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3 x 2
By D. Quentin Miller


No, I don’t want the viewer to hate me. I want the viewer to hate himself.

“Finally.” Craig shook his head and grinned like a schoolboy, looking down at his feet. He does this whenever he’s trying to be cooler than he actually feels.

I was conscious that I was stirring my coffee compulsively, because he pointed out that I always do this when I’m upset, and, if nothing else, he’s made me extremely self-conscious. “I don’t believe you,” I said evenly.

“Why wouldn’t you? The fucker took out his keys and tore the canvas right to left, diagonal, from top to bottom.” He pantomimed the vandal’s act. “They arrested him. You’ll probably read about it in someone’s blog. Might even make the TV news.”

I sipped my coffee just to slow myself down, warning myself not to lose it. I licked my lips and sucked on the bottom one for a few seconds before clarifying: “I meant I don’t believe you really wanted this to happen.”

He was still smiling, still looking down at his feet. He snorted. Ran his fingers through that goddamn lovely mane of hair. “You know I did, though. I’ve talked about it.”

“Craig…” I clanked my spoon down onto the table. I reached over and lifted his chin like he was a child. That would make me his mother, I suppose, and I’m not at all pleased with that image. He’s a full decade older than me and I’m not what you’d call maternal. “Please look at me. I wonder how you feel. Really. Tell me.”

He stared into my eyes. It kind of hurt, and I wished I’d let him maintain his downward glance. “Fucking awesome,” he said, those dark eyes boring into me.

I struggled to keep looking right back at him. My left eye twitched. I pretended my contact lens was bothering me, and I rubbed my left eye while keeping his gaze with my right. “You can’t be serious. I’m not a reporter. You can say the truth.”

He shrugged and – thank God – broke the stare, returning to his evasive ground-gazing, so I was able to go on. “You’ll never get that painting back. You labored over it. You were proud of it. A gallery bought it and a museum exhibited it. Some lowlife idiot destroys it and you’re...” I stopped rubbing my eye. “Happy? You expect me to believe that?”

He was still grinning. I’d seen him look just that way during interviews, and I felt like he was treating this conversation like one. Toying with me. “Art’s supposed to make people react.”

I shoved my coffee away, spilling a little. Tan puddles on my white tablecloth. “With vandalism?”

“I made a man angry.”

I wanted to slap him. “Artists are stupid.”

He brought his head up again. I wished I’d never taught him to do that. “No, art’s stupid. I mock…” —he made a dramatic hand gesture, a sweeping arc from his chest outward into the world— “…all of it.”

I stood up and stormed toward the door. “You mock yourself, then!” I shouted. Good work, Annette, I thought. You lost it. I wanted to kick something. In fact, after the elevator door released me I did kick something – the marble wall of the lobby, with the tall, Russian doorman watching my outburst – and my toe still throbs.

 

I didn’t aestheticize garbage. Art is garbage.

Craig Castor working. Palette knife making it all smooth, all black, darker than deep space, the space beyond the last stars. Filling every microdepression on the canvas to make it flat. Craig making his surface profoundly two-dimensional. A bricklayer spreading mortar, building the world’s thinnest, smoothest, blackest brick wall.

Craig wiping the palette knife against his jeans, leaving behind an oil smudge. A mechanic of a painter. A mechanical artist. Craig Castor wiping the knife even cleaner with a cloth. The flat, gunmetal knife flat like the flat, dark canvas in front of him. The artist, his tools, his working surface a continuum of flatness. Craig staring at the darkness he’s created until it looks deep.

Craig making a thin line straight down the middle of his canvas with the edge of his palette knife, as straight as his arm will allow. A solitary line, top to bottom, heaven to hell, space to earth, head to toe. Standing back to take it in. Black space bifurcated. Beauty.

Craig wiping the knife again, this time on the back of his hand. The feel of oily, thick wetness on his skin. Anticipating the divinely earthy petroleum stink of turpentine beading in the sink later that morning. The cleansing. The squeakiness after.

Craig with the same palette knife, the same edge that has made the filamental line top to bottom, this time moving left to right, left to right first, then, below, right to left. The attempt to divide into thirds, a sacred attempt. Trinity. Triptych. Divine Comedy. The line down the middle, top to bottom, his contribution to ancient cosmology. Craig Castor, subdividing the universe.

Unintentional, the painting a dark window with six panes. Looking into space, the flatness reflecting. Craig exchanging the knife for a brush and squeezing a dab of dark brown onto the encrusted palette. The color of earth. The color of shit. Painting as defecation. The beginning of his brown period. Craig lowlighting the top right panel with miraculous brown, barely detectable amidst the black. The subtlety.

