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on art as philosophy, simplicity and those darn cubes

Even as someone who will defend modern art and its contributors until my dying breath, I occasionally find myself skeptical of certain allegedly important artists and their place in art history. Sol LeWitt has always been one of those artists.

In my rather brief life I’ve yet to encounter LeWitt’s infamous wall paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of photographs along with dozens of imitations, so maybe I’ve seen them after all? But no, what I’m talking about are those infuriating cubes. When I see Lewitt’s cubes I don’t think twice and just keep walking. I always assumed there had to be a reason they were in art museums and not just children’s playrooms or my math textbook and not surprisingly there is.

According to the artist Joseph Kosuth in his landmark essay “Art after Philosophy,” the 20th century saw a radical redefinition of philosophy that was the impetus in the same for art. By Kosuth’s line of reasoning philosophy has historically concerned itself with the “unsaid.” For many centuries, scientists and philosophers were one and the same, contemplating the great unknown with many questions.

It’s a given that today’s science is different than the science of the philosophers and there is very little left “unsaid,” leading Kosuth to ask the question, is man and his “intelligence” such, “that he cannot believe the reasoning of traditional philosophy?” Maybe the unsaid is unsayable.

Now these conclusions are only one man’s opinions but hear me out. Philosophy was struggling with its place because science had entered the technology age. Suddenly we knew what else was out there and had ways to analyze ruins and determine where we came from. In this age of the automobile, electricity, the atom bomb and space travel, what was the point of traditional philosophy?

Traditional art too, suddenly seemed irrelevant. With the advent of modern science, aesthetics as a societal value was second to an emphasis on modernity; formalist artwork somehow seemed trivial.

For Kosuth then, aesthetics could not be the basis of good art. After all, judgments based on aesthetics are based entirely on taste and never on a work’s “reason for existence.” It was that “reason for existence” that became the defining quality for artists of Kosuth’s generation. Traditional art was valuable as a certain type of art, but it was just that, one function of what should be art in a much larger context.

The vaccum left by the dissolution of traditional philosophy was filled by these new artists who were suddenly creating work in which the idea was the central focus, what I like to think of as art as philosophy. The birth of conceptualism in art.

According to Sol LeWitt, the new breed of artists associated with this conceptual movement were so-called because they concerned themselves solely with the conception of the idea and its realization. The finished product was meaningless.

Apart from the centrality of ideas, conceptual art also grew out of the modern artist’s distaste for the commodification of art and its status, by the mid 20th century, as little more than consumer good. Robert Smithson reacted to this by avoiding the gaze of the consumer and using nature as his gallery. While all conceptual artists didn’t shun the public art world, most at least expressed their distaste for the traditional by creating works based on a framework that differed drastically from that which came before them.

Sol LeWitt, in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” may have defined the practice the best. According to LeWitt, conceptual art must be mentally interesting. It must be intuitive to the artist, free from an artist’s skill and most of all free from what he called the “emotional kick” the audience had grown to expect from the expressionist artists. That kick inhibits the significance of the idea being expressed.

One way to look at the new art was expressed by Kosuth as a difference in language. Conceptual art wasn’t the beginning of modern art, obviously. Before the insurrection brought about by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, modern artists were already changing our definition of what was acceptable (Manet, for example) but were doing so by speaking the same language as traditional artists; what Kosuth called the European painting/sculpture dichotomy. With Duchamp’s revolution, artists realized an ability to speak another, new language.

Another artist who famously laid out the framework of the new movement was Lawrence Weiner in his brilliantly brief “Declaration of Intent.” This is it:

  1. 1.     The artist may construct the piece.
  2. 2.     The piece may be fabricated
  3. 3.     The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

In summary, whether or not the artist created the piece or even built it was immaterial provided the intention and idea were satisfied. It could be instructions concerning how to create a piece, as LeWitt was famous for, or it could be a piece that never even took on material form. As long as the idea was fulfilled, the artist had succeeded.

