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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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The King’s New Clothes

I was accosted while slumming on subway. Tedward nabbed my collar and whispered sotto voce:

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

“Yield,” I said, “there’s nothing new under the sun. I may not have heard this particular iteration—”

Teddy shook his head. “You with your Schroedinger’s opinions. Keke darling has found a new painter, simply to die for.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“Literally.”

I folded the copy of the Times I had been using to hide my lunch. “Go on,” I said, “you’ve bugged my Watergate.”

The gist of the matter—once you boiled down layers of Teddy’s pith—was some new thing was painting abstract swirls that made certain sensitives collapse, gray matter no doubt leaking out their ears. At the show’s opening, six art reviewers alone were rendered pudding, to small loss.

“Breathtaking,” said I, “what’s the cheese?”

Teddy leaned in close, a conspicuous gesture for a conspicuous man. “They shuttered his show until they figure out how to play off the reaction. Private showing, you dig?”

“Dug. What time?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Teddy said, “don’t be forward. Keke planned a little soirée to show off a new body mod.”

“And to scalp the guests for potential entrance fees,” I said distastefully, “pass.”

“Everyone who is someone will be there!”

“Well,” I said, “seeing as I am someone who may or may not be someone, let’s just stick that in the box and gas it, shall we?”

He was still puzzling that one when I got off. Some people, I tell you. It’s almost not worth having associates, but then again, who else would you show new outfits to? The populi? Please.

 

Keke Cola had returned from yachting Europeward to her ancestral manse, a glass-and-crystal palace that would’ve made C.F. Kane turn green. She’d decorated for the party by garlanding the place with rafflesia; I was given a pink gas mask with Reagan’s visage as a party favor. My fellow raconteurs were pawing through the buffet table like a trove of ravenous beasts. If there’s one thing we love, unconditionally, it’s a meal gratis.

Alabaster was there, along with Verdigris and several other colors. Sister Mister shot me a meaty hoof, dressed in a copper lame top and upsettingly short denim cutoffs. Algonquin Jack was masticating a humorously large beef rib, dentures seesawing in his mouth from the effort.

Keke, as always, stood in the middle of a knot of people. Her dress was slit down the front practically to the floor, showing off the control-top of her pantyhose briefs. She had some large tortoiseshell lenses on her head, stopping every other word to sweep a strand of hair back with a hand holding a cigarette stem. If she wasn’t careful, she’d ignite all the aquanet undoubtedly keeping her wig anchored.

Keke threw her arms open when she saw me. “Mon amour, ma cherie, it’s been a bit of too long.”

She air-kissed both of my cheeks. Up close I could see she had Coco Chanel’d to such a degree even the trenches of her wrinkles were tan.

“So afraid you’d miss this,” she spoke with a gravely rasp prized by blues singers and gargoyles.

“And miss seeing Verdigris fill up on shrimp?” I said, “I think he’s even sown a pocket into the lining of his jacket for the occasion.”

Verdigris gave me the finger. Keke gave me an oh you slap on the wrist.

“Dear, darling,” she said with sudden gravity, “have you heard the news?”

“About our lord and savior?” I said, “ages ago. I hear his squiggles make people squiggly.”

But the mistress of the house shook her head. “No no, darling, not squiggles. The boy paints de la vie.

“That bad, huh?”

Another wrist slap. This was threatening to become threatening.

“I’ve been to his loft,” Keke pontificated, “and he has such a unique vision.” She leaned in close, flooding me with rosewater and old meat. “There are layers one must be au courant to see.”

“Sing it sister,” I said, nabbing a shrimp cocktail before they went extinct.

“He paints in colors only seen on certain parts of the spectrum. Infra-red. Ultra-violet.”

“Don’t forget concussion green.”

Keke whipped off her Diors. Beneath the glasses, her eyes had been bandaged heavily.

“Neat threads,” I said, “so you’ve finally decided to drive blind then? Or do the police pull you over walking, now.”

“I got my lenses removed,” the lady said rapturously, “so that I may see.”

“Now I smell what you’re spraying. What’s this, a new self-destruction fad? Why not try pogo-sticking off the space needle again?”

The lady’s sticky grin rearranged into a frown. “You mightn’t be jealous, Darling?”

“Jealous?” I said, “I? Why, we’ve all evolved beyond such human peccadillos. You might as well accuse me of knapping flint into a knife.”

