Tuesday, June 05, 2018

This Is Modern Art

As a reviewer, I get invited to dozens of shows each month, and it can be difficult to decide which to see. Sometimes the choice is almost random. I picked This Is Modern Art because (1) it was called “irresponsible” and “potentially damaging” by Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times, and (2) I wanted to see the new theatre space being used by "Next Door  at NYTW."

Clockwise from top left:
Andrew Gonzalez, Landon G. Woodson,
Nancy McArthur, Shakur Tolliver
Photo: Maria Baranova

I really lucked out on this one. This Is Modern Art is compelling, thought-provoking, sometimes funny, and often sweet. The writing (Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval) is subtle and smart; the direction (Jessica Burr) is creative and smooth; and the acting (J. Stephen Brantley,  Andrew Gonzalez, Ashley N. Hildreth, Nancy McArthur, Shakur Tolliver, and Landon G. Woodson) is excellent. I found it neither irresponsible or potentially damaging. In fact, I found it necessary and important.

Based on a true story, This Is Modern Art tells of three graffiti artists who, aware that their art is unlikely to ever be inside the Chicago Art Institute, decide to instead to paint a graffiti piece outside. As they make their plans, they discuss art (one loves Caravaggio; another is partial to Dali); theories of graffiti (Is "permission graffiti" really graffiti? Is graffiti on a canvas really graffiti?); and if there will ever be a place for them in the art world. The play also addresses race, cultural snobbishness, love, and friendship.

I guess Weiss found This Is Modern Art dangerous because it presents the graffiti artists as doing something significant and it treats graffiti as actual art. Weiss writes that the play ignores the fact that the graffiti piece is "vandalism" (her word). In truth, it doesn't, and the graffiti artists are completely aware that they are breaking the law.

I have mixed feelings about graffiti. I hate when people graffiti over existing murals and other art, because that's stepping on someone else's expression. And I hate when people put graffiti in places where, for example, small-business owners will have to pay to have it removed. (As a character in the play says to one of the graffiti artists, "But for every piece you create, no matter how vivid and bold, on the other side there is a victim.") I don't like when graffiti blocks a window or is apt to get on someone's clothing.

But graffiti on deserted buildings, in out-of-the-way places, and/or as a political statement can be beautiful. And art vs capitalism/property is an ever vital battle.

I love shows that depict artists making art, that show their process, their disagreements, their theories, and their practices. On that level, This Is Modern Art is fascinating and exciting. And their painting of the actual piece is beautifully depicted (no spray paint is used, so don't worry about any smell). I also love shows that give us complex, real people dealing with complex, real lives--and that do all of the above really, really well.

Simply put, this is a must-see.

According to the website, Next Door at NYTW "provides a home for companies and artists who are producing their own work. Meeting the artists where they are in their process, this initiative provides each project with subsidized resources and space for development and performance in the newly renovated Fourth Street Theatre."

This is a wonderful gift to theatre, and I'm grateful Next Door at NYTW has brought Blessed Unrest and their wonderful show to New York.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; first row)
Show-Score: 95

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