Critical mass

Dissecting 'Art' at the Contemporary Theater Company
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  August 20, 2014

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FRIENDLY FIRE Kirton, Katzman, and Lanni. [Photo by Blacknight Studios]

With certain people, we’re accustomed to avoiding conversations about politics or religion. An unfortunate reaction, from a glower to a brawl, can easily result. In circles where art is frequently discussed, there is less circumspection — perhaps because participants are more tolerant and open-minded?

“Ha!” is the response of Art, by Yasmina Reza, which the Contemporary Theater Company is staging (through September 6), directed by Ryan Hartigan. A discussion by three friends about the merits of a white-on-white painting and its purchase results in a one-act brouhaha that transcends rarefied aesthetics and quickly descends to the human scale.

Actually, this is more a play about friendship. Art is the MacGuffin, allowing a sometimes serious, sometimes comical examination of both this particular triangular relationship and friendship in general.

Serge (Andrew Katzman) has bought a painting by an artist of some current reputation, a 3x4-foot white rectangle containing some barely discernible off-white diagonal lines. His friend Marc (Brad Kirton) has the central response: utter disdain followed by curt scatological critique. Serge, grinning silently, for a long while flits about like Tinker Bell, gesturing to the purchase, waiting for his friend’s response. Marc’s first word frames his judgment: “Expensive?” “Two-hundred-thousand-dollars” is the reply. Serge adds that he knows a gallery that would take it off his hands for profit, if he wanted; financial foolishness is off the table as an objection, so subjective worth is left as the topic of discussion.

 Reza, better known for her superb God of Carnage, stacks the deck against Serge, but more importantly against the artwork in question. Minimalism in the late ’60s and early ’70s made sense as a movement in the endless Q&A and call and response that comprises art history. And the abstract white-on-white paintings of Robert Ryman also made sense in that context. The concepts and concerns explored in that period are ignored here. So Art is a play that celebrates ignorance, all but belching and popping another brew when art is discussed.

Marc dismisses the painting as “shit,” and doesn’t feel obliged to elaborate or justify, except to say that Serge has “lost every sense of discernment for pure snobbery.” Marc says he’s “entitled to piss on” culture. Serge isn’t offended by his friend not appreciating the painting but is angry at his “vile, know-it-all laugh.”

The third friend, Ivan (Rico Lanni), is here for comic relief (he’s an antic, nervous wreck) and to offset Marc’s intolerance. “All the same,” he says to Marc, “if it makes him happy, it’s worth it.” Ivan also provides a reminder that feelings as well as understandings are significant. He says that he didn’t like the painting “but didn’t actually hate it,” adding to Marc that he “felt a resonance.”

Pretentiousness is the enemy here. Marc’s upset is revealed to have started sometime earlier, when Serge pompously referred to “deconstruction” in commenting on some artwork. Marc epitomizes the kind of person who says he doesn’t know much about art but knows it when he sees it, though toward the end he gives a brief mini-treatise on the subject, so we know he does have “some criterion to judge it by,” as Serge earlier demanded.

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