March 14, 2010
The slamming metal crash doors cut off Paul’s echoing sobs. The room was still. Kirby turned away from the closed doors, and faced the sculpture. Red paint pooled beneath the Buddha-like figure on the table.
“He had it coming. The entire work is derivative of Murakami’s set of figures, late 1990s,” Kirby spat. “Who’s next? Ah, Lily I see.”
Lily stood next to a large oil painting hanging on the dingy white wall. Mythical beasts such as manticores, as well as hybrids like centaurs and ligers were rampant on a background of modern symbols. She rubbed her hands nervously.
“Great use of figure and color, girl.” Kirby stepped closer for a good look at the background. “What are these symbols? Are they reminiscent of a Coach purse? Too commercial.”
Dipping a cheap brush into his quart of house paint, Kirby spattered red all over the background, covering a few stray beasts in the process.
“Now you know what to fix,” he said.
“Yes, yes I do,” replied Lily.
I’ve never been in a critique like this one, thought Amanda, a few feet from Lily. Senior seminar was challenging, and Professor Downing gloried in his paint, holding grudges against the world. Critiques were supposed to contain strong, yet constructive, criticism, with open dialog between master and student. Not this. This was raw antagonism.
The red paint. An art critic’s red pencil, Professor had said. This was simple house paint, Benjamin Moore Red latex. Not crimson, nor Sedona, but RED. Photoshop palette RBG 255,0,0. No subtlety here. Anathema.
Kirby walked over to the next work, Richard’s self-portrait, in dots.
“Give me a little back story, Richard,” he said.
Richard swallowed hard. “Well, sir, it’s a likeness of myself. I used a range of colors in the work, to show depth and shading.”
“Very well. But isn’t this a derivation of Seurat, the famous Impressionist?” chided Kirby.
“Well, well, sir, sir,” Richard stammered, “It’s now a well accepted technique.”
But Kirby was no longer paying attention to his answer. Taking up a fine brush, he dipped it into his quart of red and began connecting the dots. There being so many, he managed to easily find enough to draw a scowling face. The class tried to suppress shocked laughter.
Kirby stood before Amanda. “Still life. Shadows and depth in the fabric that wraps the fruit bowl, I see,” he said.
“Yes, I spent considerable time on that detail,” Amanda replied.
Kirby adjusted his glasses. He stepped back, gave the canvas a brisk up-and-down sweep of his eyes, then stepped in close to review the shadow detail. His index finger dipped into his quart, coming out red.
“Class, how many times have I told you to draw from life? Not from a photo? You want nothing hindering your representation of reality directly as you see it,” he said as his finger left ugly blotches here and there in the details.
“This was clearly painted from a photoshopped snapshot. See the shadows are not consistent, as she painted them from a printout where they have been copied and pasted over and over. Enough.”
Kirby gave Amanda a hard stare, but she held his eyes.
His long workday done, Kirby bent his tall frame into his tiny Civic, turned the key in the ignition, and exchanged his work glasses for driving glasses. He was always annoyed by the tight fit of the small, cheap cars he drove. He punched on the radio, and swamp boogie blues throbbed from the cheap speakers. A glance in the rear-view returned a view of his pale skin and thinning sandy hair along with a clear driveway behind him. Piles of art books in the seats shifted and bumped as he backed and turned out from his reserved space. One more day at Mercer County College gone, he thought. He was not getting any younger, in an art world that preferred the next young genius to the aging journeyman.
An uneventful ten miles later, he pulled into the driveway of his apartment complex. Leaving his car, he walked up the path from his space, grabbed the mail from the community box, and went inside his small one bedroom. Dropping the mail and keys on the beat up farm table in his kitchen, he went past the bedroom and used the toilet. That out of the way, he went back to the kitchen, adjusted an original Volkov pastoral that had shifted when he slammed the front door, and began to rummage in his fridge for dinner. Frozen pizza was all he was up to making tonight, after a long day and then his night class for seminar students too.
While the microwave buzzed and hummed, he thought about the past year. Seminar was over, the students having suffered their final critique tonight. Soon he would be teaching summer students, those trying to get their feet wet in the visual arts, or fulfill their arts requirement during the summer. He couldn’t bear another year of this, could he?
After dinner of cardboard with tomato sauce, he cleaned up after himself and did a quick scan of the news on the various TV channels. He turned down the sound, and thought about alternatives to his current employment.
Low on money, but at least I have a job, he thought. I haven’t sold anything for ten years now, and can barely bring myself to lift a brush or palette knife. On bad nights he kept reliving the same nightmare of his famous failure: at Cal Arts, near L.A., fifteen years ago, he was expelled. He had shown tremendous promise in the visual arts from childhood to grad student. Cal was a top school for animators, dance, and visual arts. For his final grad seminar, in his critique he had entered a raw, red head done in brilliant acrylics, with one ear in the process of being blown off. He also brought a handgun. The professor immediately admonished him for bringing weaponry to critique. Ashamed, Kirby had run out into the hall and fired the gun. A week later, he was contacted at home and told he was expelled. Not for carrying a weapon (he did have a pistol permit, after all) but for presenting a crassly derivative work. In 1971, student Chris Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm for art’s sake. After his incident, Kirby was relegated to teaching at a local college after being blackballed.
He turned off the TV. Walking over to his work table and easel jammed into an alcove between the kitchen and living room, he took a long look at a still blank canvas.
The phone rang. He reached over and picked up the receiver.
