Friday, March 28, 2008

Interview with the Artist Jamie Rauchman

Painting Cuba

The artist and documentarian James Rauchman, 55, has been doing a colossal series of work about gay life in Havana, Cuba. What began as the expression of a sexual obsession has grown into a major series of works in different forms - oil, watercolor, film - that embraces the kaleidoscopic contradictions of gay people's experiences in Cuba.

Born off Exit 10 on the turnpike in Metuchen, New Jersey, Rauchman received an MFA from Columbia in 1987. It was there where he met his partner of more than 20 years, the Barnard biologist Paul Hertz, with whom he lives in an art-filled apartment on the Upper West Side.

"We were introduced by a British gay rabbi," Rauchman said, obviously delighting in the transgressiveness.

Rauchman's work has been seen at Marian Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, at CRG Gallery in Chelsea, in the 2005 Havana Biennial, as well as in a special showing organized by the pop duo Ashford and Simpson at their Upper West Side restaurant Sugarbar.

His sensibility is defiantly gay, and sometimes graphic, but the work always maintains an intense sense of location and context that complicates a viewer's expectations about the figures depicted. His newest project, a documentary about the traditional Cuban religious holiday honoring Saint Lazarus, weaves a complex and moving portrait of a gay flower seller whose wares follow a torturous path to an altar.

Shortly before Fidel Castro's official retirement from the Cuban presidency, Rauchman paused from editing the new documentary to discuss his work.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What drew you to making art in Cuba?
JAMES RAUCHMAN: I went to Cuba for the first time in 1997, following Paul, who was working there with some Cuban scientists. I had recently had an exhibition of Riverside Park landscape paintings with the New York City Parks Department, which represented about three years' work. Suddenly I was feeling stuck and was thrashing around looking for some new subject matter, when Cuba came up and grabbed me by the neck. Cuba to me is like a mirror image of the United States - everything is reversed there in terms of official and even societal priorities and I find this utterly fascinating.

CM: How much of your Cuba work is about gay themes?
JR: I did a series of about 40 oil paintings detailing my ill-fated infatuation with a male hustler there. It helped me work out the feelings, so to speak. Since then I've done a series of watercolor portraits of all sorts of people, not gay-themed, and have made a couple of short documentary films that are about spiritual and economic issues in the society.

CM: What have you learned about gay life in Cuba?
JR: I've learned that, like everything else in Cuba, gay life is one big mass of contradictions. On the one hand, societal mores are about 40 years behind enlightened Western understanding of gay people - especially in the countryside. On the other hand, one night in Havana I was invited to a party at a public school where they were celebrating National Teacher's Day by presenting a lip-synching drag show for the pleasure of the local teachers and their children. Strange, but true.

CM: Is the role of art and artists different in a place where there is a dictator?
JR: Here are my biased oversimplifications: In Cuba there are official artists, and there are independent artists, and their roles are different from one another. The official artists do work that is Cuba-centric and nationalistic, and are promoted by the government in the official media, the only media there is. Meanwhile, the independent artists who have been university-trained along the lines of Western conceptualism, and are talented and clever, are scrambling for international exposure, just like artists everywhere.
The totalitarian Cuban cultural bureaucracy is very sophisticated in that they have figured out a way to allow, and even encourage, a kind of free artistic expression, including cultural, political critiques, among a certain segment of their artistic elite, which is available for export, but is not readily accessible at home. Thus they can keep a tight lid on their own population, while appearing to be more liberal than they are from abroad.

CM: Do Cuban gays think life will be better when Fidel Castro is dead?
JR: As I hear about it, there is already a lot of official support for gay people, through the agency of the daughter of Fidel's Castro's brother and [then] Acting President Raul Castro. She is known as an academic sexologist and has spoken out on TV for all sorts of LGBT rights. Too bad the average person has no civil rights to begin with. I think all Cubans in some way wish that that situation might change soon, at least when Fidel dies.

CM: A lot of your work is autobiographical in one way or another. Is it challenging to be in your work as well as creating it?
JR: On the one hand, I think that all artists use their lives as raw material in some way. I mean, what else do you have? But the specific challenge of representing myself, as an image, as a person, in a painting, comes out of a need, which I think some other gay people may share, to compensate for a sense of unreality I felt about myself when growing up. I think I have painted myself as a way of retrieving myself after having blocked myself out, or not accepting myself, for many years.

CM: You've been making documentaries about life in Cuba lately. What drew you to that form?
JR: I love what's going on with the art of documentary film these days. I realized when I was doing the series of paintings about my experiences with the hustler that it was sequenced like a story board for a film, and finally I realized I just had to pick up a camera and try to tell a real life story in that way, in that medium, in order to keep growing as an artist. It was especially exciting to have my first short documentary shown at last year's Woodstock Film Festival.