While LeWitt wasn’t the founder of the conceptual art movement by any stretch, he for many personifies the central notions of the movement. LeWitt, like many of his contemporaries, was dissatisfied with the state of modern art and early in his career as an artist determined to “start over.”

He acquainted himself intimately with shapes and lines; the shapes, squares, circles and triangles we know so well. We take them for granted but without them there would be no art. LeWitt’s art was about essentials.

It was also about concepts. He focused on ideas such as volume, transparency and sequences, things he believed, as did the other conceptual artists, equaled aesthetics in importance.

Perhaps what helps to enlighten the casual viewer concerning LeWitt’s artistic oeuvre more than anything else is his definition of the artist. By LeWitt’s line of reasoning, if we consider architects artists and their creations works of art, why can’t art function like architecture? The artist creates a set of directions carried out by a team of artisans and a piece of art is born. It actually makes perfect sense.

LeWitt’s wall paintings were his embodiment of this. When we see a LeWitt wall painting today we’re not seeing something physically created by the artist, but we are seeing the embodiment of his idea, and isn’t it the idea that counts? Isn’t it the idea that spurs every action and accomplishes every goal.

LeWitt prized the idea over the object, taking our 20th century redefinition of art one step further than the Abstract Expressionists who valued the process over the object.

“Conceptual art is not necessarily logical… “ LeWitt once said,  “Successful ideas have the appearance of simplicity because they are inevitable.”

Conceptual artists and Sol LeWitt once again changed our notion of what we can and should consider art. They didn’t negate formalist art (although many were disdainful of the practice), they simply enlarged the artistic framework and they did so in a way that made us stop and think. These works of art force us to stop and think about the simple things we take for granted, like a chair, and they do so in a way that really elevates the idea in a way complicated art could never do.

LeWitt’s art may on first glance appear simple or trivial, in my case boring, but when you understand the concerted effort he makes to draw the artists and the viewers attention to the concepts and systems without which we could not work or function, it becomes clear that conceptual art, just like the ideas within it, was itself, inevitable.

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Sol LeWitt

on museums, nature, universal symbolism and land art

With the first “retrospective” of the Earthworks movement, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” currently on display at MOCA, I thought it an a propos time to explore (briefly) the ideology and work of Robert Smithson, one of the early artists working in the Land Art movement and probably most well-known. While many high profile artists are associated with the movement, Smithson’s prolific writing and his high-profile project “Spiral Jetty” allow a deeper understanding of the “why” than most of his contemporaries.

Land Art, or Earthworks (a term Smithson coined) is an art movement that falls under the category of minimalism and emerged in the late 1960’s.  Land artists utilize land or the landscape as their canvas (or on their canvas) and are characterized by a rejection of what they saw as the commodification of art in the 1960’s, a fascination with nature and an emphasis on the product used in their art rather than the finished product (see minimalism as a whole).

In the 1960’s the art world was seeing a plethora of movements rejecting established practices. Art historian Donald Kuspit describes the systematic rejection of the frame and the pedestal in painting and sculpture during the decade while artists attempted to redefine the boundaries of their art. Removing art from the gallery and giving it indefinite boundaries, ie. Land Art, was simply the next logical step.

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A still from Michael Snow’s “La Region Centrale,” 1971

Minimalism attempts to expose the essence of something by eliminating everything but the necessary. For artists working within the tenets of minimalism (including the Land Art artists) a museum tended to offer their pieces a sense of grandeur and importance the piece did not deserve.  Moving the piece into nature allowed the majesty of the outdoors to dwarf the artist’s creation, better achieving the goals of the minimalist artist.

Smithson began as a painter but his ideology was always minimalist. A rejection of the traditional museum/gallery system as well as a systematic attempt to reject the art world’s insistence on defining an artist and his art form, led Smithson to produce works not easily categorized, even before he delved into Land Art and developed his important notion of the site and non-site.