Gold now. Craig squeezing metallic gold next to the brown, the color of fanciful desire, mixing it with brown on the palette. Browngold. Tracing it faintly on the middle left square. Barely noticeable amidst the black.

Craig, inspired, taking a dollar bill from his wallet, pressing it facedown and upside down into the paint of the lower right-hand section. Contemplating removing it. Leaving it. One tiny smear of blackgold across the floating eye above the pyramid on the bill.

Finished.

 

You can’t accuse me of killing art. It was dead before I got here. Think about the words “museum” and “mausoleum.”

Greetings, Art-Of-The-Matter readers, followed by a heavy sigh. The art world was shocked today when a man named James Hernandez destroyed one of Craig Castor’s most profound paintings, “3 X 2.” The gash Hernandez left in the priceless work, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, should leave us all feeling wounded.

Castor’s privacy is part of his mystique, and no one has reached him for comment yet, but he’s sure to give us something memorable when he speaks. After all, this is the artist famous for such statements as, “No one killed art. It committed suicide.”

Maybe it’s true that no one killed art, but Hernandez’s actions today reveal a murderous tendency. Surprisingly, this tendency came not from an artist, but from a viewer.

It is unclear whether Hernandez has a history of mental instability; such details will invariably present themselves when he is brought to trial. But since this is my blog, I feel free to wonder aloud: what could this man have been thinking? Is this not an act of terrorism? Are we not all victims of it? Art is supposed to make us aware of our mortality; it may not quite live forever, but it lives longer than people do. The point is, it lives.

Hernandez isn’t a vandal: he’s a killer.

I’m aware that others have vandalized paintings in museums. “The Scream” was recently recovered, and it’s damaged forever, though its image is perfectly preserved on thousands of coffee mugs and T-shirts. (Sneer). I’ve heard stories of some maniac in Germany in the '80s who threw acid on more than one masterpiece, though I couldn’t find any details about him on the Internet. I know that artists themselves, from Michelangelo to Schiele, have tried to destroy their own works. But this seems different. Maybe it’s because Castor is my peer, the greatest painter (there: I said it!) of his generation. Maybe it’s because his stark paintings represent a primal innocence that should be immune to attack.

Or maybe I’m overreacting. I haven’t had enough coffee today…

…but I don’t think that’s it. Art world, today was our 9/11. Things will never be the same.

 

Is my art aggressive? I don’t know – do you feel attacked?

The black painting with the dollar bill stuck in the corner made him want to vomit. James had been edgy all day, and yes, it had everything to do with living in Manhattan and not having any goddamn money. That glib dollar bill must have been what clued him into how pissed off he really was. Almighty America, backwards and upside down, in a black void. It made him hot and put him in touch with something deep inside him that was struggling to escape. A feeling of failure had been building for a year, ever since his parents had agreed to float him enough of a loan to get him through one semester of grad school. Bad investment, he admitted now, though only to himself. N.Y.U. was a money-making joke, and what would a Master’s in film get him anyway?

James half-believed he should have gone back to Teaneck after college like Eddie, like Carmen, like all the twits who were fine accepting that their destiny was to live a tedious, middle-class existence. Half of his high school friends came back, even Larry Ovander, the crickety kid voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in the yearbook (beating James by three votes). If moving back home was success, James wanted none of it.

Higher education had undone him. He was the first kid in his extended family to go to college, and Duke wasn’t too shabby, considering his circumstances. When he arrived on campus, he had the feeling that everyone around him had already done a year or two of college, though. Prep school kids who were able to coast not because they were bright, but because they were well-trained. He refused to ask anyone about anything and determined that half of his education – at least – would be done on his own. He’d given up a certain way of thinking when he exchanged a practical major – accounting – for one that nurtured his soul – art history. A graduate degree in film would give him something more practical to use, career-wise.

Film had become kind of an obsession during college. During his sophomore year, realizing how little he knew about it, he spent most of his free time renting the classics – Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kubrick – and watching them while his friends were out abusing their livers. He developed a reputation as an eccentric, and that was fine because at least people noticed him. But now, outside the relatively safe existence of his college campus, he was stuck. Eccentricity was harder to define or to notice in New York. No one was impressed by it. From the outside, he was just another scowling twenty-three-year-old struggling to figure out how to present himself. And who knew about the inside?

