Saturday, October 3, 2009

When the Masquerade Ends

[NB: If this post seems like a departure from my usual subject matter, it is. It's from an email I received from a friend whose name also begins with "M" - such an odd communication that I couldn't resist sharing it with you here.]

I want to tell you about a letter I received yesterday. It’s from a friend with whom I hadn't spoken in years. It feels like another lifetime back when our lives coincided in some meaningful way; though we had been close friends during high school, we later drifted in vastly different directions. So when I looked at the sender name in my email inbox, it felt like finding an article of clothing that I thought I'd thrown out years ago. P___ had gone on to a life in images, by which I mean he had become a visual artist. His preferred medium was pencil. Soon after graduating from high school, he had carved out a stylistic niche for himself with a series of drawings which showed at several art museums in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest - some are museums you might have heard of, others are obscure repositories of the merely-talented majority which, in the world of fine art, rarely enjoys the privilege of prolonged attention from the critics. But it was the time his work spent in the first type of museum - the significant one which, when mentioned to an acquaintance would cause eyebrows to raise - that had remained a source of comfort and even a kind of fuel for living. At least that's the way I must look at it now. When we last spoke and when he might have sensed the faintest signs of the approaching twilight of his repute and meager acclaim within the art world, I only had a small suspicion that the limelight was so important to P___.

For obvious reasons of privacy and security, I will not divulge the identity of P___ here. But I must share with you at least a cursory account (both in its length and in my own limited comprehension of recent aesthetic debates in the visual arts) of the artistic work that put him on the map, for it will figure importantly later in the story. The series of drawings in question could be described as neo-realistic. They are of fairly standard size - about ten by fourteen inches - and they are all landscapes. The pencil strokes are generally fine, controlled, precise; the depiction of objects is vivid, nuanced, almost photo-realistic despite its own monochrome. P___ was quickly recognized as a consummate draftsman with a keen eye for detail. It was also noted by more than one critic that his landscape drawings were unusual for the very breadth of visual field which they recreated. These were landscapes with an overabundance of land: what appeared to be an accomplished if unremarkable scene with a mountain silhouette as its focus would, if the viewer placed himself closer to the paper, reveal itself to be an image containing the sky above and behind, the mountains themselves, below that creeks running through foothills, and finally a small town. The sheer amount of lifelike, representational visual information that he managed to fit onto a 10 x 14 sheet of paper was impressive.

It was said that when looking at such a drawing from close range, the eye did not know where to go. The drawings almost stood in opposition to themselves; the details of said town competing with the chiseled contours of the mountainscape for the viewer's attention. There seemed to be many points of focus, or none at all. The term "hyperlandscape" was coined by a prominent critic in Portland to encapsulate the technique and its effect upon the eye of the beholder.

Yet this alone would not have garnered P___ even fleeting success. The crucial element in the alchemy that caused his moment of fame was that his landscapes were of virtually unknown locations. Each time a viewer was struck by the skill of the pencil work, the feelings of curiosity and fascination aroused in the viewer would be compounded upon realizing that he had never even heard of the locale depicted. My friend, it was said, had a knack for finding an unknown town, a forgotten valley, and bringing it to vibrant life. His brilliance lay in his ability to see what others had not even bothered to know about. So it was said.

As his work began to makes its rounds through the galleries, and then the museums, of the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, a small movement developed. People became inspired by P___'s drawings to visit the locations he had portrayed. He stood by the dual claims that he always drew actual places that existed in the world, and that his pieces were completely accurate representations, both in content and scale, of the locations at the time of drawing. When people became fascinated with these meagerly-sized yet opulently detailed landscapes, they knew the next step had to be a pilgrimage to see for themselves.

