THE PROSCENIUM

By Paul Henrickson, © 2007
tm. © 2007

At the start I should explain my purpose in selecting the word “PROSCENIUM” as the title for this essay, It has to do with the purpose of the proscenium as both an actual and mostly a symbolic device to divide space, specifically, the space between an audience at some performance material and the performers. This was done, perhaps, consistent with the theory that the theatrical message could be better, more objectively understood if there were a clearly defined separation between performers and audience. Initially, this device was thought to be a requirement for good theater and any performer who broke that psychological division and confronted the audience directly was considered to have acted improperly. To do so violated the rule that the audience participation in a theatrical event was limited to being passive. Infrequently, there might be some actor who feeling the urge to “show off” would “play to the gallery” as the expression was, that is, to the poorer folk who occupied the highest, most remote areas of the theatre. and whose theatrical education was limited to the vulgar. Occasionally, a play write, even Shakespeare, might write in speeches or comments which were intended only for the audience and the fellow actors were thought not to know what was said, and there have been presentations when the proscenium was so thoroughly destroyed by the actors who left the stage and confronted the audience directly. There was a performance of the Marat Sade in which this occurred and I found it so unexpected that I immediately constructed a defensive (psychological) shield against the assault. The experience gave me an insight into the reasons for not allowing a breach of the proscenium. It also has a bearing on the matter of the effect of illusion (realism) and that of imposed conceptual order. On yet an other level it is the, perhaps symbiotic, relationship between experimentation and adventure on the one hand and integration and assimilation on the other, the systolic dystolic alternating activities that characterize creative behavior, including that of an audience. The principle of the proscenium applies, as well, to the production of both paintings and sculpture and so what, in effect, I am doing is borrowing a theatrical concept and using it to illustrate similar relationships which exist between the viewer and other art forms. The “D” (below) row of illustrations showing is the highly developed realism of Imperial Rome offer us a very impressive and excellent example of acute observation on the part of the artist both in regard to the matter of physiognomy and body structure on the one hand as well as subtle, but convincing, indications of the character of the person portrayed. In this last quality the artist has, I believe, been remarkably successful. Of course I have had no direct contact with the model since two millennia separate us, but I

have had contact with the type, as type is often exhibited in attitude…we call it body language. Now that brings in another matter relative to what we call aesthetic sensibility…the role that life experience plays in one’s ability to understand the aesthetic message. It is this constellation of influences which are the properties of the observing individual which come into direct contact with a similar collection of qualities adhering to and determining the behavior of the producer. The character of the artisan who produced the portrait of Augustus I would suspect would be different from the character of the artist, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, who did the “Woman” or the artist, Andrew Wyeth, who introduces us to “Helga”. In these instances, it seems to me, we experience the interjection of both the personality and attitude of the artist between us and his portrayal of the sitter. In the Roman work we experience an excellent description of the personality’s physical presence, perhaps devoid of editorial comment. In the modern pieces we are not uninfluenced by the artistic propaganda offered us about the subjects.

Albright: “Woman”

Wyeth: “Helga”

SHIFTING FOCUS
Rows A and B show us the work of what the subjects themselves tell us is more a product of choicy trial and error than training. In other words they describe themselves as being self taught. Vincent Younis during the short time I knew him was a prisoner in the New Mexico state prison system. His mother introduced us and I met her in the waiting room of the Santa Fe prison where I had gone to visit someone I knew who had fallen into difficulties. Ultimately Angelina Delgado Martinez, Vincent’s mother through an earlier marriage introduced me not only to Vincent but members of her second family as well, and their problems.

Like most mothers I have known they are very fond of their sons and praise them to the world. After the system moved Vincent to the State prison and he had soon organized a staff of prisoners who published a collective autobiography entitled ”The Revolving Door” he asked me to come to speak to the prisoners about my psychological work and while I was there he showed me some of his art work His work, as the reader can see, is very dependent upon mechanical devices similar to those available to architectural and landscape draughtsmen. I would guess from this that Vincent was not at all secure in drawing without these crutches. This insecurity, however, did not keep him from devising images within the limits of those parameters and more than crippling arthritis kept Matisse from planning out his later works. There is, it often seems, a driving determination among man kind to make images. Some make images with their left foot and others, quadriplegics do so by holding a pencil in their mouths. From that point on any artist is very much on his own and what is offered to the public gets a public response. One of the many of (250 galleries in a town with a population of 50,000) the local Santa Fe gallery directors acceded to the exhibition of prison art at one point and were generous, as well, in hosting the personal appearances of a half dozen prison artists. I found the juxtaposition of the free and the contained societies a bit awkward and my. abilities as an art critic severely restricted in the over abundance of crowns of thorns, tears of blood and distraught female figures and there was some internal battle between the part that was the art critic and part that was the psychoanalyst. When I saw Vincent’s work, however, it was refreshing on the subject matter score by the evident “open joy” his work showed and the frankness his attitude expressed regarding his dependence on the prepared mechanical support mentioned above not unlike those who are dependent on a walker to get around. He was not going to allow his lack of training to inhibit his expressiveness. That attitude was also shared by other prison artists, the only difference seeming to be the difference between Iberian gloom (most of the other prisoners were Hispanic) and near eastern (Lebanese) playfulness, Vincent’s father was Lebanese, his mother, Hispanic, so he was what is popularly known as “coyote”. Level “B” which shows three examples of Billybob Beamer’s self-taught approach reveals a very different attitude toward the function of the drawing surface, the paper. While Younis never gives the observer any indication that the paper was anything but there to be drawn upon, Beamer, almost invariably tells us that the paper is something to be made a part of the drawn environment. The integrity of the paper in Beamer , as a flat plane, is almost always destroyed and the observer is invited to sink into the illusion of a faerie tale, a misty medieval romance of occult symbols, reality obscured by fog and a certain late October uncertainty regarding the boundaries of life and death. Younis is confrontational while Beamer is seductive.

A
Vincent Younis: 3 works

B
Billybob Beamer: 3 works

C
Constantin Brancusi: three works

D
Roman: Augustus portrait of a man

E Henry Moore: three works As for levels C, (Constantine Brancusi), and E, (Henry Moore), both sculptors encourage us, the observer, to walk through the proscenium from the audience side and into the realm of the work itself. While those worlds are very different they do share that one quality of more direct involvement on the part of the observer in the life of the work itself than do the Imperial Roman portraits which, in that regard, are a little standoffish. Extending this critical observation somewhat further in to the work of Richard Serra which, rather like the invitation of the spider to the fly, encourages us to bodily enter the physical environment of the work so that, in a sense, the observer partakes in the event somewhat in the same way he does while on a roller coaster, but in a much subtler fashion…very much more gentle.

In rows C, D, and E, where we have examples from Imperial Rome, Constantine Brancusi and Henry Moore. An additional observation about Brancusi needs to

be made. There is a bit of standoffishness about Brancusi as well but it has been accomplished not by the aloofness of the subject, as in the Roman portraits, but in the systematic reduction in visual detail from the real world into a body of near geometric form referenceing, perhaps, an ideal world.