Metz pointed at me with a half-eaten squid tentacle. “You’re Krushchevving!”

I raised an eyebrow at him.“You’re about two presidents too late for that slang.”

Keke darling had become carried away with mirth. “I never thought I’d see you get green for a grocer.”

“You aren’t seeing at all,” I said testily, “and when you get to the afterlife, phone me and let me know what Satre is wearing.”

Hoots followed me out.

“Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it has no merit!” Keke called after me.

 

“The hell I don’t understand,” I grumped as I got into the car. “I appreciate art. I live art. I breath art. I sweat art. I ma—I consume art.”

“That may well be,” Lady D sniffed, “but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a flash in the pan masquerading as a claymore.”

Mrs. Dumont had declined to attend the party, natch. There had been bad blood between the two ladies for decades now, something deeply injurious that neither would talk about. My guess? Something to do with shoes.

“What do you think?” I consulted with her. “you think we should crash the showing?”

Dumont gave me Bette Davis eyes. “Crash, gauche. We will destroy it.” She revved the motor.

I changed into black turtleneck and slacks while she drove us, following a map Candy Warhol had inked on a napkin for us the night before. The loft above the Roi en Jaune show was shuttered until further notice. What they hadn’t counted on was decades of Lady D’s espionage against her fellow man. Through a combination of flirting and threatening, she got us a spot in the neighboring parking garage. Four storeys above the cement, I fit together a contraption of her own making, kind of like a crossbow fashioned from old hangers.

“And what happens if it doesn’t work?” I asked.

“You die and leave a beautiful corpse,” she replied.

“Just checking,” I said, and lined up my shot.

Bull’s-eye, though the company who put the billboard up would wonder why their model had gained a single, dark nipple in the morning. I saluted Mrs. Dumont and swung across, barely shitting myself in sheer terror at all. Once I had landed and kissed the surface of the roof a few times, I gave the all-clear signal to Lady D. She nodded and sat back with a thermos of tea, a copy of L’Etranger, and a Kalashnikov.

I slid my slim jim between door and jamb, popped the latch, and I was in.

Getting caught at this point would mean worse than jail time: public excruciation. My ego was in a sling as it was. I shuffled here and there in a crafty fashion, seeing as my dignity had long ago fled to winter in the alps, and looked for something likely.

A light snapped on above my head. Ugh, florescent.

“Who the hell are you?”

The young man spouting this cliché had the remains of a patchy beard and one eyebrow shaved, as if he’d already attempted to disguise himself. His eyes were flat in the middle. So he’d already gone ahead and had the surgery. Yet he wasn’t dead? Curieux.

“I’m the ghost of Potter Stewart,” I said, “I heard there was a breast sighted somewhere in the area and I wanted to check if it was pornography.”

Understanding dawned on the young man’s face. “Oh, you’re one of those.”

I tried not to appear too ruffled. “If by those you mean ‘art appreciator’ then yes, I am.”

He squinted and frowned, I think the light was getting to him. “Look, what do I have to do to get this through your heads? The paintings aren’t supposed to kill people.”

“Did I say I came here to die?” I placed a hand on my breast. “I came here on recommendation of a friend.” Which wasn’t a total lie. “A dear friend.” Which was such a lie. “Who spoke highly of your art.” Truth enough.

The young man sighed and scratched his beard. “You know,” he said ponderously, “when I started out doing this, I had such high hopes.”

“I know,” I said, “developing your style, evolving your technique, and maybe selling a few canvases before you die.”

He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell everybody the good news. And He came into my arm and showed me the way.”

Ah.

“Who did?”

“The King, man, he…” the young man looked down as if he’d find the words he wanted on the floor, racheting his hand. “it’s too…je ne sais quoi.”

“Ne gaspille pas ta salive.” I said, “show, don’t tell. That’s what artists do, don’t they?”

He gave me a smile that made me a bit wary. “Sure,” he said, and giggled.

Never trust a man who giggles and assents too easily. It’s how I got stuck with my last five cars.

I followed him to the sheeted area of the studio, where lithic rectangles overshadowed cans of linseed oil and mineral solvent. He touched each one reverently and he went, naming them.

Regalia. Cassilda’s Lament. Unmasked. Boiling Hali.”

He stopped before the last.

“This is it. The big one. This is the one that has been taking lives.”

He started forward suddenly, grabbing my lapels. “I never meant for this to happen, you know.”

“Sure,” I said, straining back.

