Curious Beautiful

at the Neo-Futurarium, through October 21

By Justin Hayford

The plainly dressed subject of Jan Vermeer’s A Girl Asleep, painted sometime in the late 1650s, sits at a table, her head resting on her hand, her eyes cast downward. She may be sleeping, inebriated, or simply despondent: her expression is unreadable. Only one thing is certain: she’s been painted into a corner. The table at which she’s collapsed nearly fills the tiny, shadowy room–the tablecloth has been scrunched into an awkward pile at its front edge, as though the picture plane were crowding it. Wedged into the cramped space between the table and the back wall, this unfortunate woman is held captive by Vermeer’s composition.

One of the nine rooms in Rachel Claff and Connor Kalista’s Vermeer-inspired environmental piece Curious Beautiful is devoted to this painting. The room is appropriately cramped–there’s hardly enough room for three people to stand in it. Slumped behind a small table draped with an elaborately patterned cloth is a smartly dressed woman who sighs heavily. Her dreams–some serene, some disturbed–are scrawled in chalk across every inch of wall space, as though silent, relentless, psychotic voices were pressing upon her. But where Vermeer gives the viewer a safe sense of distance from the private moment he paints, Claff and Kalista offer no such refuge. To experience this woman’s ordeal you must intrude upon it, standing inches from a person who clearly wants nothing more than to be left alone. Here it’s the viewer, not the composition, that holds her captive.

This disquieting collision between private reverie and public display is one of a hundred ingenious manipulations of Vermeer’s iconography in Curious Beautiful. Like Mary Zimmerman in her recent Eleven Rooms of Proust, Claff and Kalista send the audience through a series of installation-performances that don’t simply duplicate an artist’s work but explores its mood, tone, dynamics, and ideas. Both pieces traffic in ambiguity: Zimmerman packed her event with the kind of enigmatic, dancerly gestures characteristic of her work. But her ultimate aim was to offer clear, unambiguous readings from Remembrance of Things Past: often her performers’ actions literally illustrated Proust’s texts. For Claff and Kalista, on the other hand, ambiguity reigns supreme.

But then a straightforward reading of Vermeer seems almost impossible despite his subjects’ everyday tasks. What, after all, is really going on in A Girl Asleep? A second room visible just beyond a half-open door–the room from which she might have come–is empty and featureless. She came from nowhere, it seems. We know from an x-radiograph of the painting that Vermeer originally included a dog in the doorway and a gentleman in the back room; had he left them in, the painting would have suggested that the woman sought momentary solace from the demands of domestic life. But Vermeer painted these figures out. As art historian Lawrence Gowing writes, Vermeer is “a poetic illustrator of the subtlest and least expressible meanings of human aspect.”

So, too, are Claff and Kalista, exploiting the disquieting, seductive indeterminacy of Vermeer’s insular paintings, in which the same people and objects appear again and again in the same corner of the same room. Each chamber in Curious Beautiful bears a title, written in gold paint on the wall, taken from one of Vermeer’s paintings (with the exception of the room called “The Allegory of Painting,” whose title approximates Vermeer’s late work Allegory of Faith). The performers–all women except Kalista–wear simple clothing of no particular period that usually suggests the maidservants in Vermeer’s paintings, while Kalista dashes around all evening in an incongruous pin-striped suit. Some of the performers are stationary and others move around. In each room they engage in mundane, ritualized tasks–sewing lace, working a jigsaw puzzle, inventorying objects, preparing bread and cheese, arranging fruit on a table–echoing the closed, domestic scenes Vermeer captured.

At times the action corresponds almost exactly to one of Vermeer’s canvases; whenever a woman takes up her post at a sewing table in the room “Mistresses and Maids,” she hunches over her work like the figure in The Lacemaker. At other times the action suggests multiple sources: in “The Allegory of Painting,” Kalista teams up with a woman to arrange and rearrange household objects found in a dozen Vermeer canvases, occasionally pulling back a tiny theatrical curtain similar to the trompe l’oeil curtain Vermeer includes in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Rarely, the iconography is modern; in one tiny room, the walls are covered with Rolodex cards on which “how to” phrases have been typed (“How to be healthy in a hot climate,” “How to avoid a midair collision,” “How to retire prosperously and gracefully”) while the presumed source of those cards, an old manual typewriter, sits mummified under brightly colored yarn. Now and then a woman sits before the typewriter and knits a little.

Despite the superficial tranquility of each room and the women’s silent, dignified manner, Curious Beautiful is deeply disquieting. Like many of the women in Vermeer’s paintings–crouched over their writing desks, held hostage in chairs by imposing men–these performers seem ready to burst: it seems the boredom of captivity has driven them to the brink of madness. Occasionally they look a passing spectator in the eye, as if “in appeal to be released from the oppressive charade,” to use Gowing’s words. Sometimes they’ll even slip viewers handwritten notes. I received two: “To me, it seems as if I’m asking too much. What about what we wanted?” and “Tonight is cancelled. I can’t go through with this.”

These mostly nonverbal interactions with spectators may be warm or skittish, but the performers avoid one another’s gazes at all costs. Perhaps they’re humiliated by their menial tasks. Perhaps they fear what will happen to their feigned peacefulness if they begin to really see one another. Whatever, everyone in this crowd of servants seems desperately alone, reduced to passing a furtively scribbled note now and then, never waiting for any assurance that the recipient has the slightest comprehension of the message.

Curious Beautiful is that rare environmental performance lacking in pretense. Though the performers may seem on the brink of exploding, nothing is forced, and the spectator never feels put on the spot even when sitting inches away from all the studied inaction. From its conception to its design to its articulation, this event has been thought through in every detail; no element seems incongruous or extraneous. And however meticulous, the piece never feels overwhelming, in part because audience members are encouraged to move at their own pace. To one spectator a room may be worth a half hour–and to another nothing but a passing glance. Open-ended and accessible, the evening’s images never have to be unpacked. Instead of layers of cryptic symbolism we’re offered only a world, and the more open you are to it–the more personal associations you bring to it–the richer your experience will be.

Claff and Kalista wrap the whole affair in a comforting silence that invites meditation, making ambiguity enticing. And the piece requires no knowledge of Vermeer’s work: captivating on its own mysterious terms, this world needn’t be decoded. Like the best of Vermeer’s canvases, Curious Beautiful is self-contained, clearly articulated, and intensely private.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tim Carlson.