Chicago

Nancy Forest Brown

N.A.M.E. Gallery

In her performances, Nancy Forest Brown assumes any one of a number of fictional personae, developed to such a degree that they seem to have been granted autonomous existence. But Brown always goes farther than the simple presentation of these characters, framed by the artificial limits of the stage. She always constructs a larger context that includes the audience and that often forces that audience into a confrontation with the character. In the past, Brown’s performances took place in unlikely locations, both public and private, often without warning (although rumor continues to play an important role in Brown’s publicity). Ili Snap threw a party in an abandoned building; Bobbi Berwyn made an unannounced appearance at a crowded museum opening; and the Dermoid—a latex-masked, semiformed, nonverbal creature—arrived instead of the artist to participate in a panel discussion. More recently, however, Brown has chosen to perform at scheduled times in established venues, taking advantage of the heightened expectations of her audience, while continuing to grant each piece a kind of real-world use value as well.

In Brown’s latest performance, a character named Evelyn Gottwald, a wealthy collector described as having joined the board of directors of the N.A.M.E. Gallery, hosted a benefit for the same. Gottwald’s benefit was divided into three parts. First, Evelyn introduced herself, welcomed the audience (crowded into folding chairs on risers), and asked for donations to the fundraising campaign. Forms were circulated, time was allotted for writing checks, and real as well as phony chits made their way to the front of the room. (The benefit made a $55 dollar profit for the gallery, beyond the usual take at the door for performances.) In the second section she showed a videotape called “An Afternoon with Evelyn.” In her own home, surrounded by flowers and art, Evelyn told us—in a jaded, nasal voice—about her philanthropic interests and offered anecdotes about her personal life. Proceeding in her affably blasé way, somehow being both frank and hilariously affected, Evelyn made disclosures that became increasingly personal—extramarital affairs, breast implants—culminating in the drawn-out, drop-by-bloody-drop description of murdering her best friend with a double-headed axe. Remarkably, the story, adapted by collaborator/writer Cynde Schauper, was based on a true account. From Evelyn’s point of view, the whole affair seemed more of an unbelievable inconvenience than a cold-blooded murder, an attitude that was funny at first but frightening in its implications and in relation to the performance as a whole. Afterward, the audience was invited to drink champagne, eat delicacies from the luxurious spread that Evelyn had provided, and meet the hostess in person.

The performance cast philanthropic hypocrisy in a particularly raking light: even more cynically, it implicated the art world, in its disengagement, as a convenient shelter for the conscienceless. The exceptionally unsympathetic character of Evelyn came a little too close to relying on, and exploiting, certain stereotypes—the typical collector, the wealthy social-climbing volunteer. This reliance provoked a kind of crude recognition, and with it some laughs, but limited the complexity of the character and possible range of audience response. Other Brown characters have avoided such traps, calling forth compassion, or, at least, ambivalence, and creating a more interesting relationship to the audience. Here, Brown’s sophisticated play with many levels of the credible and the incredible was more compelling than the main character herself.

Laurie Palmer