As I mentioned, I inferred from our last conversation that P___ might have suspected the waning of his success in the art world. This sentiment was outlined rather than directly communicated through a story he told me about a conversation he had with an art critic who had been an early champion of P___'s work. The critic had ventured to one of the "secret" locations portrayed in one of P___'s drawings which he, the critic, most admired. He reported to P___ what a disappointing trip it had turned out to be. The critic found none of the charm and wonder of the drawing to be reflected in the tangible reality of the village visited. Though he supported my friend's claims to representational veracity, at least on a physical level, the critic found that the same houses in reality struck him as less vibrant, less crisp, than their miniature reproductions in my friend's drawing. The critic explained that the whole experience function for him as a temporally and geographically protracted inversion of trompe l'oeil.

P___ related this to me with a note of distress in his voice, almost as though he were telling me that he had been involved in a money-laundering scheme and was scared of being found out. He lingered on the critic's insistence that though there was nothing inaccurate or exaggerated about the drawing - that he still agreed that my friend's proportions, lines, and shadings were correct - he nevertheless felt the actual town was somehow less "present" than the drawing had led him to believe (and P___ quoted the critic as using the word "present"). He was distressed by the implications behind the critic's impressions: that his renderings were somehow fundamentally disingenuous, that his work was contrived not in the sense that all artistic creation is artifice but rather in the sense that P___ was somehow unable to fully connect with reality, that though he portrayed the physical shapes of reality perfectly an apparently metaphysical - and crucial - aspect of this reality was completely lost on him.

If you are still reading, I offer my thanks and my apologies. I thank you for indulging me this extended preamble and I apologize that it was so extended. But it was necessary to properly introduce P___'s letter itself, for it makes mention of events in the past without knowledge of which the letter might strike you as irrelevant. I reproduce the letter now and assure you that though I have abridged it, I have left in everything relevant to our story:

Dear M,

How in the world have you been?! I know it's been
YEARS since we spoke, wrote, or even emailed. I wanted to call you and catch up properly – hear everything that’s going on with you – but I could only find your email address, and so I want to share a story with you while it’s fresh in my mind. In the past few months I've witnessed a series of events which made me think deeply about our last conversation - you remember, the one where I told you about that critic who took that disappointing trip to S_____ A_______? You might have been wondering what happened to me after that phone call. Well, it's enough to say that I went into a sort of downward spiral soon after that. A couple of exhibits I had in small, regional museums got very bad local press. I never did that well in galleries, but after those crumby reviews, most gallery-owners suddenly had openings booked through the following year or wouldn't return phone calls, or had a million other things to do as soon as I walked in their front door.

The pain of this was terrible, and the bottle soon became the only thing that made it go away - at least for a night, until the next morning when it would come back accompanied by nausea and headaches! I had been riding a wave of positive energy and when things started to not go my way it really felt like the end of the world. I kept thinking to myself, "This is not the way it's supposed to be going; I want a redo!" Rather than even try to get my work into new spaces, other galleries, I just started to shut down. Luckily I had some money saved from the good times, because when no one wanted my stuff on their walls, I wasn’t about to go out and get a day job.

A few months passed by, and then I met a guy who written a collection of children’s stories. He knew my work, and liked it, and he needed an illustrator. Turns out he actually had a contract for this collection, so if I supplied the drawings I’d definitely get compensated. I took the job but my ego took a big hit. I secretly felt it was beneath me. After all, I was a “fine artist” – my stuff had shown in museums. So now I had work for a while, but I still had that bottle in my cupboard as well as that knot in my stomach.

The knot only started to go away once I met another artist, this painter named Grossinger. He was living in B______, not far from me, and we started to run into each other in galleries around the area. It didn’t take long for me to realize Grossinger was a coke-head. Constant trips to the bathroom, the energy, the mood swings, the itchy nose. When he was down, he’d just stand there looking at pieces on the walls. When he was high, he’d talk. A lot. About what he’d done, where his work had been in the past, who he fucked, whose career he helped. He’d also badmouth all the artists whose work we’d look at in galleries. This one didn’t know the fundamental nature of the medium she was using; that one was a mindless colorist with no real soul in his pieces.

