortcomings, though, the Balagan Theater has put on an excellent production. Among the performers Lucy Shelby as the gore-loving secretary Marie and Bert Matias as self-help guru Dr. Waxling were especially good. Ashley Bagwell and Sharon Barto were compelling to watch in their numerous small roles. As Martin, Gabe Franken acquits himself well, although his mustache and shaggy hair seem more suited to the 70s than the 80s. Once a scene ends and the lights dim for a scenery change he starts leaping around the stage, wildly playing air guitar in the semi-darkness while 80s-era heavy metal blasts from the speakers. (Actually, I think that’s how I spent most of the 80s myself.) Director Curtis Eastwood has done a good job playing to the strengths of the play and deftly managing it’s flaws; once we know where the story is going he wraps it up briskly and effectively. Well done.

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