“I mean that.” He breathed like a rabbit in a snare. “But…I’m happy it’s happened. Happy. Do you see? Now everyone will know the King’s message.”

“That’s really okay,” I called, as he ran forward and dragged the sheet from the canvas, “I’m really gone cold on the idea—”

The sheet hit the floor with a sound like a thought ending. I pondered the piece.

The young man wrung his hands. “Well?”

“You’re no Kandinsky.”

He frowned. Obviously that hadn’t been the answer he was expecting.

“I mean it’s good,” I said, turning to him, “but I don’t see it on a postcard anytime soon.”

He felt my forehead.

“Hello to you too.”

He took his hand away. “This is wrong.”

“Funny, my phrenologist said the opposite.”

He looked at the painting, back at me, and then at the painting again. His face got suspicious.

“You’re not colorblind?” he asked.

“Well, that would explain my failed airforce career,” I said.

He nodded, as if I had agreed with him outright. “You’re color—the painting doesn’t fucking work on you!”

“Watch your mouth,” I said, “children are within a five-mile radius.”

“This isn’t funny, there’s an entire section of the spectrum you can’t see! You can’t fully fucking appreciate the King’s fucking portrait.”

“Using that word constantly isn’t going to make its property value go up,” I said, “now listen—”

“Stew,” he said absently, looking up at the painting.

“Stew,” I agreed, “is this the only…masterpiece that has been causing these extra-vulgaris symptoms?”

Stew looked at me, eyes wary. It really wasn’t attractive, the flat look. Maybe he could invest in snake-eye contacts.

“Then I am correct in assuming it’s special effects were an accident?”

He went crafty, like a fifth-grader with a forged parental note. “It fucking won’t be,” he ranted, “when I learn to reverse the process and find what I did.”

“Such language,” I chided, tweaking his nose. “anyway, I’m taking it.”

“You’re what?”

“Actually I’m a Pisces.” I hefted a corner of the sheet and tossed it over the painting. “I have the most darling little alcove at home. This will fit right in. I’ll keep it veiled unless I have guests who merit a private display.”

“You can’t do that,” he said numbly.

I waved the kris that Lady D had loaned me from her extensive collection. “I can’t? Anyway, help me with this corner.”

Sheeted and tied, the painting flopped like a wayward kite to the ground. I waved to Lady D, who flicked a lighter at me. I shook my head sternly.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” Stew said, holding a can of what I hoped wasn’t paint thinner, “my only success is getting stolen by a fucking poseur.”

I slapped him lightly on the wrist. “I know you have a beef, Stew. But simmer down.”

I laughed my way down the stairs. I allow myself time to be corny when I’m alone. It helps me keep shtum in the public eye.

On the street Lady D had donned her battle beret, smoking a black cigarette and sitting on the canvas.

“One word,” she said, “and I can make it look like the Secession gallery.”

“Negatory, good lady,” I said, “I’ve decided to adopt it.”

She snorted. “And invite Keke Darling, I suppose.”

I tied it to the luggage rack. “I had thought of that, yes.”

When we were back in the car, Dumont turned to me and gave life to the utterance that every artist dreads:

“What’s it a picture of?”

“The stuff that dreams are made of, kid,” I said. If I craned my head a long way back I could just make out the forlorn silhouette of Stew the painter. Maybe it really was paint thinner. Maybe it was for the best.

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

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The Happening

I keep tabs on many of the promising young artists in the area. Jean-Baptiste Rasputin(neé Benjamin Brown) was in the forefront; what with his boozing and whoring and excesses he was an artist in the old tradition.

The thing I find most people get wrong about performance art is that it cannot, should not be repeated. What part of the performance is art? Is it the moment captured in still-frame, dissected and rendered lifeless by the shutter? Is it is the flurry of moments, each blink in time where movement and light and Kismet come together to form a one-of-a-kind configuration?

Jean-Baptiste was a born performer. I and my colleagues could tell. He was spoiled and crude and loud and magnificently human.

Verdigris phoned me up on a Tuesday: “Did you see him at the Pigeon Club?”

Seen? I had been. He tried to pay for a drink with a napkin scribble, after his would-be patron had abandoned him to the check. He’d taken out his private parts and rubbed them on chairs, stacking them into a tower of Babel crowned by one unfortunate diner’s Bichon Frise.

“Some idiot recorded him with one of those cellular phones.”

