Jean Smith talks about three series of paintings by Martin Lewis, a character in her unpublished novel The Black Dot Museum of Political Art.
The Black Dot Museum of Political Art
by Jean Smith
NADINE MacHILLTOP, the curator at a tiny political art museum, is fine-tuning a sound-based installation when MARTIN LEWIS barges in with a painting to submit to an upcoming exhibition. Nadine, frustrated by her inability to get rid of him, notices similarities between Martin and men she’s met through online dating, men she considers narcissists.
Nadine is impressed with Martin’s abstract expressionist landscape and intrigued by the inclusion of a red tent that seems to be an afterthought, a nod to political content. Nadine asks Martin about its significance and he elaborates on the Red Tent campaign, which, during the 2010 Olympics, educated visitors about Vancouver’s homeless. Nadine, in a bit of a pinch to fill her exhibition schedule, offers Martin a solo show on the spot.
Arriving at Martin’s Denman Island studio to select pieces for the show, Nadine finds hundreds of paintings referring to a proposed coal mine on nearby Vancouver Island. Like the red tent painting, the political references — front-end loaders filling dump trucks and toxic run-off flowing into the sea — have been added to completed paintings.
Nadine meets with Martin’s psychologist, DWIGHT SHERBURNE, who explains that Martin changed his paintings — traditional landscapes — to get the attention of a young political activist. Martin, his marriage crumbling, agreed to therapy, where he spoke candidly while painting abstract interpretations of the nine symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
Unable to make head nor tail of the paintings, Dwight is amazed by Nadine’s uncanny ability to match the nine symptoms of narcissism with individual paintings, paintings Martin had intended to remain confusing to Dwight. As a child, Nadine had honed methods to deduce when her father, a volatile artist prone to emotional outbursts, was about to inflict chaos on the family. Nadine understood abstract paintings as if they were written in plain English. To her, jazz was for joy, words were for joking around, and more complex emotions — depression, shame and anxiety — were dealt with in abstract art.
Dwight praises Nadine’s skillful interpretations, bolstering her confidence, and soon the two are joking about curing narcissism, a personality disorder widely regarded as untreatable, let alone curable. Dwight believes that if people understood more about narcissists, they would maintain appropriate emotional distance. Once the emotional landscapes of the paintings are revealed, Martin experiences a decrease in the power and superiority he needs.
Nadine and Dwight collaborate on a lecture for the opening of Martin’s exhibition at the Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Dwight is supposed to limit his commentary to Martin’s paintings specifically and narcissism in general, but as videos of their therapy sessions are projected on the museum’s wall, Dwight get excited about their discoveries and crosses the line. Patient confidentiality becomes an issue.
Nadine, having digressed into what sounds like a conspiracy theory about the CIA funding of abstract expressionism during the Cold War, is interrupted by the political activist Martin had been involved with. Nadine tries to assert that ignoring Martin is the best way to deal with him, but the young activist is there to confess that she used Martin’s paintings in a video that had profound results. Activists made a fake video about a supposedly-famous Canadian artist and his paintings about environmental devastation near a Vancouver Island shellfish company that exports oysters to Japan. They sent the video, with a Japanese voice-over, to TV stations in Japan and it went viral, pressuring the government to close the mine.
The audience turns to applaud Martin for his role in stopping the mine, but Nadine, wanting to get the lecture back on track, instructs them to react more appropriately, to ignore Martin. Empowered by his success as a political artist, Martin lashes out at Nadine and Dwight, accusing them of being narcissists.
At the event’s end, Nadine is fielding phone calls at the front desk — an invitation to present her ‘performance art piece’ at the Whitney Museum in New York, and calls from Japanese journalists wanting to interview Martin. Trying to control the situation, to protect people from Martin, Nadine tells the media that Martin is too busy to talk, and in fact he is. Audience members have surrounded Martin, congratulating him.