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Smithson’s “Partly Buried Wood-shed,” 1970 – an example of Smithson’s fascination with the relationship between man and nature as well as the concept of entropy

Site and non-site meant for Smithson respectively the creation of his art in nature as a part of nature and in the case of the non-site, the movement of articles from a site in nature and their placement in the gallery. In the late 1960’s, Smithson’s output was almost entirely focused on these sites and non-sites as his art grew more and more inextricably intertwined with nature.

Apart from a rejection of the establishment, Smithson and others also sought in nature a therapeutic removal from the “life-draining urban environment.” Like many before and after them, an aversion to the technology and chaos implicit in modern man’s daily life, led Land Artists to escape to nature in order to attempt to assuage some of the human trauma incurred through what they saw as life on overload.  It also allowed them in turn to explore the chaos inherent in nature, something especially important to Smithson who was fascinated by the concept of entropy and the effects of the elements on his outdoor work.

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a 1,500 foot long coil composed of rock and soil dramatically jutting out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the embodiment of much of Land Art’s central tenets as well as the significance of universal forms and symbols.

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For Smithson the “Spiral Jetty” explores not only the majesty and at the same time fragility of nature as well as our relationship with it, but it also explores the concept of the universal form, in this case the spiral, as a “symbol of the cosmos.” It exemplifies the Land Artist’s desire to avoid the placement of their creation onto the landscape, but rather to work within it as they explore the human relationship to nature.

“Spiral Jetty” in short, inspires viewers to contemplate the complicated notion of human manipulation in nature while viewing a symbol we as a collective humanity have been inserting into our dialogue for centuries. What is the true relationship between man and nature?  The choice of the spiral is no accident. As Smithson attempts to ease the trauma of daily life through nature, he is also attempting to do so by creating a link to the centuries of civilizations that have come before us.

Viewing Smithson’s masterpiece is moving as the viewer contemplates the universally emotional experience of an un-touched nature, only this time, it’s only seemingly un-touched. Smithson here has been able to create an item that is inextricably linked to the human experience while at the same time it’s presence in nature seems perfectly natural; as if Smithson’s intrusion almost didn’t happen.  Maybe man and nature are closer than we think.

So there you have it, Land Art, art within nature that attempts to be a part of nature and while almost succeeding, still serves as an example of man’s manipulation of nature. We can attempt to make our mark minimal, but it’s still there.

Side-Note: Smithson’s notions of entropy and the ephemeral nature of the landscape and his art within it were subjects upon which he wrote profusely, making the Dia Art Foundation’s discussions of the “Spiral Jetty’s” preservation somewhat ironic. Just something to keep in mind as the debate continues; Smithson valued the aspect of nature that involves organic growth and decay. Would he have wanted “Spiral Jetty,” an artwork that almost isn’t an artwork, to be preserved as such? Or would he have wanted it to go the way of nature?

the mystery of modern art and a mission

There was a moment, somewhere in the last century, in which our definition of art changed forever. It’s easy to attribute it to Marcel Duchamp and his appropriation of the male urinal for his 1917 piece “Fountain,” so for all intents and purposes, let’s just pretend it’s “Fountain.” Funny thing about that piece? The original “Fountain” was only seen by a select few and vanished soon after Duchamp’s ceremonial “signing.” 

Duchamp certainly wasn’t the single most important artist in modern history, but he was in no small part responsible for publicizing the drastic re-definition of art that would be shaped over the next century. In modern art, the idea was to become more important than the object.

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That crucial point upon which modern art turns was laid out in avant-garde magazine The Blind Man in connection to Duchamp’s “Fountain” one year after it’s christening: “Whether Mr Mutt (Duchamp’s moniker) made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

Through the work of the Dadaists and others, and to the chagrin of many, our definition of “art” was changed. Art was no longer about beauty and visual appeal. Art was about the idea and over the next century the world would see a gradual progression that would essentially evolve the “artist” into a philosopher.

While the evolution has made art (to some) more interesting, it has also made art, to most, incomprehensible. Unfortunately this has in turn led to its rejection by many and its relegation to the realm of the intellectual. This is in part due to the academic and artist’s inability to explain the art and it’s foundation in philosophy as well as it’s importance on that level and within the history of art; all information which is vital to an appreciation of the art.