One trip to the internet confirmed my worst fears. He was on one of those streaming video websites, labeled “drunk f***er steals dog.” The filming of the King beating set a dreadful precedent, now no one is “there” unless they have video proof. We (not a club, only a loose consortium of like-minded individuals) abhorred the hollowness of these pseudo-repeat performances. One might as well double a canvas in a mirror.

I told him to meet me at the usual time and place and hung up. I am the collective’s man-on-the-spot insofar that I know my way around an address book and aren’t too cool to write things down. I tied my scarf into a Duncan-proof knot and caught a ride behind the motoboy from the Thai restaurant near my home.

The place was deserted(we place high priority on being fashionably late, of course) except for Lady D. Mrs. Dumont had been pretty once, and the curse haunted her to this day. Her face refused to fall into any interesting formation of wrinkles. She made up for it with Art-deco Jet jewelry and an arrangement of rejects from the bargain bin at Sears. She addressed me with aching dignity.

“Something must be done,” she told me, trembling with such passion her black topknot threatened to topple. “Baptiste has been…discovered.” her disapproval withered the word.

“My feelings exactly, Midge,” I said, “but it’s just not done to go bombarding houses with sarin gas for being tacky.”

She sniffed. I was in no position to stop her, indeed, I might even applaud her secretly as they escorted her away, but we as a collective were allergic to public attention. We were observers, don’tchnknow.

Claude blew in with Metz, eyes bright, piggy cheeks shining with warmth.

“He was streaking through the carwash,” he told us in a breathless whisper. His scarf removal revealed the failed Chicago necktie he’d gotten at the Vectrie exhibit. “He had a chicken in hand that he used as a shield when the attendants tried to reason with him.”

“A chicken?” Lady D sniffed again. It was her favorite pastime. “How very Duchamp.”

“It was one of those Polish hens,” Metz countered, “no foster farmer’s wet dream. The man knows what he’s doing.”

Lady D sniffed again, but seemed mollified.

As the others streamed into the warehouse we used as this week’s meeting grounds, I marked out a contingency plan on the brick wall with a chunk of plaster. With all the shouted suggestions it ended up looking more like Jack the Dripper, but the plan evolved beyond two dimensions by that point.

“He isn’t just a single-performance artist anymore, he’s become an art generating machine,” Havanna piped up.

“It’s in our best interest to feed that machine, keep it going.” Some crater-cheeked soul who had wandered in with Frisley and Oates.

“But if we tip our hand too much, it might ruin the whole thing. Prime directive.” Claude’s old lover who changed names from week to week, still a bit put out at being replaced with Metz. I think he called himself Metz this week out of spite.

Lady D laid it down very slowly and deliberately like a battle-worn general. “We all agree that personal interference only increases the danger of going native. However—” she took a breath to sharpen her tongue, “the danger of discovery has forced our hand. His skill and talent will no longer be exclusive.

“That’s what happened to Warhol,” Sister Mister added sagely.

Dumont nodded. “Then we are in agreement, something must be done. But we must minimize the chances of his publicity. Ergo, one of us must volunteer.”

It wasn’t that I stepped forward, more like everyone else stepped back.

“You’re wanting I should lose the hippest thing since Gorbachev?” I said, “I ain’t got half the glasnost that you do, sister.”

Lady D acknowledged the compliment, but pressed on. “You have the experience, since disarming Kretsky’s infernal device.”

I knew Kretsky would come back to bite me on the ass. Literally, but those scars have long since healed. This was a fresher danger.

“This ain’t a fireside sing-along, if I get up and start belting kumbaya, heads will roll. I’m not an actor, I’m a pit pony. ‘sides, I go up there and introduce myself, I lose this great relationship of observer and observee.”

“It’s either this,” she said, “or the slow slide of mediocrity.”

The lady made a point.

“I’ll do it,” I said, “but I’ll probably hate meself in da morning.”

For this jaunt I wore the disguise of a health-happy pedestrian. The sneakers pinched through my pigwool socks, but I refused to remove the last vestiges of my fashion sense. At least they’d had a teal tracksuit in my size. Lady D and a few others had set up a duck-blind of vagrant’s possessions on the corner across from Baptiste’s apartment.

“Get in close to him,” the lady advised, “try to flatter him, so he’s receptive to your pitch.”

Our artist was hanging half-out of his apartment’s fire escape, drunk on Maker’s Mark and tossing lamps at a young woman who seemed to bear an unfortunate resemblance to his ex-lover Elise. I shot them the hi-sign and began my trek to glory.

