Thursday, May 27, 2004

If I could only stay asleep

Had another dream about whatsis-face, that guy I got hung up on in college, for reasons that baffled those nearest to me. My sister was the only one who sort of got it. She said, "you'd just never met anyone remotely like that before." He had a murky mind. His energy was a combination of Christian Slater's character in "Heathers," the raspy-voiced misfit who blows everything up, and a single scene in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," where Daniel Day Lewis is confronted in his office by the KGB. The KGB tells him, "Look, you're a doctor. You're not political. We know you didn't mean these things. Just sign a little retraction, here on the dotted line, and you can keep your medical practice and everything will be fine." Daniel Day Lewis leans back, smiles with an unearthly, casual radiance, and shakes his head, "no." Cut to the next scene, of Daniel Day Lewis washing windows. That was whatsis-face.

To this day, I have no idea of what whatsis-face thought of me. I used to think that he just didn't, much. (At least at first--after I went totally psycho on him, I was pretty hard to ignore.) Then, much later, I thought that maybe I was simply Too Big. Too tall, too visible, too much the kind of person who attracts circles of chanting people at parties when she starts spinning and doesn't stop, and ends up on stage with the band, and publishes fraught, obscure poetry in 'zines that twelve people read, and leaves puddles of dirty motor oil in the art department hallway. I wouldn't have known what to do with me, either.

The woman he ended up with was much smaller. She was famed for having size-five feet. I have never been an overtly competitive female, preferring to withdraw with my wings folded rather than treat folks to the spectacle of two jealous harpies clawing each other's eyes out over some smug bastard, but she initally didn't even show up on my radar as a threat. She whined, she manipulated, she wasn't very bright. "Raaaaaaay," she would intone, toddling into the Salt Lick Cafe, "we're going on a daaaaaate this weekend. I want to make whatsis-face jeeeaaaal-ous." Please. I would not STOOP to compete.

Which was fine with her, because she was a lot more highly sexed than I was, and that was all she needed. Men are simple creatures, and I was, unfortunately, looking for complexity. One afternoon in midsummer, whatsis-face got ideas about being a big cocky jerk, and decided to invite both me and Whiny Girl to lunch without telling us that the other one was coming. I had a premonition about it when I saw her jump on her bike outside the art building and ride off with desperate purpose, so when I showed up to the assignation zone and found her already there, I sat down and made friendly conversation. Whatsis-face strutted up a few minutes later, and plunked down between us with a bag full of plums. He offered some to me; I drew myself up like an affronted Victorian nanny and refused. He offered them to Whiny Girl; she extended her lower lip, gulped one directly from his hand, and sent him a look that at the time, I thought of as disgusting and Over The Top. But even then I knew she'd won.

The events of the rest of that year are too tedious and gory to recount in their entirety. Poor old whatsis-face ended up with a bruised jawbone (people were coming up to me for weeks and saying, "Serena! I hear you beat up whatsis-face! Congratulations!) and I ended up in therapy. Whiny girl ended up with the guy, but only after using Ray and a number of his buddies with callous opportunism. Turns out that whiny, manipulative and stupid was exactly what suited whatsis-face. What can you do.

The thing that I felt horribly guilty about, for years and years afterwards, was not socking him in the jaw, but taking away his friends. It was frighteningly easy to do. His friends asked me, "why were you so mad at whatsis-face?" and I quoted him directly. "It's not personal. My feelings for all of my friends are pretty much apathy," and his friends didn't like this any better than I did. I was witty and charming to his friends, and ignored him, and within a month or two nobody to speak of was speaking to him.

(A few years after this, I took one of those Meyers-Briggs personality tests, and scoffingly read my results to my roommate. "ENFJ: it says, 'this type is exceptionally charismatic.' What a crock," and she looked at me strangely and said, "you don't KNOW you're charismatic?" I didn't know this, but I knew I was cruel. It was my first experience of how, when you are hurting unbearably, the pain appears to stop when you hurt somebody else. Only then it comes back again, and you have to keep hitting and hitting until it's way, way too much.)

