In “Ink: A Piece for Museums,’ which ran for two days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, the musician-storyteller duo of James and Jerome presented a combination art history lecture, concert and first-person monologue. The unusual mash-up wound up both entertaining and illuminating in unexpected ways.
Jerome Ellis presented the first of six sections, which began obliquely and haltingly as James Harrison Monaco accompanied him with an original composition on keyboard, and some dozen slides flashed by on the screen behind him of art work that he didn’t talk about. Instead, he told us that he received a fellowship to study samba in Brazil, but once there became interested in the art of ink-making. Only after explaining in some detail how he created ink from prune pits, did he reveal how central ink is to his life. “As a stutterer, I carry around a paper and ink” in case he has trouble communicating verbally. What initially seemed a desultory story had taken on force and focus, an art lecture becoming a meditation on his personal relationship to the written and spoken word, ink serving both as a practical bridge and a wide-ranging metaphor.
Ellis then described the way that ink had been used in a Polynesian bark cloth (Sash (Lafi), Gallery 353), whose creation was part of a ritual of art-making performed entirely by women, and then ended with this painting by Rembrandt, “Flora”
Asking us to consider: what plants make up this face? Was the pigment from a plum, or a walnut? The plants may have died long ago, “but their essence lives on” in the pigment in this painting — a way of looking at this painting (or any painting) that will stay with me.
In the second section, Monaco focused on the story behind this work of art, “Tughra (Insignia) of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent”
This was the Sultan’s signature, he explained, created by his personal calligrapher and his personal illuminator, both of them so accomplished that they could not be accurately imitated — which is why it was used as a signature. After pointing out some of the details in the painting, and telling stories about the Sultan, he segued to calligraphy in other artworks and illuminated manuscripts. We were shown a page from an illuminated manuscript that had only eight letters in it. The two together contemplated “Calligraphic Composition in Shape of a Peacock,” looking at it and discussing it, as one imagine they do in what they told us was their thrice-weekly visits to the Met.
In the last sections, Ellis picked up his saxophone and offered a different kind of insight into the art on the screen.
A total of 26 works of art were presented in “Ink.” A program handed out at the end listed all of them, and the galleries where they could be viewed (most of them in the galleries of Islamic art.) James and Jerome encouraged us to visit them.
The Met has experimented with such theatrical collaboration in the past, appointing The Civilians its first ever (and so far only) “theater in residence” in 2014-2015 (The Civilians Look at Love and Lust at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Way They Live: The Civilians Discover America At The Met) and offering an imaginative series of live performances it calls Season of MetLiveArts. There are also any number of well-known plays that deal with visual art and art history: Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” Yasmina Reza’s “Art”, Lee Hall’s “The Pitmen Painters” and John Logan’s “Red”come to mind. “Ink” suggests there is a rich world of collaboration still to be explored between theater and the visual arts.
Ink: A Piece for Museums
Written, composed and performed by Jerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco
Directed by Rachel Chavkin and Annie Tippe
Media design by Shawn Duan, lighting design by Jeanette Yew.