Being an arts writer can be a solitary, even isolating, occupation. We never get to deliver a good review in person and enjoy the subject's reaction. More importantly, when we write bad reviews, we're always stabbing someone in the back rather than delivering our daggers face-to-face. But this past Sunday, I got the rare opportunity to gather together with my fellow Central Florida critics and sling barbs at performance artist Brian Feldman, who celebrated 15 years of absurd antics by being metaphorically Brutused over brunch.
I'd spent the previous Saturday night stranded in the Birmingham airport, drowning my sorrows in oatmeal stout while waiting for my delayed flight home. So I staggered into the Glass Knife early the next afternoon jet-lagged and slightly hungover, which is the ideal state for publicly slamming someone.
Feldman, a former Orlando arts fixture turned D.C. semi-celebrity, has returned home to mark his decade and a half of head-scratching performance pieces with a series reprising his "greatest hits," and as part of it, invited me and four fellow reviewers to read aloud some of our sharpest past critiques in a work he called Knives Out.
I was curious whether one of Winter Park's most popular eateries would appreciate our entourage monopolizing a 12-top for two hours during their busiest mealtime, or how fellow brunchers would react to our rantings while trying to enjoy avocado toast. But despite the 15-minute delay (a Feldman family tradition) while Feldman's father, Edward, wrestled with the livestream, I managed to declaim all my notices and devour my BLT before the waitstaff booted us to the sidewalk.
Feldman began by graciously thanking his assembled assailants, saying, "Were you to write something terrible, I would love it. ... The most important thing is that something is said about these projects; otherwise they are lost to history." Our host/victim then explained his original intention to hold Knives Out inside the Randall Knife Museum on Orange Blossom Trail – home to over 7,000 blades – but said that plan fell apart because "unfortunately they didn't really understand the concept, which is not too much of a surprise considering that projects of mine get turned down due to confusion."
I've been reviewing Feldman in Orlando Weekly for nearly as long as he's been producing, and after publishing over 40 articles about him over a dozen years, I had plenty of material to choose from. The harshest thing I've ever written about him, which I happily delivered to his face in my best booming actor voice, was this barb about Brian Feldman's William Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"I swiftly progressed through the 'Five Stages of Feldman' – shock, wonder, bemusement, concern and hunger – as I realized the show was not actually a monologue, but rather an interactive battle of wills between the artist and his audience to see who would surrender first. Feldman felled me in this round; I was 'out, out' long before Lady Macbeth's damned spot."
But at the risk of sounding soft-hearted, I simply didn't have that many bad things to say. On the contrary, even at his most confounding, I've always found Feldman's creations compelling, if sometimes in a car-crash kind of way. My fellow critics apparently felt the same, since we all shared a fairly balanced spectrum of coverage, with most leaning toward the positive or at least neutral; at one point of another, almost all of us were reduced to simple book-report recountings of his inexplicable activities, since intellectual or aesthetic analysis often seemed impossible. However, my colleagues unearthed a bounty of blood-drawing quips about Feldman that made me laugh out loud:
— Al "Carl F. Gauze" Pergande for Ink 19: "Mr. Feldman excels at taking the mundane aspects of life and turning them into mini-spectacles that make you reconsider the deep, inner significance of brushing your teeth or filing your taxes. ... As I suspected, the audience was limited."
— Mark Baratelli for the Daily City: "Everything that could have gone wrong did. ... I was pissed that these folks chose not to put on a show as promised, but forced the audience to do their job for them. ... None of this was fun, funny, charming or memorable. It was painful, awkward and stupid."
— Thomas Thorspecken for Analog Artist Digital World: "A major source of inspiration [and] a nervous ball of energy."
— Elizabeth Maupin for the Orlando Sentinel (as interpreted by Marilyn Wattman-Feldman): "A good number of the folks in the house seemed distinctly underwhelmed. ... You can be bored to death by the Feldmans; you can be amused, or you can be both at once. ... Is it still performance art when what happens matters less to the audience than it does to the performers on the stage? Maybe that question will make it all worthwhile. And maybe it won't."
Feldman concludes his anniversary performance series with Fiddler on the Phone this Wednesday and Thursday, and The Feldman Dynamic at Stardust Video on Friday. After that? "Maybe we can do this again in another 15 years?" he asks.
It's a date!