I never went there again. Eventually I apologized, and he got his friends back, and hopefully appreciated them a bit more. In fact, being the Web-stalking psycho-bitch that I am, I know he appreciates his friends, and his wife the Whiny Girl, and is a nice upstanding member of the Sierra Club who volunteers for Children's Cancer and shit. Maybe I knocked some sense into him.

But this doesn't explain why I dream about him. Shame, I think, is why. For a long time the dreams were the same; our friends were the same people, or our communities, and we were occupying parallel space without really interacting. I didn't dare say anything, because I was that horrible psycho-bitch who socked him in the jaw and took away his friends, and thus was less than human. Whiny girl generally appeared at some point, too, just there, not doing much of anything.

Lately the dreams have changed. They're kinder. Most recently, there was whatsis-face in a wheelchair, and I was helping him around, cleaning up bathrooms. He got all happy and crazy and started drawing bright pastel patterns on the walls. Whiny girl came along, and I said "I better be going." Whatsis-face took my hand; I chatted with Whiny Girl. He held her, and he held me. I woke up happy.

Sunday, May 23, 2004


are what I think they're called. They look like tiny blue roses. They don't smell, but they are profuse, and they dangle down. I never heard of them before, but once I'd met them, ownership was mandatory. And then I had to get a pot of pink-and-purple fuchsias to keep them company, and a little white cyclamen to replace the red one that died because the house-sitters didn't notice it, in the copper hanging basket, over Thanksgiving. And then I had to re-pot everybody.

Okay, so I go on plant binges. It's better than going on cocaine binges. Cornelius says I'm not maternal, because when I have friends come to stay with me and they whine like spoiled four-year-olds for a week, I have hysterical breakdowns and don't get over it. He says that if I had the Maternal Instinct and my friend acted like a four-year-old, and I realized that deep down she WAS a wounded four-year-old, all would be right with the world.

I don't know about this. Maybe he's right. Maybe I only have HALF a maternal instinct, and that's why I buy all these plants, and have a celebration every time the rubber plant unrolls a new leaf, and wring my hands when the china doll grows too near the stove burner and gets singed. Maybe that's why I sit at breakfast every morning and encourage the ficus.

Then, of course, there are the cats. I maintain that I don't really have three cats, because having three cats in a one-room apartment in Brooklyn would be crazy. I just have one Cat, the Big Splendid Cat. Then there is the Little Kitty, a different thing entirely, and utterly indispensable. The Brat was an afterthought, and anyway he spends most of his time in the ceiling, above the acoustic tiles, which he figured out how to rearrange all by himself.

The Brat, however, is constantly warring for space with the orchid and the japanese fern, and I really don't know what to do about it. They all NEED to hang out in the bathroom window, and there's not room for all three of them there. The plants get first dibs because they can't fight for themselves; they just sulk and languish for lack of humidity. The Brat sends them tumbling onto the litter box, and everyone comes out with bruises, not to mention soil all over the bathroom.

Perhaps this is all just half-assed procrastination. If I were serious about artistic procrastination I'd have a real baby, and put my art on hold for twenty years, and blame my frustration on the kid, and raise a serial killer and grow old and bitter. As it is I just futz around with watering cans and cat brushes and vaccuum cleaners as an excuse for not painting. That's what it seemed to be about on Friday, anyway, when I binged on campanulas after work, and then spent the next four hours watching Blind Date reruns, and went to bed excoriating myself for being lame and a failure and Not A Real Artist At All.

But then in the morning I realized that the reason I wasn't painting is that my studio was gunky. It was full of cat hair and dead leaves and little flakes of scraped-off paint, and dirty rags, and seven unfinished paintings, all abandoned at Awkward Stages. It was, simply, too disagreeable and overwhelming to contemplate, after massaging people all day, or before massaging people all day. So I vaccuumed with the hose attachment, turned five of the paintings wall-wards, took out vats of garbage, did the dishes, re-potted some more plants, and voila! I'm living in My Dream Life as an Artist. With off-white walls, high windows, sun streaming in, and cellos playing constantly in the background.

I can't help it, I'm a romantic.

