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The Art of nothing
SCAD performs a comedy about friendship and perceptions
Max Reinhardsen, Jacob Mondell and Daniel Molina star in SCAD Performing Arts' production of the Tony Award-winning comedy "Art"

It makes me physically ill that my best friend has bought a white painting.

  - Marc, a character in Art

Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. Except when they are.

Don’t bother trying to figure out which character has right on his side in the genteel tug of war that is Yasmina Reza’s Art, the story of three Frenchmen whose long friendship is threatened when one of them buys, at great cost, a painting that is completely white from one edge of the canvas to the other.

Serge is the dermatologist and art collector in question, who can’t understand why his good friend Marc, an architect, is so violently offended by his purchase. Emotional Yvan — even more emotional than usual due to his impending wedding — is caught in the middle.

While the all–white canvas is the physical and titular center of the Tony Award–winning comedy, the real story, of course, is what happens to a friendship when one friend undergoes an unexpected change.

In what would seem like a perfect fit, an art school is performing Art. SCAD’s Performing Arts Department puts on the play this weekend at the Arnold Hall Auditorium. A panel discussion delving into the artistic questions the play poses will happen after the conclusion of the matinee performance Sunday, Oct. 24.

We spoke to director Vivian Majkowski, as well as SCAD painting professor Todd Schroeder, who will lead the panel discussion.

Why is an art school putting on Art?

Vivian Majkowski: It’s a wonderful way to bring in new students to the theatre, because the title alone is going to draw people in. One of the things we discussed was that with a play titled Art most people probably will assume they will know what the play is about!

Of course the play is more about friendship than about art. How have you addressed that with your cast?

Vivian Majkowski: We form friendships based on collective experiences through art or TV or film. We have these shared experiences, especially when we’re young and forming new connections. We’re really exploring how the painting is affecting the friendship — not just because it’s modern art but because someone has chosen a divergent path for their lives.

It’s important too, because as a college I don’t have older actors who have 30 or 40 years experience under their belts! We’re looking at it from where we are. I’m taking these young men and asking them about where they are in their friendships now, those groupings around common likes. We’re having a wonderful time being close to that jumping point, which brings an interesting perspective to the play. 

Where does the eponymous white painting fit into all this?

Vivian Majkowski: One of the things we looked at was Rauschenberg’s white series, where the whole point is that the canvas is never empty. That was another great jumping point for me. If you see the canvas as empty, when you see colors on the canvas, what does that say about you and your perception of who you are and your perception of other people in your life?  So very often we walk around knowing our friends because of how they reflect us. Now here’s a painting asking the same question: How do I reflect you?

Todd, you’ll lead the panel discussion. In the play the white painting is by a fictional artist named Antrios. As far as you can tell, is it based on the work of any particular real-life artist?

Todd Schroeder: It’s more of an amalgamation. For some reason when I first saw the play, I thought it did point directly at Robert Ryman.

Historically there are a lot of ways that people arrived at things that could be called the all–white canvas, for various reasons. There’s the reductivist end-game idea that was built upon by Clement Greenberg and some of the people we talk about as being minimalists from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Kazimir Malevich reached it much earlier with the white–on–white square, for much different reasons.

A few years prior to what we think about as minimalism, Robert Rauschenberg made all–white canvasses. But that had more to do with the reaction to abstract impressionism and the notion that abstract impressionism was something coming from inside out and tapping into the subconscious. Rauschenberg came up with the idea of the all–white canvas as this thing that reflects its surroundings directly. It was a much more conceptual piece.

Decades ago an all–white canvas might be considered shocking, but I have to think the concept is totally passe today.

Todd Schroeder: You could say that someone starting to work today as an artist and arriving at an all-white canvas would be trite! Malevich’s idea of the white–on–white presentation as being a piece of art at that time was shocking, but after that it wasn’t exactly shocking.

In a general cultural sense people attach elitism to fine art, especially to modernism, where it becomes such a highly specialized language that the general population looks at it as pretentious. In some ways this kind of art can be the butt of many jokes.

In our panel discussion, I wouldn’t want to say that what we’re after is some kind of art appreciation, but an idea perhaps of understanding. I’m often trying to convey to students a more full understanding of the pursuit.

Art by Yasmina Reza

When: Thursday, Oct. 21–Saturday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m., with a matinee Sat. Oct 23 and Sun., Oct. 24 at 2 p.m.

Where: Arnold Hall Auditorium, 1810 Bull St.

Cost: $15 general, $10 seniors, military and students, $5 with SCAD ID, free with SCAD ID Thursday, Oct. 21 only.