Art Nouveau, from Boston

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

The thought struck me on Friday when a few of my girlfriends and I got dinner at this classy French-Indian restaurant, Mantra, near the Theater district. As the daughter of parents who strongly believe in supporting the economy via patronizing every Indian restaurant in every city in every state in the United States of America, I consider myself an expert. I know what to expect, from the red and gold drapery and the tapestries of peacocks or buxom, scantily dressed women, to the obligatory “and would you like that spicy, medium or mild?” questions and the areca nut mouth freshener on the way out.

Here’s what I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to be ordering Malai Kofta and naan under lasered mirrors and halogen lights. I didn’t expect to find a Naan bar crafted out of a former’s bank teller’s cage. I didn’t expect to go to the women’s restroom and discover that the doors on the toilet stalls were in fact, two-way mirrors. No, I didn’t really expect to find an Indian restaurant whose interior looked like a space that could negotiate the line between a nightclub and a modern art gallery.

I’ve been thinking a bit about art lately, of aesthetics and culture in general. When I was in NYC with my college friends a few weeks ago, I realized that I had developed Asperger’s when talking to people outside of the med school context. Though it wasn’t as though my curriculum always made it impossible to keep up with cinema, art and literature (I try to make sure of the exact opposite, when I can), I felt parched for culture in conversation. My stories stemmed from medical school, my analogies were of anatomy, my jokes reeked of G-protein receptors and pancreatic enzymes. It sucked.

Then as my girls and I were seated by a panel of Italian marble at Mantra, my friend G looked at the speckled and splayed pattern on the wall and said, “This reminds me of the colloid-filled follicles of the thyroid gland.” We laughed, and I shook my head, knowing that this was one metaphor that would never make it into mainstream expression. I knew that I’d never see such a comparison in Ian McEwan or Yann Martel.

But then I began to wonder why that thought was so wild.

Why is it that being scientifically literate isn’t given any credit in discussions of what it means to be cultured? Why don’t people read the New England Journal of Medicine as often as they read The New Yorker? Why not invoke the arterial thrombosis of gangrene instead of the stark palettes of Ad Reinhardt when looking at curtains for the home?

Recently, I visited a friend’s dorm room and recognized a Mark Rothko print on her wall, one of his classic color fields.

Rothko. Magenta, Black, Green on Orange. 1949

I’ll describe these rectangular blocks of color, hovering in a column against an undefined background as bringing to mind a strip of melana, the dried occult blood of stool, then the dead black color of necrosis, gallbladder-green, and the burnt orange of hemochromatosis. For the beige, however, I’ll defer to the stylings of James Franco. “The building is beige, but the shadows make it shadow-color.”

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