Today, though, instead of painting, I biked all the way uptown and saw the Whitney Biennial, which was actually worth the eight hours, the absence of bike lanes above 10th street, and the day out of the studio on one of the two precious days a week I'm not chained to the gallery. Really, it ROCKED. The last Biennial I had a revelation; that the Whitney wasn't the sole arbiter of What's Good In Modern Art, and thus I didn't need to take the Biennial personally and get really pissed off. Instead, I took it as a "look at this, isn't that odd" sort of thing. The years before that I DID get really pissed off, and competitive, and despairing.

This year, for the first time, I had an unequivocal blast. I didn't walk up to each piece and think, "how cute," or "I can sort of see that," or "mmmmm." I walked into the first room, which was full of big paintings by people who actually knew how to paint, and went "caramba!" Then I went to the next room, which was full of complicated psychedelic images and videos and flashing lights in ever-changing colors, and went, "boop-be-doop-doop doop," and by the time I got to the sculptures of decaying werewolves in mirrored tombs with hummingbirds plucking jewels from their bones which were growing stalactites of quartz crystals, I was cackling and whooping unabashedly. I don't know how I would possibly write about this exhibition professionally--there was simply too much of it, and not enough for me to be ironic about. I simply say, "Hiiiii-yah! I salute you," plunk down my $40 for an artist membership at long last, and leave it at that.

On the bicycle I noticed that lately, the world is full of smells, and most of them are scrumptious, for some strange reason. They are the kinds of redolent smells that imprint happy memories--baking cinnamon rolls, tobacco smoke, rain, herbal soap, indefinable green, floral things. I don't know whether it's a sudden, miraculous respite of allergies, a random spiritual progression, or just spring. Spring is a much, much, much bigger deal in a place where winter is constantly dark and full of piles of non-negotiable black icy sludge. I used to think that people who fussed about Spring were about as fatuous as the curators of the Whitney Biennial. Now I'm bouncing around telling people, "it's Spring! it's Spring!" like a total idiot.

On the way home, after sitting in a burger joint having a celebratory Guinness and writing euphoric scribbles in my journal, I suddenly thought I'd start sculpting again, or making the sort of sculpture/painting/installation things I started making in art school, and stopped making for lack of encouragement. I realized lately that you can KNOW that your instructors were jealous and screwed up and second-rate, and were being condescending and unsupportive out of ego and insecurity, and still internalize their attitude to such a degree that you stop making neat stuff. I thought I'd make the towers again, little beautiful objects climbing up the wall or falling down the wall, and maybe this time the objects could be chakras. Towers of seven chakras each, made of all sorts of lovely things. Or I could do free-standing assemblage sculptures with the same theme, only then I'd have to get ten times as much space and a welding shop.

And I could use the plants in them, and call it art.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Don't let it bite

I hate this show. There, I've said it. I hate the show that is hanging in my own personal gallery at the moment. I want to burn every stupid ugly fatuous self-satisfied dorky piece of lame slacker art in it. I can't afford to do this, because said lame slacker art carries price tags that only an idiot would take seriously, and I have signed pieces of paper taking responsibility for it. Instead I will sit here, smile and endure for another week and a half, then I will take it carefully down, pack it responsibly, pay an art shipping company a ridiculous sum of money to take it back where it came from, and do a sage purification ritual in the gallery. Ugh.

How did I get myself into this position? I am now representing the kind of schlock that I officially declared war against, lo these many years since, and I have not changed my aesthetic agenda in the meantime. The truth is, my attempt at playing Art World politics came and bit me in the butt. I let somebody curate this show who was 1) an old friend of mine and 2) several rungs further up on the Art World hierarchy than I am.

This curator certainly didn't slack. She included 22 artists, designed a web site with a page for every one, designed and printed postcards, wrote the press release, and hand-built a crate to get the art here on a plane. I was thrilled. I felt incredibly lucky to have such a person working so hard on the gallery's behalf. When she pulled the first painting out of the crate and said, "Look, isn't this BEAUTIFUL," I took it as an intellectual exercise in restraining judgement, while expanding my aesthetic horizons. You get good at that in art school.