Temping to pay the exorbitant rent in his West Village loft had become a dismal way to get by. He was barely making enough for the rent, much less anything else. He had become a vegetarian to save money on groceries. He wore the same clothes to work two, sometimes three days in a row to save on laundry. Four days ago, hurtling up Seventh Avenue toward his current job entering ISBN numbers at a publishing house, he had caught himself actually contemplating theft: an old man’s wallet was sticking a half-inch out of his pocket, ripe for the picking.

Had it come to this?

He allowed himself no indulgences. He couldn’t. He never went out to films, which were ten dollars minimum, even at matinee prices, and forget about the popcorn and its cloying smell. But the Whitney Biennial was something to save for. If his art degree was to retain any meaning, he had to keep it fresh. He entered the exhibit with a vague feeling of dread, as though he’d already fallen behind in his understanding of what art was about. Or what it was for. Or who it was for. What was he, the bright-but-clearly-unlikely-to-succeed-son-of-Mexican-immigrants-to-New Jersey, supposed to get from it?

The first room, by a new artist from Oregon, was disorienting, and he had always thought that art was supposed to help the viewer get his bearings. The walls were white, the ceiling and floor were white, and the sculptures – sprawling, crystalline fantasies that made James feel like he was in a brightly-lit cave on another planet – were off-white. Their sharp angles ate into him. He stayed for exactly ten minutes. Professor Dobbins had once memorably told his class that anyone who spent less than ten minutes in an exhibit hall didn’t deserve to be there. “If people can’t take their time in a museum, our culture is doomed,” he had said. James felt short of breath. His hands were sweaty and trembling. He tried to steady them, but shoved them into his pockets when he realized he couldn’t stop their vibrating. He let the meaning of the sculptures evade him. After ten minutes he bolted and found himself in the Anna Koursavic room.

He had seen Koursavic’s paintings before, reproduced in an art magazine. Here were crude black figures against bright backgrounds, mere silhouettes of human forms. Primitive and postmodern at the same time. His legs shook and he knew that the only way to make it through ten minutes was to sit on the backless, cushioned bench in the middle of the hall. It was relatively comfortable, but the unsettled feeling hadn’t left him. He hadn’t realized until now how crowded the museum was. He willed his eyes to unfocus themselves as he stared at one painting, an eight-foot, red-and-green canvas with dancing feminine figures in black. People kept getting between James and the canvas. He tried sighing and clearing his throat to get them to move, but there they stood, gesturing, murmuring stupid inanities about color.

One pretentious-looking, middle-aged man planted himself directly in front of him and James said, firmly, “Excuse me.”

The man turned and glared at him through thick glasses, his wiry, graying hair somehow underlining his wealth, his power, his arrogant urban achievement. “Me?” he said.

“You’re in my way. I was looking at that painting.”

The man kept staring at him, his eyes magnified. After a few seconds he said, “If you’re looking at the art, stand the fuck up.” Then he turned his back on James and stood there for what had to be a full minute.

Motherfucking rich fucking snob, James thought, or maybe muttered, but he didn’t stand up. In an odd way, he couldn’t. His legs felt detached, like he’d woken up in a hospital bed paralyzed after stepping on a land mine. He wondered what it would be like to sit in this room until the museum closed, until the guards carried him out. He had an inkling of what it would be like to be homeless. He wondered if homelessness could be considered a performance, and he wondered whether he could perform it.

He stood up, determined not to look at his watch again. He should know by training what it was like to spend at least ten minutes in a room. It would be at least forty minutes before he reached the room that everyone was talking about, the one most people came to see: Craig Castor. Famous Craig Castor. Nihilist. Anti-creator. Arrogant son of a bitch talentless clown who had captured more attention than any American artist since Andy Warhol. James would get there. In time.

 

Capitalism is the benevolent rich uncle. Art is the profoundly retarded nephew. I’m just themidwife who screwed up the delivery.

Two hours till break, four hours till lunch, seven hours till I get to go home. Try this: take three steps, stop, take four steps in the other direction, stop, add a step, reverse direction. See how many steps it takes to pace all the way around this room, pausing just before switching directions, looking at the people looking at the art, and what is it they’re looking for? Laying out twenty bucks to come in here and be silent like it’s a church, or a jail, and I’m the jailer in my uniform looking for signs of bad behavior, poised to punish.

It’s an endurance test, this job. Let’s see how long I can take it, walking slowly around galleries while others walk slowly around galleries, getting paid by the hour, ten dollars in exchange for a measured little chunk of my life. Like we matter here, like guards are really necessary. Couldn’t they just put all this stuff behind thick glass and fire us?

