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Installation view, Elmgreen & Dragset: The Nervous System, November 10 – December 18, 2021, Pace Gallery, New York © Elmgreen & Dragset


Commedia dell'arte

By Michelle Canales Butcher

The man enjoyed the sound of his own voice.

“Domingo. I told you about how I was a champion junior tennis player, right?” He gestured at the caregiver guiding his wheelchair. “Push me over by the fireplace now, will you?”

Niall Crincoli pulled his shoulders back, chest out. Chest always puffed out (like a creature that went Bok-a-bok-a-bokbok with the sun’s morning ascension). He smoothed out the prominent colic (colic?) cowlick just north of his widow’s peak in an almost donnish manner. “Such a beautimous boy,” his grandmother had said while petting his afroperm during the high holidays of the early 1970s. Did she mean beauteous? Who the hell knew what she meant? She died not long after. A brain tumor, the doctors said, that caused irreversible damage to the left frontal lobe where speech and shit coordinate.

It explains why they found her belly-up in her bathrobe early one autumnal morning protesting out in front of the Wawa on Main. Found her offering a fwee calla to the hundwif hoagie as patrons entered and exited the joint, burned cawffee in hand.

Months later, Niall found her back in front of that Wawa. He watched as she frothed and walloped there on the ground. He watched as the paramedics ripped open her blouse so that her bare breasts flopped out right there in front of the whole world as they tried to resuscitate her. Didn’t anyone have a tarp? That’s what he had meant to say as he stood there frozen. Nobody even took off a coat for her. Not even him.

Domingo watched as Niall’s mouth rolled vowel sounds at the end of his words replacing the r’s. He loved that old-school Bronx accent. He had learned how to speak English by watching Scorsese films with his elderly landlord. Can you imagine that? He, an illiterate mojado, watched some broads get slapped around by Robert De Niro in a gorgeous black and white shot. The cutting of scenes, between violence in the ring and then in the home, a most notable nod to Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, or so it seemed to him. Though Joe Pesci was hardly an elegant, selfless, first wave feminist in the flick; he was no Alain Delon.

“Remember when men were men,” Landlord Teresa had said as she drew from her lit cigarette and released to a sequence of wet coughs. “When they wanted us, they would take us into them. They would have us right there on the carpet and threaten to rough up any man who smiled our way.”

After she spat into her ashtray, she would pause the VCR and mutter something about how the fuhgeddaboudits were ruining the neighborhood. She’d resume the tape just as De Niro called Pesci a fuhgeddaboudit, and then rendered the other dick-swinging loudmouths around him fuhgeddaboudits. Cut to: De Niro, scenes later, wrapped around Pesci in remorse who he’s kissed deeply, repeatedly, near the mouth without any hint of irony.

That sort-of-switching of codes in the Italian American argot didn’t bother Domingo. He loved how one word could communicate both affection and insult. There was something both deeply homophobic and homoerotic about the rich culture. Despite its many problems, it made him feel less empty. Less exposed. It made him paint, oscura, abstract seascapes inspired by the Stoic principle of pneuma. That initial, corporeal breath. That first longing.

When Domingo had moved to the States, the absence of his wife and daughter—the way he imagined her walking around their dilapidated apartment in Durango, with her tiny pink backpack, collecting things (stones, flowers, rotten lemons)—perforated every edge of him. Now, he had his surrogate brethren on the screen every week—they struggled and talked their macho talk—following a Sunday dinner by Landlord Teresa’s less arthritic hand.

But Niall—the way he spoke—Domingo found deeply sad. He stood behind the old man who peered out beyond the great bay windows. His back to the fireplace. As Niall stared down at the carpet beneath him, black and lush, his body slumped forward—his chest concave and bare before his bulbous belly.

To Domingo it seemed that Niall drew tallies on the carpet below. Mentally cataloging each day his family failed to visit him. But maybe he considered his inheritance—the amorphous thing of fatty cells that was slowly rendering him infantile. Maybe he thought of his grandmother—the only woman he, a closeted gay man, ever really loved.

Niall picked his head up to catch Domingo’s forearm in the reflection of the bay windows followed by the faint sound of “nock.” He had mimed an impressive serve and now waited for Niall’s forehand to return the ball over to his side of the court. Niall gestured into the window. Nock. And the two of them rallied back and forth like the pantomime revelers at the end of that Antonioni film where the photographer puts down his camera, resigns his role as spectator, to finally participate in the art.

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  • Essays — Commedia dell'arte, by Michelle Canales Butcher, Dec 16, 2021