note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
An artist’s creative process is difficult to evoke upon a stage and to evoke, well. Some arts are more accessible to theatrical shorthand: an Isadora Duncan would say, “Here, let me show you….” An Alfred Stieglitz would mime taking a picture, followed by a slide of his subject being flashed upon a screen. Writers and artists are not so lucky --- theirs are static arts, involving much sitting or standing at desk or easel (for drama’s sake, it helps if they be scandalous or mad); actors playing them often resort to doodling on paper or poking their brushes at canvases. How does one convey to an audience the agonies and triumphs of forging something in the soul’s furnace; that the resulting work is a composite of talent, sweat, inspiration and timing --- more importantly, that what an artist does is not a hobby but his livelihood; the very air that he breathes? (Many an artist has chosen to starve rather than take up a 9 to 5 --- understandable only to another artist.) If the artist is well-known, should his life be seen as an embodiment of what he creates or should his mortal flesh, doomed to dust, be separated from what will remain --- his art?
In bringing his VAN GOGH back to Gloucester’s West End Theatre, Joseph Kaknes --- an artist, himself --- meets this challenge simply and rather well. He presents Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) in his studio on the day before he shot himself, talking to the audience as art students (though he suspects they have also come to gawk at the legendary madman). Though billed as a one-man show, VAN GOGH has two characters, really: a medium-sized canvas stretched on a wooden frame waits, ready for battle (“Painting is more than work;” says this Van Gogh, “it’s combat with a canvas.”). Ninety minutes later, Van Gogh proves victorious: the canvas has been turned into a painting, right before the audience’s eyes --- and it’s a fascinating battle. Armed with brushes and paints, advancing and retreating as he paints (“View your work from a distance; that’s how it will be seen: from a distance, in a museum or a home”), Mr. Kaknes mixes autobiographical narrative with an artist’s insights: “Stop the processing of your eyes; learn to see the colors first, not the forms.” “Tanguy (a beloved paint dealer) was one of the fathers of modern art, without being an artist himself --- his paints will still be vibrant a hundred years from now, while students’ paints will have faded.” “When painting outdoors, learn to paint fast to keep up with the light.” Amazingly, none of Mr. Kaknes’ performance exists in script form; he carries it all, within --- to his credit, his monologue never rambles or turns repetitive.
Mr. Kaknes has been criticized for not being an actor. True, he has not dyed his salt-and-pepper the color of flame nor had an ear made up to be missing its lower third, and he wears his own paint-smeared street clothes. Nor does Mr, Kaknes choose to give a conventional performance; battling his canvas is his performance, causing him, paradoxically, to become “Van Gogh” --- an illusion is created, after all. “No actor can do what I’ve just done,” Mr. Kaknes told me, last year, after a performance, and he is still right: a trained actor might give this Van Gogh dozens of character strokes but lack the eye, the stance, the messiness --- let alone the craftsmanship --- that Mr. Kaknes brings to VAN GOGH. Even the flatness of Mr. Kaknes’ playing makes sense, stemming not only from his concentration but also from Van Gogh being a man misunderstood by family, friends and enemies and finally withdrawing into himself, leaving only a harsh wariness towards the outside world (as the song goes, “…this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you…”).
VAN GOGH takes place amidst the cozy clutter of the West End Theatre where Mr. Kaknes’ own lovely artwork lines the back wall --- and it all works. Last year, I asked Mr. Kaknes had he thought about letting another actor take a crack at his Van Gogh. “Not yet,” he replied. “I’m having too much fun with him” --- and he still is. Indeed, Mr. Kaknes makes painting look easy as well as fun --- but, then, only someone who is not an artist would make such a comment.
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