by Mark Van Proyen
Rather than spend five uncomfortable minutes sharing a cab with other Board members, I decided to get some air and walk the twelve short blocks to the party site. The evening air was brisk and turning uncomfortably cold, but I wanted some time to think about the retreat while arriving fashionably late to the party, which happened some 30 minutes after my departure from the hotel. My ruminations produced nothing coherent. Over and over, I kept asking myself, “What do I know about any of this?” Certainly, I had suspicions, but did I have any real reasons for them that were separate from the second-hand inferences that were planted by Vic and Kathy? Each of them had confessed to holding huge grindable axes insofar as Citadel Lyceum was concerned, so vengeful motives were coloring the situation. On the other hand, I was alarmed by the few facts that I was able to observe with my own eyes, the chief one being that plans were being made and that they were based on resolving fictional problems invented by manipulated data. Those doing the manipulating did not inspire trust or confidence.
The front of the large building had a tiny sign that read SFOC Properties Workshop, but as a doorman was standing near the door atop a red carpet, I knew that I had found the party. After the doorman checked my name against a list he held on a clipboard, I went inside in search of a place to check my coat. To my surprise, Kathy and another student were running the coat check area, both wearing prim white shirts under black vests complimented with matching unisex slacks. Handing Kathy my coat and scarf, I said “fancy meeting you here.”
“Yeah, I got a call from the catering company yesterday. Couldn’t turn down under-the-table-cash. You should look at what they did in the back.”
Kathy was referring to the long cavernous room beyond the black curtains surrounding the makeshift coat check area. At the far wall was a small stage with a DJ booth set upstage left, with tables and chairs arrayed around an empty area, no doubt intended as a dance floor. The long space between the DJ booth and the coat check area on either side there were six themed seating areas with small tables and chairs placed amid what appeared to be theatrical stage sets tricked out with props and scenic backdrops. One of these looked vaguely medieval, while another looked like the parlor of an aristocratic country house from the 19th century. Still, another sported the look of an extraterrestrial laboratory, while the one furthest from the dancing area evoked a pastoral setting, with a long park bench set in front of fake trees and a street sign that read Konrad’s Village Wood. Behind it was a scenic backdrop featuring the image of a large red farm building emblazoned with ornate cursive lettering proclaiming it to be Peterson’s Barn. Minus the painting of the barn, the landscape could have been easily mistaken for the one featured in Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting, if the famous figures of artist, patron and bound servant were airbrushed out of the image.
The large room was half-crowded, but no one was dancing. Many were gathered around or near the catering tables, balancing small piles of food on paper plates or grabbing plastic glasses filled with champagne from the trays being passed around by catering personnel. The DJ kept the music in a deep dub, down tempo range, and I noticed that the room’s lighting had been given some thoughtful consideration. Crossing spotlights illuminated the DJ booth and the flanking seating areas, but the carpeted dance floor in the center of the room was kept in partial darkness to make the ostentatious disco ball hanging above it all the more noticeable. I saw that Dean Alfred was standing next to Tom Lawrence, holding small plates of crudités and half-empty plastic champagne glasses. Nearby, Vic was chatting with Camilla Ruthvern, possibly making some kind of plan for an exhibition. Or maybe not: he could have been giving her a synopsis of the retreat that ended a little less than an hour earlier. I was struck by that fact that Tom, Dean Alfred and Camilla were present for the party, even though they were absent from the retreat. As was usually the case, it was at the party, rather than the meeting, where the real business would be transacted.
I was the first to see Theda enter the room, and as she passed through the black curtains near the front door, and our eyes briefly met from across the long divide. I had a decision to make: should I step forward and be among the first to greet her, or should I wait and tag along behind the others? I had no intention of allowing myself to get caught in any situation where Theda and I could speak privately, lest the whole escape-from-Zyklonarama episode become a topic of awkward conversation. But good fortune made procrastination my friend because in short order, Theda was recognized and greeted by a trio of board members whose job was to head-up a reception committee. Theda had taken the time to change into a more festive costume, which consisted of a half-length green cape accented by red piping, and knee-length brown boots. Atop her head rested an asymmetrical alpine cap of the same color, with an elongated bill that drooped forward over her forehead, putting much of her face in a sharp shadow that accentuated the sneering aspect of her everyday smile. Jutting backward from the rear of the green cap was a colorful peacock feather, which had to be artificial. There was something odd and lurid about Theda’s freshly applied make-up, which made her lips look a bright ghoulish red that contrasted with the rest of her unusually pale face.
As the musical tempo became slightly more upbeat, two couples moved to the dance area. Soon they were joined by a third and then a fourth couple, and then several more. Because I wanted to distance myself from the dancing area, I decided to join Dean Alfred and Tom Lawrence, who rather noticeably were refraining from joining the board members gathered around Theda. “So Tom, I hear that you are now sitting in the Dean’s chair. Congratulations!”
“Thank you. But I don’t officially start until July first. Alfred’s not out the door quite yet.”
Dean Alfred laughed and said, “Only because they won’t pay me to leave, and they do have to pay me until then, whether I stay or not. Were you at the board retreat?”