There is a specific school of Raku firing that breaks from tradition in the most dramatic fashion possible, yet it may be the closest in terms of original intent. The potters construct their pieces with a series of holes so that when they yank the pieces red-hot from the kiln and drop them into water, the pots scream and steam the rest of their short lives away before exploding in a terrific fashion. This emphasis on impermanence and raw, primitive joy always did something to me.

His apartment door was closed, but someone(probably the artist himself) had destroyed the deadbolt and then fixed it with a stray piece of wire. I cannot communicate my joy as I swung open that apartment door. It was everything I’d hoped for, the mess, the stale smell of garbage and cigarettes and a life lived poorly in the physical world and deeply in the metaphysical. I breathed deep this fleeting moment, when everything was fresh and exciting. Say not that we art admirers dwell vicariously in the lives of artists, we live in the moment just as much as they.

Baptiste was slurring to the sidewalk, “I hope yer happy. I zjust wanna know if yer happy.”

I tapped on the window. “I hate to bother you, but could I steal a moment or two, dear boy?”

I shook a half-full bourbon decanter, which reached him faster than the words.

“The hchell do you wan?” he said, quickly uncapping and taking a swig. “My dad send you here? Fuck you, prole.”

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure,” I said. “I’m an…I guess you could call it ‘admirer.’”

He sized me up with boozy meanness. “You like my paintings?”

“You paint?” I said, “No, I’m more of a fan of your work.”

He nodded at nothing, probably not even listening. “I tol’ em, I said, ‘I don’ give a shit who you think y’are, my paintins are good. Good.” He took another swig.

“I understand,” I said, “I’ve lived a lifetime of tiny minds and wagging tongues who know nothing of ars gratia artis. They think paintings are created for patrons, not the other way around.”

He blunk at me. I don’t think he expected to be understood. It riled him.

“If yer not here for my paintin’s whadda fuck is you here for.” He had a bike chain necklace and a safety pin through one earlobe. I wanted to tell him how beautiful he was, but I’d already lost something by moving from audience to performer. To comment would be to make the dreaded step to analyst.

“Did you know, dear boy,” I said, “that you are gaining an audience?”

He heaved to and fro. “Szo?”

“So?” I said, “so you are gaining attention, which you crave, but from the entirely wrong place. Can you imagine Warhol finding fame as a billboard artist? Caulder being known as a helluva chair carpenter?”

He had the good sense to shudder. “Fuck, no man.”

I nodded. “Wilde was wrong. The only thing worse than being talked about, is being jeered about. They laugh at you, they don’t  appreciate your raw talent.

He sniffed. “That’s so true man.” He had retreated maudlinly into himself.

“But you have grown a small contingency of loyal followers.”

He looked around, as if other people were hidden behind the bars of the fire escape. “Where?”

I was pushing the envelope, but I was the one up here, not them. I pointed to the duck-blind on the ground.

“There. Just there.”

He waved sloppily to them. Even from this distance, I could see lady D’s eyes shining.

“They’re all fans of your work. We all love what you do and want to save you.”

His eyebrows disappeared into his hair. “You do?” My, he was just full of intelligent questions.

“Yes,” I said, “preserve you as you are, here at what we believe to be your peak.

He was crying, now. I don’t think he’d ever expected to receive praise. That was what made him so attractive, this little nobody, this little malcontent, this dimestore Diogenes in tattered jeans.

“Fuck, man.” H hid his eyes in his hand. I put my arm around his shoulder. “Fuck, you’re gonna make me cry.”

I could’ve whispered something profound in his ear, or some blasé one-liner pun, but I’ll never tell. This is my coin, my payment for services rendered. Using forward momentum, I rolled him over the rail.

He shrieked like steam as he spun out over the moments, landing neatly on a page in time’s scrapbook.

Lady D stood up and applauded.

“Bravo! Bravissima!” she called. I did not bow, that would be gauche.

Instead I quietly beat a retreat to the fire stairs, as the shrieking young miss on the sidewalk ran for the police. I had seen the inside of a prison during the draft and had no intention of repeating the experience.

What was the performance? Was it his journey to art school, despite his obviously lackluster talent? Was it the triumph of his ego under the relentless hammer of reality? Was it the endless division of moments, spanning from inception to termination? Was it the floral arrangement of his corpse on the sidewalk, a collage of disparate elements pasted together with blood to form the portrait of art’s own harlequin?