“Kirby, it’s your mother,” came the voice from the other end. “I’m home with Dad, we’re wondering how you are doing.”
“I’m fine, fine. School year’s almost over, just have the final grades to get in. The kids are worse than ever this year.”
“Can you come over to supper tomorrow? We’re going to have spaghetti,” said his mom.
“Sure, sure,” Kirby replied. The spaghetti was not very authentic, just overcooked pasta and canned sauce, but it wasn’t cardboard and it was free.
“What are you doing for the summer? Do you have classes to teach?” she asked.
“Yes, I have a summer contract to cover the beginning studio art requirement for new students. Don’t worry, I won’t starve.”
“Good. Can you finish one of your works? I’ve heard about some big prices on regional works over in Pennsylvania, to say nothing of what they’re getting in New York these days,” she said.
“Um, I’ve tried hard, but nothing is ready right now,” he replied, glancing at his easel.
“Thank God you have that teaching job, Kirby. What would you do without that?”
Unseen by Mom, Kirby rolled his eyes. Middle class values would always be what they were, he thought.
“Okay, I gotta go. See you tomorrow. Say hi to Dad, “he said and hung up.
The next afternoon brought bright May sunshine to light up the lobby of the Princeton Art Castle. The museum was formally named for a local benefactor, but everyone called it the castle due to the stone turrets and crenellated parapets on the façade. Behind the lobby desk, Amanda glanced at the clock. A couple more hours and her shift would be over, she thought. She didn’t mind being busy, but having no visitors like this made the day drag.
Amanda had a beautiful cherubic face, and a model’s poise from years of Barbizon training. Her thin, toned body made her appear taller than she was at five feet seven inches. She was society’s vision of their physical ideals. Eating healthy now that she was getting older (20!), she worked out regularly and was not afraid to get her hands dirty remodeling a room or shoving freight around a warehouse. Sporting interesting bruises from minor mishaps (or something kinkier?), she would toss on some cover-up and hit the town. She had light brown hair she pulled back, and wore practical clothing except when she felt like flaunting it. Currently, she was very serious with school and her art career, and was not in a relationship. She did enjoy dating, but her problem was that she stayed close emotionally and physically to most of her lovers, which became much too time-consuming. Independent like her dad, she was doing her best to earn her own way through community college.
The lobby door opened, and in walked Professor Downing. Not Amanda’s favorite person.
Amanda smiled. “Hello professor. What brings you her today?”
“Hello, Amanda. I’m here to check out the new Kate Gilmore exhibit. I finally am getting a chance to now that the semester’s over,” he said. He showed his id and Amanda gave him a visitor’s sticker in exchange for a small donation. She noticed his sad demeanor and lack of companions.
“It’s very quiet today. I don’t expect anyone else before closing time. Perhaps I can walk through the galleries with you?” she asked.
“Suit yourself,” Kirby replied, and headed towards the new exhibit, Amanda following behind.
When they reached the gallery, they walked into a web of complex installations that intruded from the walls, hung from the ceiling, or protruded from the floor.
“I see nothing has changed with Gilmore’s work this year,” remarked Kirby, when confronted by a women’s shoe bursting through the sheetrock and called “Walk This Way.”
On her own turf, Amanda felt comfortable with stating “That has considerable impact. I like to see a strong female image. I think I’ll try something like that for my next work.”
“Be careful doing that. Semiotic deconstruction may be past its peak. So 2000’s,” said Kirby. “You know, ‘What does it mean?’ and all that.”
Amanda winced. “I’m still going to do it.”
“Amanda, can I give you some advice?” You have a long way to go before being able to make these artistic statements.”
She pressed on. “I’m tired of painting fruit bowls and nature scenes. I’ve got an old guitar, so I’m gonna have a female mannequin smash it over an amplifier. Girrls rock!
Kirby said nothing, and turned away.
Exiting the new exhibit, they passed through a gallery of traditional oil paintings, the mainstay of the castle’s collection of Romantic nature scenes and buxom women. They continued to make remarks about the works and their context, neither one listening to the other. Next, they entered a gallery of contemporary visual art, set pieces in an updated cubist style. Suddenly, they were back to the lobby.
Parting, Kirby said, “Perhaps I can draw some inspiration from what I saw today. Thank you for your time.”
Amanda shook his hand, and began clearing off her desk while Kirby walked out the door.
Arriving back at his apartment, Kirby dropped his keys on the table, and cleared away his old breakfast and lunch dishes.
They sure pile up fast, he thought. Methodically, he began the dish washing ritual. Hot water filled the sink. Detergent was sprayed in, then dishes and cutlery sunk beneath the sudsy water. Taking a sponge, he lifted one dish, wiped it carefully on both sides, dipped it in the suds again, then ran it under a quick rinse from the faucet. He placed it in the rack to dry. Fishing around in the suds, he found a saucer, and gave it the same treatment.
Like taking a shower, this kind of drudge work was great to let the mind wander. Lather, rinse, repeat. Kirby turned issues over in his brain. He hated his job. What would come next? He had few relationships, with his family or anyone else. Was he inspired by what he saw today? What if he was criticized again? He scrubbed a plate too enthusiastically and got suds on his shirt, but be barely noticed. And foolish Amanda, nothing seemed to stop her, especially not his red paint. But was that such a bad thing, eh?
Dished done, he dried his hands. He walked over to his easel in the alcove, and dipped a brush into Prussian blue. With a shaking hand, he began to paint.