Donald Munro

Pushing boundaries: Some art isn’t meant to soothe

Lindsay Tweed as Vanda Jordan and Robert Langarica as Thomas Novachek in the Fourth Wall Theatre Company production of ‘Venus in Fur.’
Lindsay Tweed as Vanda Jordan and Robert Langarica as Thomas Novachek in the Fourth Wall Theatre Company production of ‘Venus in Fur.’ Special to The Bee

I receive lots of emails from artists that have photos of their work attached.

I like clicking those emails open and letting my eyes wander through the visuals, almost as if I’m breezing through a gallery. Though styles and subject matter can vary greatly, from peaceful landscapes to brash abstracts, most of the time I find the act of eye-browsing to be an inherently calm one. It relaxes me.

Not when I receive an email from Jeannette L. Herrera.

I called this Lemoore artist “ferocious” last year when diving into a show of hers at Arte Américas that was by various turns rowdy, funny, violent, tender, explosive and passionate. Her paintings were a colorful stew stuffed with fantastical creatures, Peruvian imagery, religious icons, sexual gyrations, unabashed nudity, street culture and personal trauma.

Some might call those images adult. Or even offensive.

As I open Herrera’s latest email, which is pitching a new collaborative show of hers at Arte that opens Thursday, June 4, I make it a little game as I click on each image: Could we even run this one in the paper? (Um, that’s one, two, three, four bare breasts, though not exactly attached to a creature I can identify. Definitely no to the first.)

I like art that pushes boundaries. And though I realize there are plenty of people who don’t want to be pummeled when engaging with any art form — from visual arts to theater to music — I find it invigorating to be challenged. Or shocked.

So I thought I’d devote this column today to two unrelated current artistic events that are for the adventurous.

The Fourth Wall Theatre in Visalia is in the opening weekend of the David Ives comedy “Venus in Fur,” which took Broadway by storm a couple of years ago. It’s a two-person show about a young actress in the present day auditioning for a role in a play based on the novel “Venus in Furs,” which was written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom the term “masochism” is named.

The actress bursts in upon the director/playwright, who is lamenting that he can’t find anyone talented enough to play the woman character in his play, and cajoles her way into an audition. She’s not what he’s expecting. Thoroughly taking charge of the situation, she uses passages from the novel to rattle his image of his adaptation.

“In the meantime, they also dig into each other’s perceptions of relationships,” says Lindsay Tweed, who plays the role of Vanda. “It is a passionate, sexy and very smart comedy.”

Community theater in the central San Joaquin Valley is usually fairly tame in terms of subject matter. Director Jack Patiño of the Fourth Wall likes to shake things up a little.

“We want people to be mad, or angry, or be moved by our shows,” he says.

To him, the most important thing about “Venus in Fur” isn’t the subject matter but the way it’s presented. “This is witty. It’s intelligent writing. It’s theater as it should be written.”

When “Venus in Fur” was on Broadway, critics particularly praised the performance of Nina Arianda in the role of Vanda, with the New York Times calling hers “a bravura turn that burns so brightly you can almost feel the heat on your face.”

That chance to generate heat attracted Tweed to the role. She thinks there’s a place for that — and an audience — in local theater.

“The play is definitely risque,” she says. “It features a complicated topic, sadomasochism, that some viewers are squeamish about. From what I’ve seen with Visalia and other Valley cities, people aren’t afraid to test their opinions of things, and that’s great. For a lot of people, they may not have been given the opportunity to see something like this in this area.”

Herrera’s paintings aren’t quite so easy to classify in terms of where they fall on the objectionable scale as a play with a theme of S&M. There’s a brash, cheeky urgency to her work that suggests pushing emotional buttons, but there’s also a playful, cerebral tone that keeps you guessing.

“If someone is offended in my presence then I smile, offer my hand to shake and thank them for taking the time to see the art,” she says. “Better than a punch in the stomach, I suppose.”

For “Here Comes the Sun,” her new exhibition at Arte, Herrera is collaborating with three guest artists who are friends from the East Coast, where she’s originally from. (Hence the rising-sun reference of the title.)

In “Dream a Little Dream,” for example, Judith Peck painted a short-haired woman with black tank top and a tattoo on her arm staring at the viewer with what looks like an anxious expression. (There are no genitalia depicted, which makes it a rare image we can actually show you in the newspaper and online.)

Herrera added an extravagant thought balloon to the image, filled with half a dozen of the bizarre, colorful creatures that burble up from her imagination. (It’s like Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” meets a major dose of psychotropics.) To me, there’s something creepy-funny and charismatic about Herrera’s work. Here’s what my brain says when confronted with such art: Find out more about this person who looks at the world in such an interesting and singular way.

In a world filled with people trying to shock each other, the idea of a piece of theater or a painting rubbing someone the wrong way can seem a little quaint. Even defending edgy artists, as I’m doing, can itself be seen as a cliche. (They were saying that about people championing Marcel Duchamp in 1917.) Can art still jolt when every societal boundary has seemingly already been breached?

Sure it can. It’s all relative. If an artistic experience throws you for a wallop, consider it a gift. If it makes you think or look at the world in a different way, count it as a blessing. It keeps you from ossifying into a plant stand.

“Venus in Fur” and “Here Comes the Sun” might not even be a big deal for you. And that’s just fine, too.

“Sometimes I paint things out of the sheer entertainment value for my infantile sense of humor,” Herrera says. “I suppose it can translate as offensive but, you know, offensive is in the eye of the beholder. It’s like anything else in the world … You can’t make everyone happy.”

And that’s a very good thing.

Venus in Fur

Theater production

Here Comes the Sun

Art exhibition

  • Opens 5-8 p.m. Thursday, June 4, as part of ArtHop, the monthly open house of studios and galleries in the downtown and Tower District neighborhoods
  • Arte Américas, 1630 Van Ness Ave.
  • Free, (559) 266-2623