Sunday, November 28, 2021

Misty in the trailer park: What art has to do with it in 'Bakersfield Mist'

You open your program for Phoenix Theatre's "Bakersfield Mist," and on facing pages are a statement from the playwright, Stephen Sachs, and opposite it the conventional page of complete credits, production history, and setting information.

Two different views of a modernist painting will be set against each other by drastically dissimilar characters, you learn, while awaiting the production's debut. When you see one of the credits is "fight choreographer" (Scott Russell), you are justified in concluding there is more than aesthetics at stake in the uninterrupted span of time ahead. Authenticity, on the other hand, is worth fighting over. And that's the terrain on which a pitched battle will ensue.

Maude (Jolene Mentink Moffat) puts her case to Lionel (Joshua Coomer).

Authenticity is what Maude Gutman, an ex-bartender in a trailer home under California desert sun, and Lionel Percy, a New York art expert whose help she solicits in assessing a painting she owns, have to come to terms with.  

On the surface, authentication brings them together, but it's focused only on a work of art Maude has acquired on the cheap and has reason to believe came from the hand, and the dripping paint cans, of Jackson Pollock. The questionable painting turns out to be a window through which both of them find out who they are. Achingly sincere in how they present themselves, one has been wounded by the art world; the other, by the real world.

"At the behest of the criterion of authenticity," wrote the literary critic Lionel Trilling, who flourished during the mid-20th-century heyday of Pollock's life and reputation and wrote a whole book called "Sincerity and Authenticity," "much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification. Conversely much that culture traditionally condemned and sought to exclude is accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example disorder, violence, unreason."

F-bombs bursting in air open the play, as Jolene Mentink Moffat's voice of Mermanesque heft screams at Maude's neighbor's dogs menacing a rare visitor, another stuffy Lionel, played by Joshua Coomer. Mr. Percy, formerly highly placed in the art world, is attempting to coast on his reputation by working for a foundation on call to assess the value of artworks. Under the direction of Constance Macy, the actors negotiate their characters' mutual strangeness with amusing flair and a prickly combativeness that will burst into flame so oddly, yet naturally, that it would be an unforgivable spoiler for me to disclose what triggers the conflagration.

The setting, reduced to shambles eventually, begins as a scene of riotous yet almost orderly miscellany characteristic of the pack rat Maude admits to being. There's a row of bowling pins, some decorated and as large as Indian clubs, bordering the kitchen area, with various smaller gewgaws and mementos distributed elsewhere. Zac Hunter's set design is something you want to drink in responsibly. Personality flaunts itself at the expense of good taste, and that's sincere Maude on the way to becoming authentic Maude. Though she hates the style, she needs the artwork in question for contemplation on her life's ruins, and she's desperate for it to be accorded the stature she claims for it. That's where Percy comes in.

The purported Pollock painting, of which the audience gets merely momentary glimpses, may be on the order of his breakthrough work called "Lavender Mist."  Maude believes her brother and an amateur art detective of their acquaintance have sufficient evidence to attribute her prize possession to Pollock. Percy's initial scrutiny of the work results in a thumbs-down vote that he never departs from. In one of the premiere performance's funniest scenes, Coomer wordlessly examines the painting, contorting his body into various positions, stepping back and forth, as he trains his gimlet eye on the canvas. I was reminded of the purported practice of Clement Greenberg, a crucial champion of Pollock's work, to scrutinize new paintings by squinting and even putting fingers under his eyelids (ouch!) as he looked.

What Pollock actually represented is crucial to "Bakersfield Mist." The "problem of surface," in the critic Harold Rosenberg's phrase, became central in "action painting" (Rosenberg again)— abstract expressionism and many of its subsequent American offshoots. In "The Painted Word," Tom Wolfe mocked the problem of surface as an obsession with "flatness." Under critical prodding, Wolfe contended, artists adopted the orthodoxy that painting is an arrangement of forms and colors on a surface, and perspective is such an obvious illusion that it became morally questionable and artistically void in the 20th century. 

Randall Jarrell, another critic of the time, whose specialty was literature, amplified the point, stacking Pollock up negatively against the sacred monster, Pablo Picasso. "Pollock's anger at things is greater than Picasso's, but his appetite for them is small, is neurotically restricted," Jarrell wrote in "Against Abstract Expressionism," an essay published a year after Pollock's death in a drunk-driving crash. "Much of the inaccessible to Pollock. It has been made inaccessible by the provincialism that is one of the marks of our age." Near the end of his essay, Jarrell asks plaintively: "Doesn't the world need the painter's praise any more?"

Maude is trapped in that provincialism and an inability to praise the world, except in distortion by collecting its junk. Lionel Percy, blocked and frustrated by the commodification of art at its hub,  comes to realize that he is trapped in a provincialism of his own as well. They need the world's praise, perhaps, but none of us is entitled to that.

"Bakersfield Mist" is an uproarious piece of work that doesn't ask the audience to adopt a position vis-a-vis  abstract art. On the contrary, it reinforces art as a possible pathway toward getting at personal authenticity. Genuineness is a matter of belief, then of finding what that faith rests upon. What your deepest self brings to art is decisive, even if only for you. And this production comes at Sachs' play with a passionate variety of attack and insight. It holds out a certificate of authentication to be signed by anyone.

[Photo by Dragon's Eye Photography]

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