The artist making an exhibition of himself

Charlotte Mendelson’s satire shows up the pretensions of the art world
May 12, 2022
The Exhibitionist
Charlotte Mendelson
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In Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel, everything is falling apart at the north London home of the Hanrahans. Ray, a once-renowned artist, is staging a comeback exhibition to stick it to the naysayers. Over a single frantic weekend, preparations are made and unmade: what works will be displayed? Who’s on the guest list, and who’s doing the catering? Through it all Ray, the angry patriarch whom everyone in the family must work to placate, does his best to make everything as difficult as possible. This is the way things have always been.

But the exhibition could also be the hopeful breaking point that the family has been steadily inching towards for years: in Ray’s inglorious decline his wife Lucia, traumatised by recent cancer treatment and her husband’s tyranny, might finally have the chance to chart her own path as an artist.

As the exhibition’s opening jamboree approaches, Mendelson has the perfect excuse to throw together an array of misfits from the Hanrahans’ lives—former lovers and ex-wives, showy gallerists and awkward extended family—who would otherwise never be seen dead in the same room. The novel’s droll, steady tone shows up the namedropping pretensions of the art world that the family have so long inhabited.

At times, the edge of Mendelson’s satire is blunted by the vagueness of Ray—who is not so much a lampooned archetype, or even a real character, than a blank canvas upon which every kind of awfulness can be projected. Then again, Mendelson’s entertaining novel is not really about how the art world works, but the travails of family—and how “what’s good for the family” risks becoming the mantra for a life lived miserably.