Friday, April 4, 2014

'Human Fruit Bowl': Fascinating Excursion Into The Nature of Art Through The Eyes Of A Nude Life Model

Harmony Stempel in 'Human Fruit Bowl'
Photo by Brittany Brett

Audiences at a play are always voyeurs. But it’s generally a “safe” kind of voyeurism, an artifice that keeps us behind an invisible but impenetrable barrier that stands between theatergoers and the unfolding events onstage.

In this, we are complicit with the playwright and the performers. Those on both sides of the barrier know the rules—so bring on the angst and family dysfunction, the blood and gore, the bodies in every state of dress and undress. 

But how might our experience change if the person standing before us were completely aware of our presence?  And nude?

That is the just one of the intriguing ideas to wrap your head around while attending a performance of Human Fruit Bowl, a smart and compelling one-person play written by Andrea Kuchlewska in collaboration with its star Harmony Stempel.

Human Fruit Bowl, now on view at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is an award-winning monologue (2013 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award, among others). It contains no angst, dysfunction, blood, or gore. But, as it happens, Ms. Stempel spends the entire 60-minute production alternately wearing a bathrobe, draped in a towel, or completely nude. 

Here I will hasten to add that only an exceptionally immature pre-pubescent child would find anything at all prurient about any of this. The character Ms. Stempel portrays is a life model in an art class—inspired by the actor’s experiences doing just such work. 

Before entering the theater, we are offered sketch paper and pencils and are invited to draw the subject. In a way, this seems to be just a gimmick to pull us into the play, but a display of completed work from previous attendees is posted outside the doors, startling us by crossing the line between what goes on in the theater and the outside world. 

For me, however, it was a sneeze that obliterated the fourth wall. Somewhere around the mid-point of the play, a man sitting to my left let out a sneeze, and it was Ms. Stempel herself who shattered the barrier with a simple “bless you.”  

That “bless you” made all the difference in the world as to how I watched the rest of the performance. Suddenly, I understood that the physical discomfort of holding a pose for 20 minutes at a time (with five-minute breaks in between) was as real for the actress as it was for the character. 

And I listened more intently to the monologue, which turned the entire performance into a shared experience, a lesson in the physical demands of modeling, and—as it happens—a most engaging series of mini-lessons on art, supported with a slide show of the kind that is ubiquitous to art history classes everywhere in the world. 

So, what would you think about if you were standing around posing in the nude for a group of art students? 

In the beginning, you might do as Ms. Stempel does, make to-do lists: 
                        Farmers’ market
                        Pick up dry cleaning
                        Get extra set of keys made

You might also think about everything that is involved in posing, especially how to meet the challenge of maintaining your position without moving a muscle (you’re allowed to blink and breathe, but that’s it) for extended periods of time. Try it. It’s not so easy.

But if, like Ms. Stempel’s character, you start to pay attention to your surroundings, you might begin to consider the connection between the “animus of the subject and the experience of the painter,” and how each influences the other in the creation of a work of art. You might, in your off hours, take in the art on exhibit at the Met. Or you might become interested in the real-life connections between artist’s model and artist, specifically the mystery surrounding the suicide of RenĂ©e Monchaty, a model for and lover of the artist Pierre Bonnard. 

All of these become fodder for Human Fruit Bowl, which grows increasingly layered and complex as it goes along. By the end, when Ms. Stempel sits quietly during one of her breaks from posing and we see the slides of every work of art she has talked to us about (including one of her painted by Samuel Wade Levy), we find ourselves as fascinated as she.

And we come to realize that this young woman, who took on the modeling job as a way to pay the bills, has led us through an hour-long exploration into the nature of art and the interplay between artist and subject.  

This collaboration among the playwright, the performer, and director Jessi D. Hill has produced a truly unique work that will get you thinking about every model who has ever posed for a drawing or painting. Take that thought with you the next time you go to the Met. 

As I end, let me mention that, totally coincidental to my visit to Human Fruit Bowl, Harvard University Press recently published a book I co-authored, a memoir of a woman who posed for artist Man Ray while living in Paris prior to the outbreak of World War II. A photo of her portrait is on the cover of the book, titled American Cocktail:  A “Colored Girl” in the World. In working on the book, I never gave the portrait much thought—other than to recognize that it would make a great cover.  I’ll not look on that with the same eyes again, either. 

Human Fruit Bowl is on view at Baruch Performing Arts Center until April 11. Catch it while you can.

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