I say it was the whistle, that final spin out in the wake of inevitability, as his body was suspended in air, his face in-between terror and elation, his body in-between moments, forever suspended in my memory.

I whistled all the way home. Salut!

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Cristoph’s Salomé

Salomé: A study in shadows was the talk of the 1895 Salon de Paris. Spectators said it had an uneasy, implicative quality to it, critics called it an overblown mess. The painting was a figure study executed in Post-impressionist style. A female nude reclined in deep shadow, gold highlights just barely picking out her facial features. She appeared to be laughing. If viewed very closely, for what is assumed to be a very lengthy amount of time, spectators are supposed to be able to pick individual shapes from the shadows, turning the woman’s face into something resembling a bed of writhing worms.

The artist known only as Cristoph had come practically out of nowhere. Of the few semi-concrete details of his life, it was known that he was Austrian-born, of poor lineage, and lived in the bohemian areas of Paris. Oddly enough, he was not well-liked by his peers, societal outcasts that even Gauguin refused to drink with.

Cristoph had been experimenting with dark-on-black painting, what he dubbed “shadowlight.” As light struck from a prism created a rainbow, a similar palette, he reasoned, must continue in the other direction. Not content with simple shades, he sought to revolutionize the artist’s concept of of hue and value. He sent away for strange minerals and plants to grind as pigments. The artist was hospitalized, twice for mercuric poisoning, once for a mysterious rash, yet continued to apply himself with scholarly(some say suicidal) dedication. Cobalts and coals, oxides and fugitive dyes were mixed in the pursuit of absolute black. Though he had achieved a small degree of success in his earlier paintings, Cristoph still sought after a pigment that would absorb all light. By achieving this, he theorized, a painter could thereupon work backwards to create an entire spectrum of shadow.

As to where he got the funds for such experimentation, whispers abounded that he had a private patron and that Salomé was not only a study, but a portrait.

Cristoph’s reputation grew when Salomé was purchased by banker Piers Vallet, who subsequently squandered his life and fortune on an attempt to locate the model in the picture. Cristoph remained reticent abut her identity in the face of scandal.

Thought Cristoph continued to work heavily, Salomé was the last finished painting to show in a gallery. All paintings that followed after were either sketches or works-in-progress, though the layperson may be forgiven for mistaking them for completed works as they lack only Cristoph’s signature “shadowlight” objects.

A month after Vallet’s suicide, the artist announced he would undertake his most ambitious project to date: painting his own shadow. The piece would be done on the wall of his own small studio, which had already been prepped with a special black gesso. Five days after the announcement, his landlord admitted himself with his own key to complain about Cristoph’s cat, which had been bothering other tenants for food. The studio was empty. No trace of the artist was ever found.

If one visits the studio space in Montmartre(and indeed, guided tours are still available) one may view the last known location of the artist. Cristoph’s palette lies before the wall as if set down only a moment before, a packet of Job rolling papers lie on the stool he used for long nights at the easel. And before them, the semblance of a human shadow painted masterfully onto the wall. Critics of the time called it an exceptional example of Trompe l’oeil, from core to penumbra it resembled hyper-realistically its intended subject.  Its most notable feature went undiscovered for decades afterwards. For it is said that a mute face is just barely visible on the head of the shadow, revealed not by illuminating the wall further, but by extinguishing all light.

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The Gorsky Variations

Hidden Paintings make a big splash in a small town!

Morton County Mailer

It is unknown whether Stanislav Gorsky was a real artist, a collective of like-minded individuals, or perhaps even an established artist playing tricks on the art world at large. Certainly the only solid evidence found thus far for their existence is a stack of paintings in the Waylonville Hall of Color and Light.(est. 1972) The curator and sole surviving member of the Committee for Arts, Gerry Orton(73) says all are equally plausible. Gerry gives us his interview in an office slanted with late-afternoon sunlight—a dusty closet more suited to a school custodian than a well-known street artist. Rough mock-ups of his various chalk “dust-ups” festoon the walls, his only ornamentation. Gerry has been the sole fixture of the committee, founded in 1968 and disbanded seventeen years later, and curator of the town’s one and only art gallery. “Beats digging a ditch,” he laughs, as he clicks on the various panel lights jury-rigged throughout the gallery. Inhabiting the leftover building from the First Episcopalian church on Norvak lane, the structure was not set up for exhibiting artworks, or anything at all. Gerry leads us through a tangle of furniture and sculpture, the floor plan he laid out for us was an architect’s nightmare. “In those days, you took what you could. Now notoriety and nostalgia stop me from selling the place.” The notoriety he speaks of is the sudden upturn in interest the gallery has received, following the re-discovery of the Gorsky paintings.