CM: Your partner Paul Hertz and you have a wonderful collection of contemporary art. When you look at what you and other artists are creating, how do you understand how art is changing now?
JR: Um, can I dodge that question? Paul and I collect what we like and we have reasons for liking what we like, but to try and explain those reasons is like trying to explain your whole life in one sentence. I don't understand how art is changing now, besides becoming more technological. I always thought that the best art was about something that doesn't change.

CM: If you could change something about your life as an artist, what would it be?
JR: Ah, good, now we're getting to the funny questions. Listen, it's been such a struggle getting to a state of basic, artistic self-acceptance, I wouldn't want to be seen being churlish, wishing for something as mediocre as material success. Next question!

CM: If you could have sex with a famous artist, living or dead, who would you pick and why?
JR: My kinky, inquisitive side wants to say Toulouse-Lautrec, but based on the pears and apples, I have to conclude that sex with Cezanne must have been very satisfying. But since you'd probably have to get both of those guys drunk to have sex with them, I'll just sprint ahead to Matthew Barney based on his looks, since he seems to be game for anything.

©GayCityNews 2008

Recent Backstage Reviews

Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew
March 24, 2008
By Christopher Murray

"Even if the show is not too hot, I don't care, I'm not coming back," says Jackie Mason in his new standup show at New World Stages, referring to this purportedly being his "final one-man comedy." Well, it's pretty lukewarm.

Mason is the last of the Mohicans of borsht-belt comics. At 71, he has honed his delivery and timing over decades. He can handle a heckler, spin a one-liner out of recent headlines (as he does with Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace), and he knows his audience. His right-of-center political comedy and retro ethnic-stereotyping gags went over well with the mostly over-50 crowd on the night I saw the show, but the whole thing had a tepid quality.

The son and grandson of rabbis and one himself in his young adulthood, Mason's comedy is in the Jewish tradition of puncturing an inflated ego and exposing hypocrisy. That's a wonderful basis for comedy, but Mason's delivery feels pretty rote in this new show. The two main topics of the two-hour evening are skewering the Democratic presidential candidates and riffing on the American obsession with status. In the second act, Mason pulls out some chestnuts with impersonations of his old boss Ed Sullivan as well as mid-century figures like Liberace, Alfred Hitchcock, and even newsmen Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.

While it's a pleasure to see someone do something he knows how to do superlatively well and also to gain appreciation for an old-school style of performance, Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew feels too much like overheated leftovers.

Presented by Jyll Rosenfeld, IAG, and Allen Spivack/Adam Spivak/Larry Magid
at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., NYC.
March 18–June 29. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (Additional performances Wed., March 26, April 9 and 23, and May 14, 2 p.m.)
(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or

Romeo and Juliet
March 17, 2008
By Christopher Murray

Theater Breaking Through Barriers (formerly Theater by the Blind) presents Shakespeare's tragedy of young lovers with just four actors and at a breakneck pace, the idea being to honor the uncut script as well as the purported original size of the troupes that performed the Bard's early works. It's an unfortunate and fatal miscalculation in the hands of director Ike Schambelan.

Played on a clean gray-blue set (designed by Bert Scott, who also did the lighting), the production presents the warring families of Verona as Boston Brahmins (the Montagues) and Southern aristocrats (the Capulets), their costuming (by Chloe Chapin) in shades of red and orange for the former and hues of blue for the latter.

Most of the rest of the play's characters are portrayed as members of various ethnic or cultural groups, including the disabled, but the accents used to indicate these identities are so broad and so bad as to be highly stereotypical. In fact, in the rush to clock the entire play in at two hours with no intermission, the four actors -- George Ashiotis, Gregg Mozgala, Nicholas Viselli, and Emily Young -- are reduced to dispensing with any sense of emotional reality and popping in and out of costume and character like wooden cuckoos out of clocks.

This is occasionally -- and absurdly -- played for laughs, as when Juliet in Friar Laurence's cell attempts to convince Paris, to whom she has been unwillingly betrothed, that she looks forward to their union. What should be a poignant scene of the young woman's foolish ploy becomes ridiculous because Emily Young has been cast as both Juliet and Paris. It's a particular shame, as Young provides flashes that she understands both the giddy excitement and feverish desperation of Juliet.

As Mercutio, also played by Young, asks, "What curious eye doth quote deformities?," this reviewer must ask, What director's eye doth deform this tragedy into low comedy?

Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers
at the Kirk Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC.
March 16-April 6. Wed. and Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 279-4200 or

Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!
March 14, 2008
By Christopher Murray

"Hey, do me a favor: Give me a vamp in F," says one character in Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! -- and with only that much pretext launches into another zippy song with fingers a-strumming. Such a casual yet enthusiastic spirit defines this slight but enjoyable new musical with book and lyrics by Uke Jackson (founder of New York Uke Fest, of which this show is this year's jewel in the crown) and music by Terry Waldo, best known for his scholarship about ragtime music.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a moment late in the 21st century when the pharmaceutical industry has taken over the world, outlawing sex, mandating pill popping (laughing out loud has become pathologized as LOL Syndrome), and limiting musical expression to something known as the Top Ten, gold-jacket-wearing performers who have won an American Idol-type contest.

