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, is aware of similarities between Martin and men she’s met through online dating, men she considers narcissists.
Martin’s painting clearly doesn’t belong in a graphic design exhibition, but Nadine is impressed with his abstract expressionist landscape, and she’s intrigued by the inclusion of a red tent that seems to be an afterthought, a gesture towards 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 homelessness population. Nadine, in a bit of a pinch to fill her exhibition schedule, offers Martin a solo show on very short notice.
Arriving at Martin’s Denman Island studio to select pieces for the show, Nadine is overwhelmed by the number of paintings that refer to a proposed coal mine on nearby Vancouver Island. As with the red tent painting, the political references – front-end loaders filling dump trucks and toxic run-off flowing into the sea – were obviously added after the paintings were complete.
Nadine meets with Martin’s psychologist, DWIGHT SHERBURNE, and learns that Martin changed his life’s work – traditional landscape paintings – to get more attention from a young political activist with whom he was having an affair. Martin, his behavior dovetailing with narcissist personality disorder, agreed to therapy where he spoke candidly only while painting abstract interpretations of the nine symptoms of the disorder. To Dwight, the meaning of the paintings wasn’t important. For Martin, self-expression was significant to his well-being.
Nadine casually matches the symptoms on the list with the individual paintings. Dwight is amazed by her uncanny ability, a skill she honed as a child, to deduce when the next emotional storm would surround her family. Her volatile parents were painters who embedded emotional worlds into their art work. Nadine, as a child, assumed everyone could understand the language of abstraction as easily as she could, as if it was written in plain English. To her, jazz was for joy, yelling was for anger, and more complex emotions – depression, shame and anxiety – were best dealt with in abstract paintings.
Nadine and Dwight collaborate on a lecture to stream live from the exhibition’s opening. It’s supposed to be limited to Martin’s paintings specifically and narcissism in general, but as videos of therapy session interactions are projected on the museum’s wall, Dwight entangles the personal and the professional, and patient confidentiality becomes an issue.
Nadine, close to revealing the cure for narcissism, has digressed into stories about the CIA funding of abstract expressionism, when the political activist Martin had been involved with speaks with news that Martin’s paintings have been used in a video that has halted the coal mine on Vancouver Island. The mine would have been environmentally disastrous to a nearby shellfish company that exports oysters to Japan. The activists made a fake video about a supposedly-famous Canadian painter, the evils of coal mining and the fate of oysters. They sent the video, with a Japanese voice-over, to TV stations in Japan and it went viral, generating pressure to prevent the mine from opening.
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. She informs them that the cure for narcissism is in ignoring the narcissist. Martin, empowered by his new found celebrity and success as a political artist, lashes out at Nadine and Dwight, accusing them of being the narcissists.
By 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. Nadine, believing it is her job to protect people from Martin, tells the media that Martin is too busy to talk to them, and in fact he is. Audience members have surrounded Martin wanting to congratulate him.