The Art of the Review
Part of February’s month-long celebration of A Grave Talent, the Edgar-winning first novel about SFPD Inspector Kate Martinelli that started a writing career.
One of the things I had fun with in writing A Grave Talent was crafting a series of reviews of the work of Eva Vaughn, the artist at the center of the story. It’s a specialized language, that of magazines like ARTnews and Art in America: puzzling, arrogant, and at times amusing (and not deliberately.) I also needed it to give insight to what she was doing—insights that my cop protagonist wouldn’t have noticed—and beyond that, to give a hint of what’s coming, both in the revelations about her past and in the plot as it unfurls.
Her images are classically simple: a man, a woman, some children, a kitchen. Landscape is background, allegorical in its overtones but secondary to the humans who dominate all her work. The figures are generally unposed, or informally so, and so intimately known as to embarrass the viewer.
Aside from that, it is difficult to reduce the Eva Vaughn style to mere description, even to say that she belongs to one school or another. The lesbian lovers of Quiet are caught in a shaft of light from a window, two fresh bodies pinned into the still, silent moment of a Vermeer,
a suspension of movement before life sweeps in again to animate and discomfit. Her farm laborers—Strawberry Fields, Three P.M., and Green Beans— rival Van Gogh for lumpen grittiness. The surface beauty (how seldom does a critic use that word in a review!) of Cas, Asleep could have come from Bouguereau’s brush,
and the voluptuous pleasure of the woman’s sprawl could be an early Renoir, but whence comes the vague sense of unease? Is there menace in the shadow that falls across the bed, or is it merely the drapes? Is that a man’s shoe in the corner, or the arm of a chair? Is the scarlet stain a part of the multicolored bed cover, or something more sinister? Is Cas actually asleep? Or does she lie there, murdered in her bed?
This is not an isolated fling of imagination in viewing Eva Vaughn’s work, for emotions are her forte, particularly the dark and disconcerting ones.
Dark and disconcerting, indeed.
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