Let me describe, at random, some of the "art" around me. Hanging on the wall to my right, there is an object that looks to be a box lid made out of burlap. The burlap is painted in what looks like cheap poster paint, with a splotch of burnt umber, some sienna, and some plain brown, in the shape of mountains, with blue sky above. Three sea shells are carefully glued to the bottom, and brown yarn is wound around pins at the corners, framing the piece, and dangling down at the corners. The whole thing is indistiguishable from an arts and crafts project perpetrated by a rather anal retentive and singularly unimaginative third grader. Price: $2300.00.

Or take the painting that was represented to me by the curator as being "like YOUR work"--a painting of a nineteenth-century marine battle scene, carefully traced from an actual copy of an actual bad painting, rendered bright with a hot pink background, lurid yellow and monkey-shit brown ships, and explosions rendered in Marx-a-Lot. The artist claims to be "claiming the painting with individual color choice and mark-making." Then there is the large pink painting with the stuffed arms hanging down, terminated by bloody detail brushes instead of hands; the orange-and-yellow pastel glorification of a piece of steel workout equipment; the "party zone" painting--oh, don't even ASK me to describe the "party zone" painting. You don't want to know.

I took this in stride. In courtesy to the curator, and as a junior member of the Art World, it was not my place to remonstrate or complain. My love Cornelius told me, "It's like she's an Easter Bunny, creating an Easter egg with other people's work in your gallery. It will be okay." I was prepared for some craziness and conflict. Over the years this artist/curator has manifested signs of nearly every diagnosable psychological disorder on the books, with creative mergers and variations. In fact, she herself announced the latest theory, after having rejected "borderline," "bipolar," "obsessive-compulsive", "schizo-affective" and various others over the years.

"I think I'm a narcissist," she said. "But my shrink says I'm a healthy narcissist."

"Oh no, you're not," I said. This was early on in the visit.

The day she arrived, she wanted me to throw her a birthday party. Which I did. I picked her and her fiance up at the airport at the crack of dawn, unloaded the art, took her to breakfast, took them to my apartment (where they took naps), went back to the gallery where I worked on a client (I earn my living as a massage therapist, since "artist and gallerist and putz" doesn't earn much), went home, whipped up an elegant dinner of tortellini with marinara sauce from scratch, made elegant conversation till the small hours, supplied guests with clean sheets and towels and bed and groceries, and gracefully collapsed. This was fine.

The next day she demanded the sewing machine, which belonged to a friend of mine. I went to the store for breakfast food to feed my guests, fed them, went to my friend's house for the machine, took everybody to the gallery where they hung artwork and I worked on clients, fetched tools and supplies...this is getting tedious. Suffice it to say that we were busy, and my personal space was swamped. This was fine. I had anticipated this. I coped.

In fact, nothing really bothered me, not being the on-call 24-hour chauffeur, not staying up all hours, not continuously mopping up the chaos and trying to glean myself an oasis of peace amidst all of it. My friend the artist/curator knew a handful of big-shot dealers and critics and collectors in New York, and she dragged them all through my gallery. This was great, wonderful, fabulous. It's really difficult to get big-shot dealers and critics and collectors into your gallery, if you are a junior member of the Art World in New York City.

The moment I hit the wall, however, was the moment when a big-shot dealer entered the gallery, my friend formally presented each and every piece of fatuous, juvenile art in the place, and let drop the enthusiastic recommendation, "You should give [lame slacker artist] a show! He has a video about DANCING POO!"

After this it is history. Toast. I cannot stand to look at this person, cannot endure her ceaseless babbling, am no longer present in my own body.

There is a thin line between kitsch and shit, which all serious artists must negotiate. Milan Kundera defines "kitsch" as "the pretense that shit does not exist," and I have never found a better definition. To be accused of producing kitsch is one of the worst insults that can be hurled at an aspiring Art World artist. To be accused of producing shit, well...evidently, that's okay.

At the back of the gallery is the "massage room." Oh, humble name. I designed it. I work there. I hang my paintings there, my beautiful, beautiful paintings, which are about light and love and grief, and the illusions of time, and the transcendence of spirit. I've given up security to make those paintings; I've given up a lot of things.