Who am I to complain, though, the shitty economy and all. It’s not like the work is killing me or even wearing me down or stressing me out, and it’s a good way to think, to get inside myself, and I don’t think getting inside myself has anything to do with this garbage that passes for art these days. I mean, come on, a canvas painted silver? Not only does someone buy this crap for millions of dollars, but they manage to lure rich people to come stare at it as though a real work of art is going to emerge. Not like the old days when art looked like a picture, or at least looked like something. All of this is just seeing how much you can get away with.

Hands off that sculpture made of cardboard and spray paint and nails! It’s worth millions! One kid looks like he’s not going to touch anything; it's his mom who’s more likely to poke something with that fingernail, which is only like a foot from an authentic Craig Castor masterpiece as she tries to show Junior something in it that’s not there. Take my word for it, lady, I’ve looked at everything in this room a thousand times—there’s nothing there, and pointing at it won’t help.

Ten minutes gone, one dollar eighty, roughly—not enough to buy ten minutes of a guy’s life. And what do we have here? A young man who looks like he wants to kill me. This is new. Why does he keep glaring at me like that? Just go ahead and look at the nice Craig Castor paintings. Keep looking at the art. Fidget with your keys in your pocket. That’s a good boy.

 

Art should feel like fucking, not making love. After seeing an exhibition, the viewer should feel fucked.

— Annette, I’m not your therapist.

— I know, but you’re my mother. You should want to help me.

— I wiped your ass when you were a baby. You’re twenty-five now.

— I doubt you even wiped my ass when I was a baby. You probably hired someone.

— Nice. Anyway, what’s the issue?

— The issue is he’s frustrating.

— He’s Craig Castor, darling. He’s an abstract artist, and he might be the most famous painter alive. Did you expect stability?

— Of course not.

— You’ve always been drawn to the nutcases.

— Thanks for the support, mom.

— Mm hm.

— Mother of the year.

— Let’s not focus on the two of us for a second. What’s the real problem here?

— Mom, someone destroyed one of his canvases. It’s ruined. It will never exist again. How would you react if you were him?

— Can’t answer that. I’m an aging boozehound socialite, not an artist.

— But you know art. You know what it means that one of his works was destroyed.

— From where I sit, yes. I’d be devastated. But Craig’s Craig. I’m me.

— Doesn’t it make you want to kill the guy who did it? Craig’s acting like it was a good thing, like the guy should get an award. And he’s acting. I know he is. He can’t possibly feel good about this.

— You’re probably right.

— I am right. Why would he act in front of me, though? I’m his lover.

— I hate that word.

— I’m his partner, I’m his soul mate, I’m his common-law wife, whatever. My point is that if he can’t be honest with me, who can he be honest with?

— No idea.

— No idea.

— No clue. Look, don’t take it personally. He’s a star.

— He’s an artist.

— Fine. Maybe he can only be honest with his art.

— Huh.

— Maybe that’s why you love him.

— Have you ever described yourself as a boozehound before today?

— Just being honest.

— Huh.

— Tell me something, Annette, because every time you come over here, it’s to complain, often in what I’d call a strident tone, about what it’s like to deal with being Craig Castor’s girlfriend. Tell me what you’re getting out of it.

— Getting out of it?

— Don’t pretend you’re outraged. Time to grow up a little. I know what he gets out of it, because you’re still the prettiest girl in the world.

— You’re being shallow.

— Answer my question. Let me put it this way: what’s so loveable about this guy?

—I’m…the first time I met him I thought he was…an asshole. A typical artist. Like everyone should come to him but he’s not going to acknowledge you. And as you pointed out, I’ve known a few assholes in my brief life.

— I said nutcases.

— Whatever. But to be…to tell the truth, I fell in love with him before I met him. It was at a SoHo gallery, and I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t a little chemically altered.

— You’re not going to shock me.

— I’m not trying to. I saw his work before I met him. Big angry blotches of green, like a lava lamp. Exactly like that: a flattened lava lamp. I must have stared at one painting for, like, ten minutes. And I don’t think it was the drugs. In fact, I suddenly felt snap-clean sober.

— What did it feel like? Looking at his art.

— It felt. I don’t know. I can’t really say. I felt like…

(Annette looks up at her mother.)

 

 

 

 

 

D. Quentin Miller is Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston where he teaches a variety of courses including fiction writing and contemporary American fiction. He is currently revising a study of James Baldwin for publication with the Ohio State University Press, and revising two novels for publication, a young adult novel entitled The Vanishing Locker and a literary novel entitled Eric 2.0.

 

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