A few years ago I wrote an extensive analysis of the Abstract Expressionist movement and argued, as many before me, for the critic’s centrality in that movement as few before it. Without the mediation between the critic and the audience, a belief held by many, is that it would be nearly impossible for the general public to even recognize the movement as art.  Those who know me know I don’t mean that as a slight, but it is still a difficult topic to address amongst non-art fans.

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Should we need an artist’s words to describe his work? Is it really art if the public can’t recognize it as such? 

Questioning the necessity of explaining why modern art is art is a valid question that leads to many more interesting questions.

Should we really have to define art? Shouldn’t art be an individualized experience? Because the artist defines his/her art as such, if we interpret it differently does that mean we are wrong?

Do we owe the general public an explanation about art and its meaning? Or do we treat art as elite?

Concerning the last two questions. Being a casual art lover myself (and by casual I mean without formal education) I am obviously of the opinion that yes, we owe it to the general public to help them understand and appreciate what we are calling art and we should be ashamed for having shirked our duty for so many years.

I’m going to at least put in my two cents.

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It may lack a consistent format for a little while I figure it out, but I owe it to myself, and eventually hopefully to others, to at least attempt to convert a few to an appreciation for something I swear by.

So here it is. Not because I’m particularly well-qualifed, in fact, I’m not qualified at all, but I love art and being someone who wasn’t educated by the establishment and simply spends a great portion of their free time consuming it, maybe I’m at least well-suited to serve as an intermediary and a missionary. Let’s talk about modern art and just see what happens. 

Impressions of Dallas

When Leon Harris, Jr., the vice president of A. Harris & Company commissioned German satirist George Grosz for a series of works portraying the young city of Dallas in 1952, we can only assume the art world was taken aback.

Grosz had made a name for himself in Europe and even America as an acerbic satirist, caricaturist and an oftentimes overtly political painter. He was famous in the 1930’s and 1940’s for series of drawings such as Interregnum, a chronicle of the rise of German militarism from 1924 to 1936. An avid hater of Fascism and an open communist, many of Grosz’s paintings had been banned in America during the 1940’s and 50’s due to his subversive political ties.

How did it come to be that a young (and seemingly conservative) city such as Dallas would offer such a controversial artist his first commission? Regardless, commissioned he was.

Specifcally Grosz was commissioned to commemorate the 65th anniversary of A. Harris & Company Department Store (later to become Sanger-Harris), and the resulting works were meant to illustrate the landscape, economy and society of Harris’ city. In a broader context they were also intended as a public relations campaign; tying Harris, his clientele and his city to a broader and international cultural context.

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In 1952 Grosz, the German artist who had always been fascinated by the allure of the West but never thought he would see Dallas himself, travelled to our “Flower on the Prairie” to see what the city was all about. Twenty works from the series are currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art for the first time in sixty years; twenty works that at least attempt to portray a city in transition.

Naturally Grosz expected a frontier outpost full of horses and cowboys. What he saw instead was a city in flux. A modern metropolis of tall buildings, freeways and business-people, and his paintings convey an element of that surprise.

The final watercolor in the exhibit, “Flower of the Prairie” for which the exhibition is named is the best example of this surprise. An image of Dallas’ skyline seems to magically emerge from a yellow backdrop and blue “flower.” The beautiful image illustrates Dallas’ reputation as a city in the middle of nowhere (at the time) with no obvious reason for its existence and success.

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Throughout the exhibit it is clear Grosz was not only surprised but enthralled with the culture, the people and the buildings of Dallas. Images of Dallas in the 1950’s will fascinate locals, and serve as an education for others as the Dallas Museum of Art’s curatorial team has painstakingly re-created the history of each of the building’s Grosz portrayed from the Adolphus Hotel to Republic Tower to the Mercantile Building, the only “skyscraper” built in the country during World War Two.

While serving as a gorgeous illustration of a beautiful city, the paintings also serve a larger purpose and inspire more questions than answers. What, really, were Grosz’s impressions of Dallas? And why Grosz anyways?

