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Of vacuums and pain, blood sausage and Piero

I have a headache.

An abstract headache.

A vacuum in my head causes the pain.

The vacuum replaces the ideas and standards sucked out during a visit to an art gallery in Santa Fe.

I should have known it would happen.

It’s Santa Fe.

Santa Fe: where an adobe roller coaster would complete the theme park.

Santa Fe: where visitors weighted down with atrocious turquoise jewelry waddle here and there, clinking and clanging, in search of third-rate “Indian” and Western art.

Not that the entire City Different experience is loathsome.

I’m in Santa Fe with Kathy to experience the finest thing the city offers — opera — performed at one of the most spectacular venues anywhere.

We arrive at Santa Fe in time to book into an overpriced hotel (i.e. any hotel in Santa Fe); we make a trip to a favorite restaurant (food — the other fine experience in Santa Fe) and enjoy a meal prior to making our way to the opera site. We sit at a table in the courtyard at Santacafe and take it easy, minding we don’t overeat before the performance (well, maybe not).

Kathy enjoys halibut, the fish perfectly cooked, bedded on Israeli couscous, with a citrus beurre blanc. I opt for seared scallops, served atop a mound of fresh tomato fettuccine, with a leek cream sauce. The scallops are caramelized, sweet, the interiors shimmering. The sauce is kissed with garlic, the dice of white leek tender, a shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano lending the dish a salty grace note.

With a light, French white, it’s perfect.

As is the opera: Rossini’s bel canto masterpiece, “La Donna del Lago.” Some of the most spectacular choral work to be heard, in particular the male chorus. The principals are wonderful; it is the final performance in the run and the cast is in top form.

I imagine for a moment that I am civilized.

It’s a shame we didn’t get in the car and drive back to Siberia With a View immediately after the performance.

The next day … the sucking sound, the vacuum. The pain.

I should have heeded Kathy’s warning when I said I wanted to visit several galleries.

“Bad idea, Karl. You know what happens. You know you’re going to get more and more upset and, finally, you’ll blow a gasket. Why don’t we go to Target, instead?”

But, no.

There are several contemporary art galleries on my list whenever we make it to The City Different: a few located on the art midway known as Canyon Road, and several in the Railyard District. I can’t help myself — I have to go. I am like an otherwise well-adjusted gentleman of a certain age who is periodically compelled to visit a dominatrix, there to be humiliated and reduced to a sniveling, childish wreck.

The trek begins on a pleasant note: I see some work by a friend, Cecil, at a stop on Canyon Road. We have a nice chat with the matron.

Then, things roll downhill … quickly.

Here’s the problem: The world of contemporary art is a canary in a coal mine, signaling the presence of all manner of lethal nonsense that soon rolls over other cultural terrain like a pyroclastic flow of hot poop. It is a world peopled in the main by retailers, talentless academics and their curatorial minions — less-than-sensitive crypto-esthetes prone to catch whatever disease is current, intent on spreading the malady, at a price, to gullible patrons. It has become a “business,”  a world aflutter with “artist statements” fortifying efforts that, absent the poorly written missives, cannot stand alone, worthy of sustained attention.

The ordinary galleriste and “curator” is a shill for a show without substance, a car lot employee hustling to the curb to boost another sale, a fawning, money-driven sycophant serving an emperor with no clothes.

And what do they sell? Certainly nothing they relate to in any but a commercial way.

Oh, there’s plenty of work available for the decorator: highly varnished, beautifully colored abstract works — the lovely but empty spawn of a dilute coupling of abstract expressionism and color field painting. Lush surfaces, a few childlike scribbles here and there. Good enough for a Dallas “loft.”

And there are the art brut knockoffs — snarling dogs cast in garish colors. Young? Got money? This is for you.

I weaken as I expose myself to the crud, then comes the knockout blow, and the vacuum. The pain is born in a paradigm of all that is wrong with contemporary art as we enter the wrong door and a gallery matron approaches. “We are opening a new show tonight in the back building. The artist has used the geometry of the paintings of Piero della Francesca as the inspiration for a new series. You must see it; it is a tour de force.”

The warning siren sounds, but I ignore it. We wander to the back building.

There is a young man working there to install the exhibition. He has the correct, earnest air of the art truckler: “I just got my MFA, I am working on my MFA, I hope to get into an MFA program soon.” His hair is appropriately shaggy, his beard just so. He tapes an 8×10 sheet of paper in place in a grid of similar sheets, steps back, ponders the grid, chin on fist. A thinker, he.

Each sheet of paper in the grid bears a photocopied image of a Piero della Francesca painting. I have seen several of the master’s works in Italy, at the Frick in New York City, in London. I have long been partial to his portraits.

On each photocopied image, the “artist” has drawn straight lines connecting various elements in the composition. Obviously, the “artist” is asserting this is the geometric skeleton the master used to create the image. Piero was, indeed,  a noted mathematician and geometer, but …

MFA Boy continues his noble task and I turn to look at the paintings.

They are small — acrylic on wood. Each massive wall space in the gallery contains one painting.

The paintings are hard-edge abstractions — simplistic constructions painted for the most part in primary colors, with the colors clumsily juxtaposed. Taken alone, the paintings look like third-place prize winners in a junior high school art contest.

Had you stood next to me, you would have heard complicated ideas being roughly dissembled then sucked forcibly from my head.

I begin to feel the pain.

I look at Kathy. Her brow is furrowed. The expression on her face says, “No, Karl … don’t.”