Three antiestablishment ukulele players -- Max (John Forkner), Liz (Lindsay Foreman) and Julie (Meg Cavanaugh) -- self-proclaimed musical outlaws, have been meeting in secret to rehearse as a prelude for entering the contest, though they also meet just to enjoy the modest, kooky, nostalgic and charming obsession that is ukulele playing. When Pete, a mysterious stranger (Andrew Guilarte), offers to coach them for the contest, ambition and attraction threaten to foul things up until the harmonizing power of the ukulele sets things right again.

The show is replete with fun and upbeat choreography by Celia Rowlson-Hall -- featuring the elastic and enthusiastic dancer Dustin Flores -- and winsome and witty costumes by Susan Gittens. The songs, all in the New Orleans jazz mode, are short, optimistic, pleasantly forgettable, and come cascading one right after another. The performers play the broad, winking comedy appealingly, particularly John Forkner as a kind of uke sex symbol with his crown of curly hair and aren't-I-cute smile.

A fast 90 minutes, Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! charms with ease, rightly wearing its limited ambitions as a badge of honor: to provide a little musical entertainment in a troubled world.

Presented by and at Theater for the New City as part of New York Uke Fest 2008,
151 First Ave., NYC.
March 13-April 6. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or or

Brains and Puppets
March 03, 2008
By Christopher Murray

Brains and Puppets comprises two short plays by Edward Einhorn, The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Robot and A Taste of Blue, which evoke the experience of young people with the neurological conditions autism and synesthesia, respectively. Both plays are designed and directed by Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil, who each perform in one.

In The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Robot, a parable of self-acceptance, Weil plays a boy who grows up in a land of robots. His full name, Organic Unit #1, is shortened to Orgo. He struggles to understand his limitations in comparison to his efficient robot friends -- "He got very tired and had many malfunctions" -- and his lack of connection with other organic units. His habit of counting and listing and his mirthless bark of a laugh confuse his friend Lisa and her stepmother, but they ultimately help him find a dragon queen who holds the key to his greatest desire. Although the story is slight, the winsome puppets and gentle humor convey the importance of tolerating difference and the right of all people to define their own identity.

Tanya Khordoc uses dyed liquids on an opaque projector and a series of light boxes to create colorful images that approximate how a person with synesthesia -- a condition that causes a person to experience a blurring of sensory stimuli: "hearing" colors, "seeing" music -- experiences his or her world. A Taste of Blue is a first-person narrative of a girl who is powerfully aware that she encounters her environment very differently from those around her. A honking car horn, for example, is "a burst of brownness." While the monologue acknowledges the essential loneliness of difference, it also finds great beauty and solace in accepting one's unique perspective.

There were just a few children in the audience of Brains and Puppets at the performance I attended. It's highbrow stuff for kids, perhaps, but these lovingly created stories work magic in transforming seeming limitations into privileges.

Presented by Untitled Theater Company #61 and Evolve Company
at Walkerspace, 46 Walker St., NYC.
March 1-15. Sat., 6 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or

Our Country's Good
February 29, 2008
By Christopher Murray

Folding Chair Classical Theatre performs classic texts with a minimum of production values, choosing instead to focus on "story — plot and character — rather than on stagecraft," according to press materials. Its bracing revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, which is based on The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, therefore features a cast of 10 — most playing multiple roles — barefoot and in street clothes, with the only costume elements being military dress coats worn to designate those characters who are members of the Royal Navy or Marines. It's a "light up, lights down" design, with the set consisting merely of two benches, plus five wooden cubes holding the small number of carefully chosen props.

Our Country's Good concerns an officer in the penal colony at New South Wales who has been charged with directing a group of convicts transported to Australia in the late 18th century in a production of George's Farquhar's comedy The Recruiting Officer. Class, gender, and racial issues are exposed as rehearsals for the play within the play progress.

The pared-down scenic elements lend the flavor of a workshop or academic exercise to the production, which is belied by the commitment and acting chops of the company. It's difficult to single out any one actor, as the entire cast delivers with passion and intelligence in portraying the conflicts among the characters as they are transformed by — dare I say it — the magic of the theatre. Our Country's Good is all about the power of storytelling to show us to ourselves in new and novel ways, and Folding Chairs' production is a brisk and supple demonstration of this theme.

Although the team utilized a dialect coach, the multifarious accents are sometimes all over the place, and occasionally the performance style veers into acting with a capital A. Still, ample credit must go to director Marcus Geduld, also the company's artistic director, for eliciting such strong and moving performances.

Presented by Folding Chair Classical Theatre
at 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 W. 78th St., NYC.
Feb. 28-March 22. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (No matinee performances March 1, 2, 7, and 8.)
(212) 868-4444 or