Thursday, March 24, 2016

Standing in the Shoes of Velasquez by Way of Hallucination (no. 35)

 by Larry Witham


THE CENTRAL ART history character in Michael Gruber’s contemporary novel, The Forgery of Venus (2008), is the seventeenth-century painter Diego Velázquez. But there’s also some spirit of Timothy Leary, Ken Keasy, and Hunter S. Thompson thrown in as well.
            All three were 1960s denizens of LSD and peyote use, and as a novel, Forgery of Venus harks back to that mind-altering milieu. In this work of fiction, a strong dose of psychotropic drugs allows young protagonist Chaz Wilmot to hallucinate that he is the Spanish painter of old. As Chaz tells us, “In having [drug-induced] fantasies about being Velázquez, I was still being who I was, if you get what I'm saying.” In other words, Chaz is saying he is a traditional painter, as was Velázquez.
            Chaz Wilmot is subjected to his hallucinations off and on for several months, and it is this psychological time shifting that gives the novel its unique feel. The hallucinogenic experience also becomes a fulcrum for the plot: Chaz ends up forging a historic Velázquez painting, the (fictional) Alba Venus, something he could not have done without the phantasms.
            The novel opens with Chaz's old college friend telling us what has happened. Chaz has become a New York artist. When the discovery of a "missing" Velázquez painting makes headlines, Chaz tells his friend that it was he, in fact, who had painted the work. Chaz gives him a set of digital audio files with his account of how all of this came to be. The audio narration is essentially the rest of the novel.
            Chaz has stumbled into his adventure by way of his three college friends, all alumni of Columbia University. One has become an art dealer. Another is a medical researcher. The friend that Chaz gives the audio records to has become a lawyer, and thus a trusted and objective raconteur.
            Chaz has become a realistic painter, but with a history hanging over him. His father was a famous illustrator, but they never got along. Extremely talented, Chaz has also been a drug addict. He’s been in rehab twice and is on a second marriage. His wife, Lottie, is loyal and his son has a life-threatening lung ailment.
            As a traditionalist painter—with an “incredible facility with styles of the past”—Chaz is also being sidelined by the avant-garde art scene in New York. So he’s looking for alternatives. For a start, his medical friend invites him to volunteer to participate in a clinical experiment that attempts to understand human creativity. He is given doses of Salvinorin A, a true-to-life psychotropic (like mescaline, for example) found in a plant (Salvia divinorum) in Mexico and used by shamans for centuries.
            What Chaz does not realize, however, is that the clinicians have implanted a long-term dose of Salvinorin under his skin. As the drug seeps into his system over several months, Chaz is subjected to several sudden experiences of time travel, both in New York City and Europe. Later, someone will diagnose this as “an unprecedented reaction to Salvanorin combined with amnesia, also drug related.” When Chaz discusses it with confidants, it's described as “sense memories” of the past or a “vivid dream.”
            All the while, the reader may think Chaz is going crazy—as Chaz does at times—or that this story may be some kind of paranormal tale. Or, is this a time-travel fantasy, a kind of sci-fi novel? No to all three, however.
            The story is exploring the drugged imagination of an artist. We see Chaz under the influence in New York and later in Venice, where he has gone to work on restoring historical paintings (and where he slowly gets into the old-masters forgery business). In Venice he imagines himself being Velázquez and paints just as the old master would have. He also has a love affair with the Spanish painter’s model of four centuries ago.
            The trick in such a plot is to explain how Chaz’s physical body can operated in the real world as he hallucinates, and how people around him over these periods don’t notice that he’s in a hallucinatory state.
            A skilled novelist, Gruber achieves this well enough by essentially avoiding too much explanation, gingerly introducing a few episodes where Chaz is going around knocking on doors and visiting places that are in the future. The people he meets simply think he’s going a little crazy. After all, Chaz is known for his history of drug use. And, of course, at one point in New York the men in white coats take him to Bellevue mental hospital for a day or two.
            While we are in New York with Chaz, author Gruber paints the hip art scene in thick strokes. To escape this stressful environment, Chaz accepts his art dealer friend’s invitation to do the restoration work in Venice. There, Chaz meets a veteran art crook, a German named Krebs, and is lured into a wider forgery occupation. Through the Krebs episode we learn the history of modern art looting and forgery.
            Gruber has had quite a career before becoming a successful novelist. He traveled in the 1960s with rock groups (druggies, no doubt), served as an Army medic, and then became a marine biologist with a PhD. In other words, he knows the biological foundations for mind-bending drugs, keeping the novel within the bounds of plausibility.
            The story finally comes around to Chaz’s wife and his art dealer friend. They are in a conspiracy of sorts. The art dealer gave Chaz the Krebs connection, and the wife encourage him to do the forgeries, since it would allow him to earn the money needed for their son’s medical treatment. She also wants Chaz to fulfill his old-masters art potential, as he certainly did by inventing a Velázquez painting that fooled world experts.
            Through his hallucinatory time travel, Chaz produced the Alba Venus, which the world now believes is a “lost” painting, presently found. How will history ever know that it’s really not a lost Velasquez, but a time-travel forgery? Chaz put his wife’s birth mark on Venus’s body, that’s how.
            The lawyer-friend has the final say at the end of the novel. He watches as the Venus sells on the auction block in Manhattan. He has no reason to doubt the story in the digital files, and he is mulling the prospect of writing the book.

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