Flower of the Prairie: George Grosz in Dallas will be on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through August 19.  Visit www.dallasmuseumofart.org for more information and don’t miss this beautiful snapshot of Dallas history.

How I Began Contemplating a More Serious Study of Buddhism

Okay, deep breath.

I’m a self-admitted religion skeptic. Who isn’t these days? And for quite some time Buddhism has drawn my most potent skepticism. Consider that changed.

The Crow Collection of Asian Art opens their new show, Noble Change: Tantric Art of the High Himalaya this weekend. The exhibit contains eleven gorgeous copper Buddhist sculptures as well as one embroidered silk panel and represents work acquired by Trammell Crow last year for his private collection.

While I guarantee you’ll get lost amongst the glistening pieces, this exhibit is about much more than aesthetic pleasure. This is part of what will be over the next several years an important project for the Crow Collection; introducing Dallas museum-goers to the hyper-relevant practice of Tantric Buddhism. Spoiler alert, this is not an article about sex.

According to Crow Collection Curator Dr. Caron Smith, the principles of Tantric Buddhism have in the past been dismissed as “titillating erotica or stultifying ritual” and during the 1960’s, were appropriated by the Hippie culture as a justification for their pursuit of un-inhibited sexual pleasure. Smith states, “The time is ripe to reveal tantra for what it is truly intended to be.” And what exactly is that?

The answer isn’t simple, but if you find religion and human nature even remotely interesting, you’ll be fascinated.

The teachings of tantra are part of Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of the complex and constantly evolving teachings of the Buddha that arose in the 6th or 7th centuries and is especially prevalent in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia amongst others.

Like all forms of Buddhism, the base of tantric teaching lies in the four noble truths: The truth of suffering: the truth of the origin of suffering: the truth of the cessation of suffering: and the truth of the path of the cessation of suffering.

Contrary to the sound, people who practice Buddhism are not consumed by depression. Especially so in tantric Buddhism, where students or followers use suffering and other negative aspects of existence in order to achieve a higher state of being, one in which the goal is to reach a simple life through reflection and the emptying out of themselves.

Becoming a student of tantric Buddhism is reserved only to a select few, similar to a mystic Christianity or Judaism for example. Students of the official practice work with a guru and study secret texts in monastic settings. Free of worldly influences, they tame the mind through reflection, begin to question the “real world” around them and empty themselves of temporary reactions to feelings and emotions, admitting the world around them is not “real” as we tend to define it. It is only after this that man’s compassion for others can expand. (Sidenote, the Dalai Lama is a practicioner of tantric Buddhism).

Tantric Buddhism is essentially a reaction to previous forms of Buddhism through its embrace of ordinary experience and human instinct, not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to inspire change. No longer is the negative ignored, instead it is embraced, all of humanity is embraced in fact, to incorporate change not for our own self-gratification but rather to foster compassion for others.

The dualities of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism are shunned while the idea that the deities are not here to help but rather to inspire remains integral in tantric practice. Students learn that the potential for change is within themselves and our lives are fulfilled through their own, unique evolution. Tantra, in its simplest form, means continuity. Continuity of actions, impulses and desires in a constantly evolving state of being.

At least that’s my brief summary from my very brief study in an attempt to better understand these intricate and highly symbolic pieces of art that were created in the ateliers of Tibet to inspire the followers of this unique not religion per se, but rather science of the mind. A science of the mind which, might I add and assume many will agree, represents more closely than many other “religions” the psychology and mentality of modern man. In the opinion of this writer, Smith could not be more right in assuming that “the time is ripe” to expose the West to the tantric notions of openness, compassion and self-sufficiency.

Now on to the art.

When exploring the intimate gallery space at the Crow it’s vital that the viewer leave preconceptions outside. This work is highly symbolic, overtly sexual and complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Keeping in mind the philosophy behind this exhibit while viewing should at least make the works accessible enough to enjoy for more than aesthetic beauty, as they were intended to be.