“I was. Can’t say that it was particularly edifying. There was some confusion about which version of the program assessment report we were supposed to use.”
Dean Alfred’s reacted to my pointed remark by saying, “No comment.” The tone of his voice was dry and bitter.
To avoid an awkward moment of silence, I went on to say, “Theda did bring up some good news at the end of the meeting. Apparently, we will be on the receiving end of over 6 million in philanthropic money added to the normal development harvest. I thought it was odd that she waited until the end to make the announcement. I guess she was looking for some kind of dramatic effect.”
Dean Alfred seemed relieved. “Well, at least that cat is out of the bag. Did she mention that the work on those bequests was underway for months before she was hired?”
“No, she took the credit. Didn’t say anything specific about strings attached to the bequests. Just that they were to be used for Institutional Development, whatever that means.”
“It means that we will be hiring a lot of consultants, that’s what it means. Institutional development means that you have to grease the people that you need to grease to make anything happen. That much said, I think that Theda wants to expand the graduate school by locating it into another building.”
As a way of keeping Dean Alfred from saying even more than he should, Tom laughed out loud. Then he adopted a theatrical voice to say, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Tom glanced over my shoulder and said, “See for yourself.”
I turned toward the dance floor to see something that made me want to tear out my eyes. Theda was dancing by herself in the center of a circle of mostly female board members, twirling about in a stiff and uncoordinated manner. She suddenly stopped to stare intently into the eyes of one of the women, who followed suit by returning the stare, looking like a hapless rodent frozen in the predatory gaze of a hungry cobra. Then Theda initiated an unusual dance move that looked as if she were pantomiming the vigorous opening and closing of an invisible gate affixed vertically to her forehead, lunging forward and recoiling to
the beat of the music. In her left hand, she brandished what looked like a codpiece, flailing it about like a limp wand. On cue, the woman frozen in Theda’s gaze starting hopping up and down on one leg and then the other, all the while flapping her elbows in the manner of a giddy chicken. Theda then pointed her gaze at another female board member and proceeded to repeat her gate-slamming dance move, garnering yet another imitation of excited poultry. Soon, some of the older male board members tossed off their jackets to join in. Within a few short minutes, there were well over a dozen board members jumping about in macabre, arm-flapping unison, with Theda twirling about in the center of their frenzied little cyclone. It was a scene worthy of Umberto Boccioni’s famous painting titled The City Rises, only much darker in tonality and comic overtone. I was also reminded of another image of dancers famously painted by Edvard Munch, which was even more to the point of the moment.
An understandable instinct for self-preservation prompted Tom and Dean Alfred to step away without excuse, and they did so abruptly. I began to feel light-headed and sick to my stomach, so I sought out one of the catering staff to request some water, then sat down to compose myself. I noticed that Vic and Camilla Ruthvern were chatting, while another group consisting of Pepo, Toby, and Photobitch sat at a table, examining some kind of document. Hobie was standing alone, looking as if he were waiting for a bus, with Tom eventually walking up to greet him during a welcome break in the music.
A minute later, the server returned with a water bottle and a crisply folded note from Kathy. Its looping script read, “Are you okay? Wait a couple of minutes and then walk back to the Barn area near coat check. Don’t call attention to yourself.” After a moment of rest, rehydration and self-composure, I did as Kathy’s note instructed, pretending to talk on my cell phone while drifting toward the coat check area. At the edge of my vision, I noticed that Dean Alfred had come to sit down on the bench in front of the signpost that read Konrad’s Village Wood. He was soon joined a former board president who, for many years, had been the most generous supporter of the school. Her name was Cecily Zachs, and despite being in her early eighties, she was still whip-smart. And then I noticed something else. Kathy was lurking behind the painted backdrop, positioned so she couldn’t be seen by the Uhl and Zachs dyad. Her hand clutched what looked to be a small directional microphone.
There was a round convex mirror located above the curtain leading to the outer door. Its function had something to do with keeping serving personnel from colliding while passing through the curtain. Continuing my pretense of cell phone chatter, I was able to position myself at an angle so that I could see Cecily, Dean Alfred and their eavesdropper reflected in the mirror. Cecily and Alfred’s body language told a story of an initial exchange of pleasantries that was soon followed with a lengthy point/counterpoint of accusation and avowal. Cecily was the more animated of the two and was not shy about using hand gestures to emphasize whatever case she was trying to make. There were several moments when Dean Alfred looked away from his interlocutor as if he were a shamed child, and twice he buried his face in his hands. After about 20 minutes, Cecily stood up and walked away in something of a huff, seeking out Theda, Hobie and some of the other board members who all moved toward her. The brisk indignation of her gait made it seem like she had made her intended point, and was planning to double down on it with an expanded audience. For a long moment, Dean Alfred sat alone on the bench, looking off into space.
While Kathy had abandoned her eavesdropper’s station, Dean Alfred finally stood and moved toward the door. I finished my pretend conversation and walked back toward the center of the party. But after I had covered some distance, I looked back to see Dean Alfred retrieve his overcoat and exit the party alone, with a complete absence of anything resembling ceremony.
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About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.