Thursday, April 21, 2016

When a Painter Becomes an Artful Serial Killer (no. 43)

 by Larry Witham


FROM JACK THE Ripper to Ted Bundy, the serial killer has taken a storied place in Western culture. Not surprisingly, the number of novels about serial killers—in the hundreds—has far outpaced their actual number in reality.
            Yet for all this furious wordsmithing about such many and varied sickos, none has been a painter—until now, the twenty-first century. Artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer began to remedy this absence in 2002 with the first of his painter-as-serial killer tales.
            His novels introduce New York cop Kate McKinnon, daughter of a legendary policeman, and now a famous TV art historian—until, again and again, she is drawn back into the detective role to solve grisly crimes that fall on her doorstep.
            The misdeeds are all by a serial killers who use paintings as a way to mock the police with clues, or to act out the inner insanity that drives their gruesome actions. Santlofer’s first two novels—The Death Artist (2002) and Color Blind (2004)—give a feel for the author’s studied approach (also seen in a third McKinnon caper in 2009).
            Kate McKinnon is a good-hearted woman. Her ken for mentoring disadvantaged youth in New York, and her centrality to the vibrant art scene of Manhattan, gives Santlofer plenty of opportunities to pull heart strings and fill his prose with the names of historic artists, styles, and “artspeak.” Santlofer himself did okay as a Manhattan artist at one time. But he is probably doing better as a novelist. In hindsight he portrays the art world as mostly dark and petty. He obviously loves art and fiction (he has hosted fiction conferences in New York), but for his kind of novel, the quest is for unfettered perversions. There’s a fan base, of course.
            The Death Artist opens with the killing of one of Kate McKinnon’s female wards. The killer poses the corpse to mimic a famous painting. The cops sense this, and call in Kate to interpret. The killings continue: the historic paintings they mimic are the clues left behind.
            As side plots, Kate has another youth she mentors, obviously a kind of Jean-Michel Basquiat (who continues in the second novel), and a millionaire lawyer husband who, with her, is deep in the Manhattan black-tie charity world (oh dear, he’s murdered at the opening of the second novel, by the way).
            In the Death Artist, we meet quite an array of art world figures. There’s pornographers, snob collectors, gallerists, and art critics. You might have guessed the killer from the start: he is the uptight white guy who liked traditional art. To be fair, Santlofer is just as hard on the avant-garde, of which he was a part as a latter-day abstract painter.
            Color Blind opens as we might expect. The killer eviscerates a hooker and, it seems, does a painting at the scene of the crime. The same scenario follows. “Two eviscerated women, two paintings left at the scene,” a cop says. A job for Kate, the art historian. The headlines read, “Bad Painter Good Killer,” and the killings and painting continue.
            Back on the Color Blind case, Kate notices how odd the paintings are, with their “wild, inaccurate color.” This is Santlofer’s opportunity to introduce us to Outsider Art, which includes art done my mental health patients. If the uptight white guy in his previous Death Artist was severely oppressed by his father, the killer in Color Blind was abused by his hooker-mother, who sold him as boy into a New York sex ring. As it turns out, Kate discovers that the grown-up boy (who she had rescued from the sex ring!) was later studied in a famous medical journal article. As one doctor said, “Something had crushed the pathway from the vision center of his brain, rendering him completely color blind.”
            As the young, handsome, baby-faced “monster” tells Kate in the final showdown, he must kill to evoke color vision: “It’s the only way I can see the colors.” Still, his color comes back wrong, and that’s why his paintings have purple bananas, blue apples, and pears that are orange.
            If one can happily navigate the gore, these novels will delight fans of art history facts and figures, especially of the present. The Death Artist does hark back to Renaissance imagery—St. Sebastian pierced with arrows is illustrative—but Color Blind is a great name dropper of the modern: Kandinsky, Albers, Kline, Ellsworth Kelly, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Matisse, Derain, Duffy, Dubuffet, and Jasper Johns. Naturally, Santlofer also introduces us to the rudiments of color theory.
            The young killer goes to a famous colorist painter, a man of depraved character and vanity, but who nevertheless is interviewed by Kate for her PBS television show, Artist’s Lives (this is probably modeled after the PBS Art 21: it certainly echo’s Vasari seminal Renaissance work, Lives of the Artists). This painter tells Kate, “I’d absolutely kill myself if I was denied the use of color.” Well, the killer sees this on TV. He goes to the man for help seeing color, and—unsatisfied—kills him, too. As crime novelist often will do, Santlofer avoids making Kate a complete saint: her actions often draw other innocent victims into the killer’s path.
            The McKinnon trilogy defines a serial killer subgenre. It would be hard to imagine how anyone could do more than the multi-talented Santlofer to embed a modern day Jack the Ripper in the world of art. (By contrast, we do have novels about single murders tied into perverse art projects).
            We end with the headline, “Serial Killer Captured.” Kate is with her surrogate daughter, Nola, who was once under the killer’s knife. Young Nola, a single mom on leave from finishing her art history degree at Barnard College, is now nursing her new baby. Kate—without parents, husband or child of her own—takes the restless infant gracefully into her arms. The world is a safe place once again.

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