The deities on view in the exhibit represent various Buddhas. Two Vajradharas, in other words the first Buddha, are represented here, each signifying the unity of male and female. Part of the “revisionism” of tantric Buddhism allowed for a stronger role to be played by the female in the “story,” and in these Dorje Chang (in Tibetan), there is rampant symbolism indicating male aspects in the female, and vice versa. The sexuality of the two will be obvious.

There are also two Dakinis represented amongst the scultpures. Dakinis in tantric Buddhism are the female embodiment of wisdom and energy. The Sarva Buddha Dakini, or Dakini of all the Buddhas is represented as a young female, innocent and therefore able to serve as the protector, provider of wisdom and home to all. The symbolism in the Naro Khandoma (in Tibetan) is throughout as she treads on Ignorance and Ego and drinks the defilements of all in order to liberate.

The other Dakini in the exhibit is Kurukulla or the Dakini of flowers. Using her feminine seductiveness, Kurukulla is able to subdue and pacify demons. She treads on a naked body representing her dominance over desire and the skulls surrounding her are reminders of death. A quick note on the skulls. Buddhism is stringent in its embrace of the ugly, the dirty and death as parts of life, just as the religion does not shy away from sexuality as so many others (Christianity and Islam for example). Buddhism embraces the disgusting as part of life, as it is.

One especially meaningful piece in the exhibit is the unadorned Samantabhadra, the supreme Buddha and the primordial form of Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha. The union of man and woman is honored in this gorgeous, simple sculpture.

Viewers will also encounter the Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth.  He looks out for the wealth of others while seeming to greatly enjoy the corporal aspects of the flesh, yet another example of Buddhism’s rejection of the demonization of human desires. It is assumed, however, that the embrace of the wealth and sexuality of the two in union will be used to inspire the attainment of the next level of existence, as each of these pieces is intended to do.

You may not need the reminder but this is religious art, not in the sense that it is to be worshipped or even instill reverence, but rather to inspire. It is not “art for art’s sake” in the words of Smith. Dissolving duality (namely that of male and female), embracing the unity of ourselves and using our human form to achieve these aims are central tenets of tantric Buddhism. These exquisite pieces were created in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to arouse a desire to improve the world and those living in it.

Although you may not begin living your life in pursuit of Buddhist principles following an exposure to this unique and high vein of Buddhist practice, I think most viewers will recognize aspects of their psychology in this difficult but innately human “science of the mind.” Thanks to the Crow Collection, westerners have an opportunity to discover it through beautiful, artistic representation.

The Culture and Assumptions of the American Midwest

The second show in Chris La Bove and Steve Walter’s Second Thought Theatre’s season is a combination of theater and film presented in conjunction with Aviation Cinemas, Inc., the operating company for the ultra-cool Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.

Eric Steele’s The Midwest Trilogy, in a not surprising vein for Dallas theater, presents a critique of Midwest culture through three brief vignettes. Each mini-play presents issues characteristically associated with the stereotypically backwards folk of the middle of the country, which yes, includes Dallas. Where Steele surprises however, is in his ability to overturn our assumptions and in the process, create a memorable piece of theater.

Eric Steele

In the first (and weakest) “act,” entitled “Cork’s Cattlebaron,” Jon and Brady sit down for a meal at a fancy Omaha steakhouse. Brady’s incessant chatter is obnoxious and the audience commiserates with the younger Jon who seems utterly embarrassed by his business associate’s brash mannerisms.

After several minutes Jon snaps, and instead of any number of accusations one might assume Jon to lash out with, he fires Brady on the spot; a task he had apparently been attempting to accomplish all night. Despite an initial lack of respect for Brady’s unsympathetic character, the audience finds itself sorry for Brady as he leaves a painfully emotional voicemail for his wife.

After we travel to Omaha, Steele takes us to “Topeka” in a film where young New York businessman Layne Edelman encounters a group of locals in a coffee shop. In this short film Layne tackles the perceived prejudices of the Kansans as he chats with his fellow customers.