Gerry claims that fellow committee member Miette(surname unknown) was responsible for discovering them tucked in between a number of monoprints and a single abstract canvas. At the time they were improperly labeled as the work of minor German expressionist Klaus Gorman, and so languished in storage as more popular modern prints rotated in the front galleries. This changed when the committeewoman loosed the wrappings on the painting in order to catalogue it for the new record system. “Her face was just pure, pure horror,” Gerry recalls, “and y’know she was a holocaust survivor, so that made her doubly sick.” Certainly the paintings aren’t easy to look at for even the most grounded individuals. The paintings depict a series of bizarre scenes, various surreal tableaus and landscapes, in an almost reverent light. Gerry proudly displayed us his personal favorite, titled simply “Heads.” The subjects of the painting, if they can be said to resemble any body part, do not immediately recall heads. Gerry led us to note that the artist often stuck to the same color palate as a reformation artist, though deliberately using one color definitely confined to the modern palette. Pthalocynanine blue shares the scene with various umbers and ochres, dripping from crevasses and thatching cliffs, giving a somewhat alien effect.

The paintings, in both their subject matter and color usage, often defy description (to trot out a well-worn cliché) as well as photography in the characteristic they became truly notorious for. Gerry kindly propped up “Heads” for our photographer as he attempted, with both digital and traditional photography, to capture the canvas. “It’s the creepy part about it,” Gerry says, wrinkling his nose, “they’re like vampires or something. He must’ve made his own paint.” Indeed, the article as published runs un-illustrated as hours of Photoshop and every kind of exposure could not produce anything discernible. Gerry assured us that it has been the same with every single picture, since the first day they were brought out of storage and photographed for the catalog. Now Gerry is forced to keep them under padlock from over-enthusiastic amateurs. He dons white cotton gloves as he walks us through the rest of the collection, all with as non sequitur titles as the first: “The Benediction,” “Host,” “Coffee Break.” The brush techniques are sophisticated, analysis has shown them to be made with a traditional sable round. The afternoon turned a corner into the shocking when Gerry beckoned us forward with portable lamp containing a UV lightbulb. The painting, when bathed with the light, changed completely. “It’s the same with the others,” Gerry tells us in a whisper. Indeed, it seemed more proper to whisper around the objets d’art, which had almost taken on a personality of their own. Gerry assured us that it was the same under different wavelengths as well; the canvas donated to the Morton laboratory for analysis has shown change even in infrared.

Psychoanalysis of the paintings indicate the subject matter and style as being similar to many schizophrenic patients. Often hyper-real to the point of being disturbing, the paintings seem to follow dream logic with the story they tell. In “Communion,” various long-necked humanoids sip golden light seemingly poured into their veins by a nearby bird creature who dwarfs the moon. “Daphne,” the sole painting with a proper name, seems to retell the fable of the nymph in a concrete nightmare, with the subject herself composed of various derrick-like structures. Gerry, art teacher at Teddy Roosevelt Junior High for many years, merely shakes his head and laughs. “Whoever could do this would have to be seriously [expletive deleted] in the head.” The subject and perhaps the cause of the paintings’ macabre manner is still unsolved, though to Gerry’s best guess it was a war of some kind, judging by Miette’s emphatic reaction.

The possibility that the artist was a member of the committee popped up early in the inquiry and has yet to be dismissed. Even Gerry says it’s possible, though he discounts himself on the grounds that “I was never that good.” He also vouches for Miette, citing her obvious disturbance at the paintings and her shock as evidence. “It’s possible we were harboring a frustrated Magritte or Dali for years and never knew. It’s easy to get discouraged in a little town like this, and the city only gives us the crumbs left over from the Rotary Club.” The paintings have stirred a certain amount of civic interest, and the city had even offered to buy the gallery another building. But Gerry says the asking price, five of the paintings to sell for city benefit, was too high. “The way I see it,” the septuagenarian says, “these paintings were here waiting for something. Now, I don’t know if it was me, or anyone even alive, but I know [expletive deleted] it wasn’t for some collector.”

