The Austin Chronicle

Full Gallop: Everything Is Beautiful

March 26, 1999, Arts

Zachary Scott Theatre Center,
Through April 11
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min

Photo from Full GallopNever heard of Diana Vreeland? Why, dahling, of course you have! Even if you don't know by name the eccentric, exuberant fashion guru, you see her legacy not only in the beauty-conscious pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue (two magazines she molded), but also in the drape, the fabric, and the attitude of fashion everywhere. Ann Ciccolella directs the Texas premiere of Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson's recent Broadway hit, which finds Vreeland at the nadir of her career, shunned by magazines and old friends, yet unwilling to quit. Vreeland is kin to those brave, elegant, iconoclastic divas like Coco Chanel, outspoken and self-confident, glamorous without fail, who toss about their manicured hands as if the rest of this world were just so much blah. And making a tour de force performance in this one-woman show, Karen Kuykendall is a marvel -- relishing the deep first drag of a cigarette, draped across her chaise lounge, tossing out hilarious quip after quip, even lost in her own fragile memories of childhood and her first husband, who died of cancer. Kuykendall portrays a lioness of a woman, who can't bear wallowing in the inevitable pain of life when there are amusing anecdotes about Hitler to tell, who can't allow herself to drown in loneliness when she has the companionship of a gin and tonic. She has a fierce and enviable spirit in the face of what could be crushing defeat. Why shouldn't she? After all: "Reality is a world as you feel it to be, as you wish it to be, as you wish it into being."

She is the kind of jubilant, world-be-damned Auntie Mame character audiences champion, who oozes life! laughter! beauty! at every graceful turn. And Kuykendall, charming and lovely in her own right, makes the character difficult not to embrace. Yet there is something unsettling about Diana Vreeland, and about the play's insistence that she is indeed a woman to be cherished. Swathed in eerily unnatural geisha girl makeup, Vreeland is emblematic of the kind of desperate beauties who insist upon making fashion, style, and elegance the very stuff of existence, and in doing so, seem to miss out on so much. Her children have fled the nest, and her only true companion is the French maid whom she bullies and eventually borrows money from to try to put together an elaborate dinner she can't afford. Cocooned in her luxurious, romantic apartment, she can shield herself against the reality of her plight: She has been fired as editor-in-chief of Vogue; she is broke; the love of her life is dead; her sons are distant and drifting further. And while this admittedly might break the will of a weaker person, Hampton and Wilson's script seems to suggest it is her ability to distract herself, to deny the dire reality of the situation which allows her to continue in the face of terrible circumstances -- and to continue "full gallop!" as it were. Eventually, Vreeland stoops to conquer, taking a job many might consider beneath her in order to crawl out of her debt, and in doing so, her character is given some redemption. But there is very little self-awareness gained about the deeper sadness that persists in Vreeland's life, and she seems, at the end, just the same sad woman covering it all up with false bravado, affectations, and a fantastic wardrobe.

Diana Vreeland, like so many literary characters, is a flawed hero, inspirational in her perserverance and sympathetic in her emotionaldeficits, but it is difficult to believe, as the notes in the program claim, that Vreeland found beauty everywhere, when her words point to quite the opposite: Her strong advocation of face lifts and her frequent use of composite shots of models, in which the best body parts of different women ("I always used Cyd Charisse's legs") were patched together, indicate that, in fact, the world she saw around her was woefully inadequate. And if it is true that Vreeland is partly responsible for the modern world of taped-up, silicone-injected beauties of magazine glossies, then her legacy is, at best, dubious.

Ultimately, the question is: What we can learn from this woman? Or, more directly, why are we watching this? As a vehicle for the divine Ms. Kuykendall, it certainly works. Kuykendall simply commands the stage, her slight frame just sparkling with radiance, leaving us spellbound. It is also the case that Vreeland's story is worthy of being told and that her legacy deserves some respect. But in glossing over the full complications of that legacy, Full Gallop stays at half-trot. --Sarah Hepola


Eeka Beeka Gallery,
through April 3

Photo of Steve Brudniak with one of his works.If you've never seen Steve Brudniak's hard boiled science projects turned sculptures, then imagine for a moment that you're in the scene from Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston stumbles into the New York Underground. No wait, make that a scene from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Okay, forget it -- the scene is a combination of the two. Wherever you are, the place is wrecked. Science experiments with embalmed baby octopi hang from the wall. Robotic tubes, leather straps, and test tubes with bright green fluid litter the floor. Suddenly, among the lost but not forgotten debris, you spy a rectangular steel cabinet riveted to a brick wall. As you get closer, you see a tiny metal door surrounded by heavy steel and old hardwood. The thing is rusted and old but somehow immaculately beautiful, like a thing that has been finely crafted to preserve a precious object. You open the door and find a glass window containing a reddish brown liquid next to a plate screwed into the metal and an engraving etched in acid that says, Blood of a Mentor: Cultivator of Humility and Benevolence, AD 1998. Welcome to Brudniak's subterranean lab and his latest series of found object sculptures: the "Blood Reliquaries."

Yes, blood. Needless to say, finding these materials was a bit more of an endeavor than just rifling through the local junkyard. Aside from pieces of pot-bellied stoves and an old weighing scale from the 1940s, Brudniak's sculptures -- or reliquaries -- include the blood from five of his closest friends and mentors who influenced his life's growth. Hence the titleBlood of a Mentor. To get the blood, the artist had the help of two doctors who drew samples from the individuals. Brudniak kept the tubes in his freezer until the sculptures were finished, at which time he mixed the blood with formaldehyde to preserve it and injected the mixture into the glass casings with a hypodermic needle. From what he told me, this was not an altogether easy task, and he often found himself and the walls of his workshop covered in blood. I can only imagine stumbling onto that scene ....

Anyway, the result of this painstaking attention to detail is a collection of remarkable constructions. The blood simply adds a conceptual tone to the work and one that came to the artist's mind when he stumbled across a book from the Middle Ages about the Christian practice of preserving the bone and flesh relics of their Saints. These relics, which also include the blood of the artist, are what Brudniak calls "my own saints." By themselves, the sculptures are richly textured and beautifully crafted mixtures of woodwork and metalwork. Many times the metal was found, cut, and rusted with a muriatic acid solution, and Brudniak added decorative screws and panels to the work to make it look old. Blood of a Mentor: Cultivator of Optimism and Humor, AD 1998 and Blood of a Mentor: Cultivator of Courage and Self Esteem, AD 1998 even employ dirty tile that the artist cracked and chipped to give it the feel of a chilly morgue or, in Brudniak's words, "the feel of the water therapy room in a mental hospital." Certainly, this is not the work of someone looking to get attention with a gimmick, but rather the work of a talented craftsman with visionary insights.

Unfortunately, "Blood Reliquaries" will only be up at the ever-nomadic Eeka Beeka Gallery for another week. Fortunately, however, they're planning a closing party on April 3 at the Holy 8 Ball Studios on East Seventh that will include a documentary film by resident moving picture artist Luke Savisky about the making of "Blood Reliquaries." It should, shall we say, get your blood flowing. --Sam Martin

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