Typical issues of city versus country and the stereotypes that pervade the relationship appear but the audience is never quite sure whether the group is indeed predisposed to dislike Layne because of where he comes from and his religion, or if the bias is all in Layne’s head. The dramatic ending again turns our assumptions upside down as it would appear that Layne is the one placing too much stock in a societal narrative, rather than vice versa.

The third and final installment of The Midwest Trilogy is “Bob Birdnow,” the only live action portion of the saga. Dallas audiences saw Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow in last year’s Festival of Independent Theater and Nash excellently reprises his role here. Second Thought and Aviation Cinemas, Inc. plan to eventually turn this portion of the Trilogy into a film as well.

Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow - Photo Credit Karen Almond

Birdnow is a “reluctant motivational speaker” who relates to the audience, acting as a group of salesmen at a conference, the story of a dramatic plane crash and his survival. While seeming to serve as a critique of the practice of rote motivational speaking, this section of the play also toys with the notion that human existence is based solely upon survival. Nash’s acting is emotional, raw and excluding the plane crash, utterly relatable.

Second Thought is preaching to the choir with this production of Steele’s work. Steele stated he received inspiration for these stories from his days as a “traveling salesman” in the American Midwest, a career in which a pervasive isolation lends itself to ample time for observation.

The stories in the Trilogy are based on circumstances he was confronted with and the stereotypes, narrative of the “culture clash” and the danger of buying too much into both, are ideas anyone even remotely familiar with this area of the country will be able to relate to oh so well. Go see it. You’ll understand exactly what I mean.

Kafka for Dummies

“Time in Kafka is always broken. Every moment leads back to itself. Chronological and eternal.” The opening (and closing) lines for Len Jenkin’s new play “Time in Kafka” could not be more concise in their description of Kafka and the play itself, a fun romp through a plot as confusing and twisted as any Kafka ever concoted, although maybe not quite as philosophically challenging.

Undermain Theater’s world premiere production of Jenkins’ play treats the subject with the lightness it merits. Professor Spellman, recently fired from his teaching position at a university due to his inability to divorce his cerebral philosophizing on Kafka’s life and work from his job teaching freshman literature, is visited by Kafka in a dream. Kafka reveals the existence of a forgotten manuscript hidden in an Italian clinic Kafka visited in 1913.

The play follows Spellman as he abruptly departs to the Italian clinic only to find a group of ridiculous, and in Undermain’s production, hilarious patients and staff who take Spellman on a convoluted and nonsensical journey to understand the nature of the clinic and find the lost manuscript.

Little of the play makes sense, from the “healing dances” Dr. Hartungen advises his patients to perform, to Boothby’s (a patient at the clinic) relationship with his “niece” Charlotte.

The melodramatic music and ridiculous characters make the play fun, but with the overlying sense that life is farce.

Time in the clinic is interminable, no-one seems to know how long they have been there or have any intention of leaving. Their laissez-faire attitude towards checking out is implied explicitly in their participation as the voyeuristic audience for Boothby’s attempted murder of Spellman; events in the clinic repeat and repeat.

Has Spellman come in search of Kafka’s lost manuscript before? Has Anna, the tubercular young woman who has mistaken Spellman for Kafka (or discovered Spellman is Kafka) been here before?

As in a Kafka novel, events repeat in an endless cycle and the plot is not meant to be accessible, just as our word Kafkaesque has come to describe; the play is senseless, and exhibits a disorienting complexity.

That doesn’t make Jenkins’ ride any less enjoyable. With the humor implicit in the script and Undermain’s interpretation of Jenkins’ characters under the masterful hand of director Katherine Owens, audience members would be in a sore mood if they did not enjoy the ridiculous nature of the play.

And just as Spellman opens and closes the play with the prophetic words, “Time in Kafka is always broken. Every moment leads back to itself. Chronological and eternal,” Spellman’s, and supporting characters own experiences in the convoluted plot support the fact that life for Kafka is surreal and distorted, it doesn’t have to, and most likely won’t make sense.