But, I do.

I stroll over to MFA Boy. He is taping up yet another photocopy with lines drawn between select elements in a painting: triangles, cubes, an arc. Brilliant! It must be brilliant … the artist is Japanese! And a woman!

“Tell me,” I say, “do you buy into this crap?”

He turns to me, his mouth falls open. It’s as if I clobbered his noggin with a ball peen hammer.

“What?”

“Do you buy into this crap, this conceit? Do you really give credence to the notion that there’s a valid relation between Piero della Francesca and the junk on the walls, or are you just playing along to get a summer job?”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “junk.” After all, the artist is Japanese (living in Germany), and a woman!

I might as well have asked if he wanted to be castrated with a pair of hot pliers. He is first shocked then grievously offended. As any self-respecting MFA recipient/student should be.

“Well, of course,” he says contemptuously, making a sweeping gesture toward the grid of sheets taped to the wall. “It’s obvious she was deeply inspired by the work. It is her source point.”

“She drew lines on a photocopy and wants us to believe there is some significance to it,” I reply. “Perhaps the significance her paintings lack. The paintings are atrocious and the conceit is used to divert attention from that fact. She’s like a leech attaching itself to a host’s body, sucking out just enough plasma to remain viable.”

MFA Boy is troubled; blood rushes to his cheeks. “It is deeply meaningful. The connection is physical, it’s spiritual. It is a matter of inspiration, a connection across time, a …”

“A bunch of crap to excuse poor art?”

I’m sure MFA Boy has never been in a fistfight, but he is preparing for his first, against a chubby, gap-toothed old man.

Kathy tugs on my sleeve. “I’m thirsty. Really thirsty. We need to find some water.” She pulls me out the door, leaving an aesthetically bruised and ruffled MFA Boy behind, roll of tape in one hand, photocopy of The Resurrection in the other. He grits his teeth and trembles as we depart.

My head hurts.

Artists make objects — the word understood in the broadest possible manner. If the object alone cannot elicit sustained engagement, it is weak. If the object needs a written explanation, it is incomplete. If the object requires a conceit, it is inadequate.

Weak equals leak equals vacuum equals headache.

Only food can ease the pain.

Our favorite Spanish restaurant will do the trick, though it is 3:30 by the time we arrive.

We are happy.

Why?

It is “Happy Hour.” Half price tapas, special sangrias.

We re-energize with blood orange sangrias and several tapas: a trio of schmears (red pepper-almond romesco, a carrot-garbanzo hummus, and a raisin and spinach spread) served with warm flatbread triangles; a chicken skewer, pincho de pollo, swimming in harissa, with a side cylinder of avocado, tomato, cucumber relish; and a remarkable custard — morcilla en flan de azafran. The saffron custard envelops strips of sauteed red pepper and fried sage and is baked with several slices of morcilla fanned across the top. It is topped with a hillock of aioli before it is brought to the table.

Morcilla is a sausage made with pork blood, onion, garlic, spices (often anise and cumin) and a filler — usually rice.

I neglect to tell Kathy we are eating blood sausage. She raves about the treat, cleaning the last of the custard from the dish, joyfully nibbling her share of the morcilla.

Then, I tell her.

To her credit, she bears up quite well.

That night, to continue the healing, we eat more tapas at another Spanish restaurant, including two orders of patatas bravas, as we sit at the bar and listen to a muscular jazz pianist and his bassist partner.

But, the pain does not go away.

The problem: I cannot get away from the idiotic paintings, the fool’s conceit, the death of cultivated, critical taste and the triumph of the MFA and business in the arts. The pain lingers as we return to Siberia With a View.

More food is in order if I am to heal completely.

I’ll prepare my version of pan-seared scallops on fettuccine, with a leek cream sauce.

I’ll purchase scallops at the market. They will be treated with whatever muck the mongers use to keep scallops “fresh,” so searing them properly, even when they are dry, will be difficult. So it goes in Siberia With a View.

I ponder making fresh pasta and reject the idea. Too much work. I’ll purchase a pack of “fresh” pasta at the market.

What else?

A leek, with substantial white.

Garlic.

Heavy cream.

A wedge of Parmesan.

A splash of dry white wine.

Chopped, fresh parsley.

Salt, pepper.

Olive oil.

Butter.

That’s it.

And, it’s quick.

Water salted and on to boil.

Dice white part of leek, making sure it is very clean.

Mince and mush a clove of garlic.

Cook leek in extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat until tender.

Add garlic, cook for a minute or two. Do not brown the garlic.

Turn heat up and deglaze with splash of white wine. Reduce until wine is nearly gone. Add cream and turn heat to medium. Reduce until thick. Turn heat to lowest possible temp. Season. Add a knob of butter, incorporate.

Pop pasta in water, cook for a couple minutes, until the pasta is just this side of al dente. Drain. Put in pan with sauce and coat. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce.

Heat heavy skillet over medium high flame. Add a touch of oil, a bit of butter. As the butter browns, pop in seasoned scallops, keeping distance between. Turn after two minutes, sear two minutes on other side. Too much time on the heat produces tragic results.

Mound pasta in bowl. Place scallops on perimeter. Slosh spoonful or two of sauce over pasta, throw on a smattering of parsley and a shaving or five of the cheese.

Eat. Perhaps with a simple green salad and some crusty bread.

Now, if the pain returns …

Morcilla, anyone?

Made with the blood of a “curator.”

This story was posted on August 22, 2013.