Critical Distance

THEATRE OF PAINT: Derek Brueckner
June 20 – July 15, 2000

a response to the exhibition by Grant Guy

A few years ago, for the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, I presented a two part talk on the new theatre and performance art. The historical overview journeyed from Leonardo da Vinci to Robert Wilson and Ping Chong. At the end of the talk I solicited responses from the playwrights in attendance. One playwright quickly dismissed the six hour talk with the conclusive comment , “It’s not theatre. There is no drama.” His feeling seemed to be shared by many of the other playwrights. But for me, drama can be theatre, but theatre is not necessarily drama.

Perhaps because the talk was six hours; spread over two nights, the playwright had forgotten the initial parameters I established at the beginning. I was addressing many of the conventions of drama, and what defines those conventions. The parameters were not mine. One was put forward by Peter Brook in his pivotal book THE EMPTY SPACE. Brook wrote, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” The second parameter was presented by Richard Foreman. In his book, UNBALANCING ACTS: FOUNDATIONS FOR A THEATRE, Foreman wrote, “To make theatre, all you need is a defined space and things that enter and leave that space. You could even make a play without an actor. A jar could be thrown out into an empty space, and a minute later a stick from offstage could push that jar one inch forward. That would function as theatre.”

I came to Theatre of Paint as if it were an act of theatre. The paintings are just subtext to the spectacle.

Theatre of Paint had a haunting context for me to come into. Theatre is loaded with tradition and history, and, as a theatremaker, I could not help but see the past in the present. Theatre often, while projecting into the future, cradles the past in its arms, and, at some level, it was happening here with Theatre of Paint. How cognizant Brueckner is of it is merely conjecture? Although, in an Uptown preview (June 22, 2000) by Marnie Butvin, a connection is made between Theatre of Paint and ’60s performance. I see the roots of Theatre of Paint in the ’60s, but not to Klein, Manzoni or Schneeman. In their work there is a heightened theatricality akin to a Marx Brothers movie. In the ’60s, parallel to Klein and et al, there existed a theatre which aimed to give us an undiluted reality. Raw and real life was simply put on in an “empty space”. Groups, couples or individuals lived there lives in this space. Audiences came and went. But this theatre was any thing but realistic. There is no undiluted reality in any kind of theatrical presentation. It automatically becomes fiction by virtue of the staged act. Even the great realist Dostoevsky knew fiction could never match the fantasism of reality. So, this kind of “reality” theatre is ultimately artificial. And Theatre of Paint possesses all the theatrical artificiality of theatre. The empty space has been cluttered with all the artifacts of a studio. On the gallery walls paintings, many of which have the dark aura of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, have been carefully staged. The artifacts and paintings become the scenery. And there is the stage (empty space) itself. It was curious to watch the audience’s response to the empty space. Some broke down the fourth wall, while others observed the sanctity of the empty space, refusing to enter into, and observed the spectacle behind the safety of the fourth wall.

The paintings stapled to the wall tended to counterpoint the light-hearted atmosphere of the spectacle of Theatre of Paint. The light-hearted atmosphere is generated by the banter of Brueckner with the models and with his audience, and from the costume he has adopted, and a shaved and coloured (make-up) maple leaf on his chest. He has created a clown persona. From this persona, a comic gesture on the surface, there exists another theatre reference; a reference I am sure Brueckner is totally unaware of. The great nineteenth century clown Dan Rice used the circus ring to espouse reform causes; abolition of slavery and freedom from dogmatic religious thinking. For Brueckner the gesture seems to be act of national/cultural identity (the exhibition traversed the Canada Day long weekend).

The banter between Brueckner and the models and the audience become integral elements to the spectacle. It is primarily driven by the spectacle itself; self-referential. It becomes circular or cannibalistic. Here, besides the ad lib dialogue (improvisation) between the painter and model(s), again, another theatrical convention is employed; a theatre of audience participation. The degree of audience participation, the chance of success, depends on the exhibitionism of the audience. It is one of riskiest conventions. It can soar, but it can as easily crash dive into an abyss. Both these scenarios occurred during Theatre of Paint. An influencing introduction to Theatre of Paint, which stresses the theatrical artificiality, is the application live-feed video. The spectacle is monitored by three video cameras; one manipulated by a model, another attached to wrist of Brueckner’s painting hand, and a third capturing an overall point of view. The three points of view are evident on three separate monitors. The cameras offer multiple points of view of the spectacle. These are basically fixed points of view, in opposition to the audiences freedom to move about in the spectacle. They tend to dissect the spectacle, giving us postage stamp sampling of the details. It turns the theatrical artificiality one notch higher, piling on other levels of fiction making. For some of audience who visited Theatre of Paint the media elements do what they always do. As background noise they draw one’s focus. For these audience members their perception of the world is mediated by electronic information. This drawing of focus is abetted by the casual and relaxed atmosphere in the gallery. And it is easy, as with television generally, to be engaged with it while still being able to be in cursory contact with Brueckner and the models.

Other audience members partially or entirely ignored the evasive impact of the video and toured Theatre of Paint like any other gallery exhibit. At this juncture Theatre of Paint becomes a para-theatre event, and only become activated as theatre if the audience member elects to trigger the appropriate essentials for theatre to be engaged. At the level of para-theatre Theatre of Paint is permitted to reference to a parallel history; a history of visual arts.

A video record of Theatre of Paint is available, at any time during the run of the spectacle, for a viewer to watch what has occurred previously. Theatre of Paint is occurring in the past and present. Thus the video not only becomes a convention to register the theatrical artificiality of the spectacle, to alter or influence our perception, but it also becomes the documentation of the spectacle, for the viewer and Brueckner, and it cannot help but retrieve its own interpretation, effecting our supposition and Brueckner’s memories. It contains a narrative which runs parallel to the narrative of the spectacle. Is Theatre of Paint theatre? Permit me to amend Peter Brook’s near perfect criteria for what constitutes theatre: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man paints in this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

1. Peter Brook, The Empty Space, New York: Athenum, 1984 2. Richard Foreman, Unbalancing Acts:Foundations For A Theatre, New York: Pantheon books, 1992.

Grant Guy is a Winnipeg director, designer and puppeteer. He is the Artistic Director of the object / puppet-based theatre company Adhere and Deny