To the back of the gallery was where the big-shot dealers, critics, and collectors never went, because the artist/curator never let them. Literally. "Don't go back there, that's not part of the show, go this way," she literally said, steering them physically by the arm. She did the body-blocking thing, she did the talking-nonstop thing, she did the forget-to-introduce-the-owner thing. She talked and talked and talked, about herself. She stayed in the gallery all night before the opening, had a meeting with a dealer at 8 AM, and when I entered my healing space afterward, it had been turned, literally, into a junkroom. My junkroom, with my art on the walls.

"WHY in the WORLD did you hook up with this ASSHOLE?" said Cornelius, never one to mince words.

"I was twenty-four and stupid," I answered. And, twelve years later, I made the mistake of thinking that a certain amount of career success and years of therapy would mitigate a person's fundamental asshole-hood. BLAAAAAAT! Wrong.

During the opening, which I survived without having visible meltdowns or throttling anybody, I had a slow revelation. That assholes attract their own kind, and the dealers, critics, and collectors that take this person seriously are few, and screwed up themselves. That the fact that I'm a good listener who is actually interested in people beside myself is a great asset. That really, the Art World doesn't matter all that much.

Just after the show opened, and I had gently confronted the artist/curator with her tacky behavior, and she had utterly failed to comprehend me, I got an offer for "gallery representation." This gallery was "in the heart of Chelsea, the epicenter of the New York Art World." I could join their "family of artists." All it would cost me was $1750 in representation fees, payable in full by cash, check or charge, three months before my opening, date to be scheduled upon payment.

Of course, No Artist Should EVER Do This. Real galleries do not charge representation fees. If a gallery asks for money, they are a scam. But I checked them out anyway, just to be absolutely sure. They do exist, and they are located in Chelsea, in a cubicle at the end of the hall on the fourth floor of a building full of galleries. They are never mentioned in Art in America, the New York Times, the New Yorker, or Art Forum. I visited them; to be precise, I went to the door and peered round it. Ugh. It was a veritable Sea Of Kitsch. We are talking reproductions of seventeenth-century petit-point furniture. We are talking urns full of dried foliage. We are talking wall relief sculptures of varnished driftwood. We are talking doctor's office paintings. I fled. I wrote them a politely caustic letter declining their offer, and requesting the return of my portfolio.

When my portfolio arrived, to me it looked sadly diminished, tainted by its encounter with the kitsch-mongers. I looked for telltale clues that might say "this one is a likely target." Then I put it in a drawer, to be taken out upon a less vulnerable day.

"Be patient," says Cornelius. "Don't let the bad art bite." It's a thin line, but somebody's got to walk it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

C.'s crazy brother

is standing in front of my gallery screaming at his girlfriend. It's like watching the genetically mutated, white-trash versions of myself and C.--ourselves, bloated, drug-addled, miserable and graceless. The girlfriend nearly had a show at my gallery last year. She makes these amazing fantasy theme dolls; she takes old Barbies and other trashed goopy commercial dolls, strips them, paints them, dresses them, adds wings or model horse bodies to make mythical creatures out of them, turns them into little copies of celebrities or Pocohantas or the Spirit of Autumn or whatever. She came shyly into the gallery, the first month it was open, and showed me some pictures. She'd never had an art show, but had made a mint selling her creations on eBay.

It was quite a risk for me to say "yes, you can have a show," but wow, they were really neat. They worked because they were completely naive and completely sincere. "This might be considered almost 'folk art,'" I said, in my best impersonation of Sophisticated Gallerist. I asked her if she could show in October, but she said no, that wasn't enough time. I got some images on disk from her and started making her a web page.

She wasn't, then, the official girlfriend of C.'s crazy brother. "Omen III--The Sibling," as C. calls him, is officially married to somebody else, with whom he was living across the street, along with their fifteen-year-old son. C. has been The Omen's keeper for the last fifteen years. The Omen has tried to kill him more than once, with a baseball bat, in the midst of crack fits. He has wrecked C.'s car, threatened his tenants, tried to get a crooked cop friend to set him up for assault, broken into his bedroom in the dead of night and forced him to flee half-naked through the alley in below-freezing weather. He has been beaten to within an inch of his life by drug lords to whom he owes money. He vents his temper with a crowbar on parked cars. He is one of the primary reasons C. was hospitalized a few years ago, with incipient heart failure.