The gallery is open on weekends 4-9pm, 6-9pm on Sundays. Gerry Orville can be reached through his nephew at darkkitsune88@geemail.com.

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What you don’t see

In the summer he sits under an awning, selling paintings on the sidewalk. They are canvas squares of red or brown, of green or grey. They are paintings of buildings and streets, trash cans and curbs. Cityscapes. He never painted people, or cats, or dogs.

He sits wearing an ingratiating smile, thanking people for stopping even a second out of their day to look at his wares. He has not sold a thing in days. There was one woman who he thought might be close to buying, but instead she went white and walked away like she might be sick. At lunch he squats by an easel and chews a hotdog, studying people. A man walking with his young daughter. Some grandmother smiling at his view of a set of stone steps. A bum who sizes him up and lopes on.

He finishes his hotdog and wipes his mouth daintily on his napkin.

A group of girls across the street giggle, shoving each other. He pretends to study an ant by his toe. One of the group breaks away and drifts over to him, a slim, pretty girl with hair like a buttercloud.

She says, are these for sale?

And the other girls call Em-ma, Em-ma.

And he says, Emma? That’s a lovely name.

And he says yes, each and every one is for sale, feel free to browse.

He likes the way she walks around, humming through her nose, head cocked to study each painting. She makes a full circuit of his wares before coming back.

And he says see anything you like?

And she says yes, I like the one with the striped tabby cat.

And now he’s excited, but tries not to show it. And he says I didn’t paint any cats.

And she says yes, that one there. And she points with polished fingernails to a red canvas alley. And she says the cat is just behind the crate, you didn’t paint it but it’s still there.

And he can’t hide his smile and he says yes, yes I can see— but there’s more. She can see others, she says, she spotted others but not all of them. And she names a few. Now he is very happy and he says Emma?

He says Emma, I’d like to paint something for you.

And she says for me? And she chews on a strand of hair.

And he says yes, I can’t think of anyone who would appreciate it quite as much.

And she blushes and turns away to hide it. And the other girls cajole her: Em-ma! Em-ma!

And she says I might like that.

And he takes out a canvas and a bit of graphite, and he wets the tip of it in his mouth and says describe the view from your window to me. And she tells him about the clean, white sidewalk, and the trim of the house next door, and the liquid amber tree that shades it all, and finally her purple curtains. And he puts down the graphite and says thank you very very much Emma.

And she says when can I see it?

And he says it won’t take me long. Just a few days. Don’t forget about me, okay?

And she nods and runs off with her friends. And he whistles as he wraps his canvases in butcher paper and carries them all to the basement apartment where he lives. He whistles while he squirts paint from a tube onto a palette made from a hammered tin can, and dabs a big camel brush into it. It’s more like nine days when he’s done, but he brings it with him on the tenth wrapped in a piece of green cloth.

And Emma comes back and says eagerly can I see my picture?

And he gives it to her and tells her to open it when she gets home. He wants to imagine her face when she sees it.

She comes back the next day. The painting is unwrapped. She says I don’t want this. You take it back.

He says what’s wrong, isn’t it as you described?

The canvas is the view from her room exactly. Every leaf distinct, every spot of shadow. And so he smiles and asks what’s wrong Emma? though he knows full well what. She says you put yourself into the painting. He says I didn’t paint myself in. She says yes, but you’re still there, just there, beyond the corner? You’re crouching in the dumpster with a knife.

He says I haven’t got a knife.

She says it’s in your mind. And a man who thinks knives is just as bad as a man who uses knives. She says don’t paint anymore pictures for me. She turns on her heel and walks away.

He starts a new picture that day. This one is still exactly the view from her window, but he isn’t in it, painted or otherwise.  Something else is, though. Behind the paint. When he finishes he sends it straight to her house, though she never gave him her address.

The package comes back, unopened. There is a note with it:

You awful man. Don’t paint for me anymore. I can tell through the paper what you put in there, I’m not touching a single string on this package.
You leave me alone and never talk to me again from this day.
And no more paintings!

He smiles.

That night he’s in her yard. He’s got his green dufflebag with all his paints and all his paintbrushes and a fine linen canvas. He’s just shouldered the bag onto the lawn when a flash blinds him. She’s in the window with a Polaroid.

She says say cheese. She says now that was much faster than a painting, wasn’t it?

And he says Emma now don’t be silly—

And she says remember that thing you put in the painting? It’s still there.

And she says goodbye.

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