Like me, Grossinger had become a darling of the art press because of a specific series – he did these oil paintings which were portraits of celebrities. They were caricatures, really. They would be all one color and he used different surface textures to actually depict features, faces, bodies. So picture a monochrome rectangle of red, which, if you tilted your head a bit, would show a cartoony likeness of, say, Nicole Richie. It was conceptual art, he explained: it was a self-conscious parody of itself, a commentary on how vapid and materialist American culture is in the form of a vapid, simplistic painting. The critics loved it, Grossinger explained. They called it “post-aesthetic” and “post-postmodern.”

And Grossinger would talk about how fickle the critics, museum curators, and gallery owners were. How they thought he was brilliant one year, and a tired hack the next. He talked about his fight against eternity, his battle with history. “You’ve gotta understand, P___,” he’d lecture to me, “history is like this big fucking
tank coming at you. And if you just wait and let it roll over you, that’s what’ll happen. It’ll flatten you. You’ve gotta fight against the force of history, try to step outside history to become something lasting. That’s what I’m trying to do now, you see.” He’d speak about this crap in jittery, staccato sentences fueled by cocaine. Sometimes he sounded like a bad impersonation of Edward G. Robinson in a gangster role; I actually had to keep from laughing at times!

One part of me wanted to avoid Grossinger – he was like that guest at a party that just backs you into a corner and doesn’t let go. But another part of me was fascinated by his bitterness, the seemingly epic fall he had taken or was in the process of taking. It was like watching an execution replayed over and over again; it felt like being around him was helping me to see what I didn’t want to become. I guess yet another part of me just plain felt bad for the guy.

And I realized that the problem Grossinger was having was the same problem I had had:
he had lost sight of why he started drawing, or painting (or whatever it is one does) in the first place. While I had hit the bottle, he was hitting the blow. The same way he got swept up in how popular his paintings were in galleries, I had gotten sucked into all that talk of critics who said that my drawings were gimmicky, a mere passing fad on the scene. But I started to believe all that bullshit, started to really think that when I drew those landscapes it was only because I wanted fame and money, started to forget that I really loved those places and so I drew them. Maybe Grossinger had been calculating about his art, had just done what he figured the critics would love. I forgot that it hadn’t started that way with me. It became all about how “hot” I was, how popular and sexy my work was considered. I somehow forgot all about all those other artists who have one, two or even three great years but then twenty lousy ones. Grossinger, strung out on cocaine, would walk into galleries during openings and scream at the patrons, pick up bottles of wine and toss them across the room, yelling, “I’m not gonna sink into anonymity, you pricks! I will beat history, you fucking leeches!”  I'd seen him go into this routine more than a few times. It usually ended with him clearing out the opening and the gallery owner clearing him (and me) out. He was almost ruthless in his willingness to self-destruct. It was like he wanted to make a public spectacle of his misery, his anger, his pain.

The pain can be terrible, sure. And if you let it, it'll eat you alive - I could show you dozens upon of bottles to prove that. But there is a way out. For me, the key was understanding that Grossinger's fight against history is a mistake altogether, and also understanding that it had been my fight too, though in a much more private way. And the thing I want to tell Grossinger, the thing he actually helped me realize though he doesn’t know he did, is that you can’t beat history. You can take a shot at it, you can think and feel like you’re beating it, but that only lasts for a while. It’s a masquerade, that feeling, and when the masquerade ends you’ve got to come up with another way to feel like you’re worth something. You’ve got to realize that everyone else can like your stuff, but that all doesn’t matter unless you like it too. You’ve got to see that just because you’re not at the top of the heap doesn’t mean you’re drowning at the bottom of the gutter. And it certainly doesn’t mean you can go and harass strangers, screaming crazy shit at them just because you think they’re not giving you enough attention...

After this, P___'s email quickly segues into a recounting of the more mundane facets of his recent life, a topic which does not concern us here.

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