“What’s a Jackson Pollock?”: The New Rep’s “Bakersfield Mist”

by Bryce Lambert on March 12, 2012

What is art and what is not? I don’t know, and neither does Stephen Sachs, author of Bakersfield Mist (now at the New Rep’s blackbox). Sachs skirts that popular question often posed by art educators and most plots about art (from Lust for Life to Exit Through the Gift Shop), instead shifting to the far more practical question, “What is a Pollock?” Well, the question is actually, “Is this unsigned drip painting without any provenance a Pollock?”

Bakersfield Mist is kind of a slapstick parody of the art (authentication) world, with dramatic underpinnings in the fairy tale created by our hyper-inflated and very misunderstood art market; that you just might find a masterpiece at a yard sale. It’s the same fantasy that Antiques Roadshow and any number of reality shows about people who buy abandoned storage units plug into. And so enter our characters; Maude (Paula Langton), a coarse, out-of-work bartender, a drip painting of ambiguous provenance Maude found on one of her frequent thrift store shopping sprees, and Lionel (Ken Cheeseman), a stodgy yet somewhat disgraced art expert assigned to authenticate it in Maude’s trailer. Lionel has just come in by private jet at the behest of an “art foundation” that’s alluded to like “the Agency” is in some Hollywood movies–with that fictional gloss of near-infinite resources and competence.

Hijinks ensue as the play chugs along at a very contrived pace (I thought Maude was running a well plotted con on Lionel more than once), with Maude’s straight-talkin’ whisky-drinkin’ personality rubbing up against Lionel’s cartoonish snobbery. Jiyoun Chang’s set is a masterpiece of kitsch, where Maude’s bookshelves have nearly succumbed to the weight of her thrift store and junk pile knick-knacks. But the rest of the production fails to achieve much of the realism (or exaggerated realism) that could have make this play biting and engaging. It’s the details that kill it; Lionel’s frumpy suit and old fashioned brief case; Maude and Lionel cringing like college freshman after shots of Johnnie Walker. More importantly, the play lacks the kind of insider knowledge of the art world and its blabber that would have made play cleverly funny. Instead, we get Lionel’s authentication kung fu…and Sachs even dredges up that YouTube video of Joshua Bell playing in the subway as an example of what happens when you take great art off its pedestal.

new rep bakersfield mist

Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

But to reiterate, Bakersfield Mist isn’t really about art. When Maude finally unveils her drip painting to Lionel (and us), we know immediately that it’s not a Pollock. But nobody is telling her to burn the thing. If she wants to hang it next to her clown paintings, all the power to her. Nor is it about seeing a woman who has had a pretty tough run finally get a break–because the 75 million her painting would fetch if it were a Pollock is too much to be a break. We can’t cheer her on any more than we could identify with a character’s struggle to win the lottery. And strangely enough, it’s not really about the money for Maude either. It turns out she has a substantial offer on it already. And she didn’t do all that trash picking and thrift store shopping to turn a profit–digging up vintage toys and collectible prints. Maude didn’t even know who Jackson Pollock was until she looked him up after the local art teacher saw the painting and told her it could be a Pollock.

What Maude wants is to be the unlikely owner of a genuine, certified Jackson Pollock. As if achieving that one stroke of extraordinarily, international-headline-worthy luck could wipe away all the bad stuff life has brought her away. Trouble is, this premise just isn’t that interesting and I probably would’ve have had a little more fun if Maude was conning Lionel or if the painting was an actual forgery, and not the work of a bad local artist. Sachs’ play dances around the question of “who can gauge the authenticity of an art object?” Well, I suppose nobody really can if the work is unsigned and lacks provenance. Anyway, that’s a superficial question concerned not with art, but with the art market.

Bakersfield Mist reminds one of Orson Welles’ playful, but mediocre, F for Fake and, more importantly, Pollock Matters, the small 2007 show at Boston College of some then recently discovered drip paintings. Like Bakersfield Mist, the exhibition asked viewers “are these Pollocks?” Collectors who pay millions for a Picasso are buying its provenance as well. A painting with a reliable (or even just a more interesting) provenance fetches a better price at market than a painting with a questionable one. So the question asked by the show at BC struck me as irrelevant. And unfortunately, that question becomes even more irrelevant when wrapped in Bakersfield Mist‘s hammy comi-drama. At BC, there was interesting scholarship behind the show and I wish Sachs had at least brought (even mockingly) some of that language and debate into his play.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, the play is adapted from actual events documented in Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, which I have not seen. Of course, the controversy has been reduced for the stage and the real life Teri Horton has been significantly re-written into Maude.

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