Sometime round about last September, The Omen's son caught The Omen screwing the Doll Girl in the park, in broad daylight, under some bushes. Much mayhem and legal hoopla ensued. Tangled up in the hoopla were a number of property transactions, having to do with relatives who died inestate, or with estates which then had to be questioned because a primary beneficiary was having crack fits and beating up tenants. It was all too complicated and too subtle to be explained here. The only thing that amazed me was "why in the world would ANYBODY want to screw The Omen anywhere, let alone in broad daylight in the park?"

I had been in occasional contact with the Doll Girl, trying to arrange a date for her show. I had the idea that she should show with another artist, preferably one with a standard "art world" resume, in order to boost her credentials by association, and to ensure a decent turnout at the opening. I was getting a crash course in just how hard it is to run a gallery in New York City, even rent-free in the middle of the trendiest art neighborhood going. Critical, financial, and social "success" really IS based on Who You Know, and I din't know nobody. It is a bad idea to show artists from Out of Town, no matter how stunning their work, if you haven't already got a mailing list of over 1,000 loyal patrons; people come to the opening, and then possibly buy art, and have critics possibly write about it, only if they Know Somebody. Meanwhile, printing cards, paying for light and heat and phone and booze at the opening, not to mention rent and groceries, gets expensive.

In other words, young artists, if a gallery gets interested in you, treat them nicely.

Anyway, about mid-October, as I was hanging our third major show at midnight, along with the current artist, the previous artist (a real doll, that girl) and C., my love, I got an email from the Doll Girl. She wanted to know if I could guarantee the date of her show, since she was about to start work on it.

Now, to those of you not involved in the Art World, this may seem like a simple, innocent question, even a reasonable one. But those of you not involved in the Art World have, ipso facto, never been an art student; you have never asked a gallery for a show; you have never entered juryings, applied for scholarships, grants, residencies, or teaching jobs. You have never had the precious issue of your soul turned down and down and down until you were ready to dig a twelve-foot trench under the city, burrow into it, curl up at the bottom and stay there till your bones have turned to amethyst. You do not know the Myth, which is that Real Artists Make Art, even if the show is not guaranteed, even if the show never happens in your lifetime, even if you never get paid, ha! even if you go hundreds of thousands of millions in debt to finance your Art.

And here, here! is an unknown, naive, uneducated Folk Artist with the NERVE to insist that I guarantee her a date before she sets brush to Barbie. Steam gushed forth from my aural cavities. I slammed the "Reply" button so hard the building shook in its foundations; my fingers flew over the keys like sharks dismembering a goat. C. and the artists noticed something was going on. "Whoa, Serena," they said. "Disconnect the computer and slowly back away from the keyboard. Do nothing at this time." As C. pointed out, she's already screwing The Omen. It would be excessively, even suicidally unwise to give her a show at this point, even if she lined 75 exotic Barbies up at the front door. She has simply given me an ironclad excuse to dump her, and seem kind.

After about 48 hours, I wrote the Doll Girl a kind and apologetic letter. Circumstances beyond my control, having to do with the curator for the April show and her dealer, rendered me unable to fix any dates at all at this moment; it would be unfair of me to ask her to start work at this point. If she happened to produce any work she was particularly proud of, I'd love to take a look at it. I think she is very gifted, and am very sorry. Case closed.

All these many months later, I see the Doll Girl passing my door. During the time that The Omen was trying to work things out with his wife, she looked tearful and despairing. It was, still, difficult to believe that anybody could have genuine yearnings for The Omen on any level, but so it seemed to be. Then The Omen finally left his wife, to the tune of much 5 AM screaming and dumping of furniture out windows. He and the Doll Girl moved in together and commenced throwing one continuous crack and Bacardi party in the basement, along with all the small-time crooks in the neighborhood. So perhaps they are happy.

I still expect to come across the Doll Girl's name in the police blotter section of The Post one of these days. I could write an elegy about romance and trampled innocence and Barbie dolls, but I won't. There's just no accounting for tastes.