A Painful Subject
- Category: Short Stories
- Published: Wednesday, 07 February 2018 17:13
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A Painful Subject
Emotions are what brought us together, all four of us starting in the same class. We learned perspective, colour, form, and negative space. Classic knowledge to help us become the artists we wanted to be. We struggled through our assignments working to develop our individual styles.
Clare, the socialist, filled her art with the iniquity of humanity. Tom, the naturalist, created paintings full of the wild and the wilder. Structures were what Beverly built. Her sculptures grew from the tension between hard and soft. I became the lost boy, never able to express what I held inside of me although it wanted to burn its way out of my body. We never discussed our personal pain. I never told them about the depression my mother suffered after my father left, or how much I longed to release her from her pain.
In our final year, Clare completed twenty classics, each one more socially disturbing than the last. She passed with honours. Tom completed five works. Their details so perfect the critics reported they smelled the wet fur and the rotting vegetation, their colours so intense you almost saw the moisture dripping from the leaves. Beverly’s ten sculptures sold for an unheard of amount for student work. Her fame blossomed. I had found my direction, but my procedure remained in the experimental stage. I didn’t graduate.
“Jesus, Curt, just slap something with social context across the canvas,” Clare told me on the last night. “You’ve been able to paint circles around us since first year. Just do it.”
“Leave him be, Clare,” Beverly told her. “Curt is building the armature for his work. He is searching for something special.”
Tom threw an arm across my shoulders, stumbling from too much drink as he did. “Curt will work it out. He’s just locating his north star. Leave him be girls. Let’s have another drink.”
They moved over to the bar and into their successes, leaving me with my problem to solve on my own.
We met every few years. It was unavoidable. The gallery I worked at carried their art. I was the one who hung Clare’s and Tom’s paintings for their openings, and struggled to place Bev’s sculptures in the best lighting. I was the one who wrapped their pieces for the customers, and loaded them onto the truck.
For the first few years they asked how my work progressed, but they didn’t comprehend my struggle, and they couldn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. They put their anger, pain, and disappointment into their pieces for everyone to view. No one grasped what I meant when I spoke about attempting to draw those emotions from others, to colour my paintings with the pain of my subjects. My concept of a modulator/demodulator of emotions made their eyes glaze. Their questions stopped. I continued to experiment.
* * *
“Get him out of here,” my Boss hissed. “He’s souring the show with his drunken slurs.”
“How can I do that? It’s his opening. He has a right to be here.”
“But it’s my gallery, my space, and my customers he is alienating. Listen to him.”
I glanced at Tom. The Boss was right; he was bad-mouthing his latest works to one of our best patrons while blowing his booze laden breath into her disgusted expression.
“Excuse me Mrs. Wang,” I said, as I moved myself between her and Tom.
“Curt,” Tom blurted, as he transferred an arm to my shoulder and his breath to my face. “How you doing Buddy? What do you think of my latest crap?”
“Let’s get a breath of fresh air, Tom, and I’ll tell you, but first lets return the wine bottle to the table.”
I pried the bottle from his hand. It wasn’t difficult after his initial resistance. Tom’s fortitude and strength were drying up faster than thinly applied acrylic. His ego deflated before my eyes, as a look of pain replaced his obnoxious expression, and his eyes became moist. We made our way into the back storage room where I donned my cloth coat and draped Tom in his full length leather. Instead of clearing his head the frosty air made him stagger. I got an arm around him and hailed a cab.
“Good idea Buddy, ditch this affair and go get a drink.”
“No, we’re going to my studio. You can critique my work.”
“Your studio? You still trying to do art?”
“Yes. Right now I’m perfecting my tools.”
The cool air from the open window quickened his blood. The glaze disappeared from his eyes to be replaced with a whimsical longing. He brushed with both hands at the lines bitterness had drawn across his face.
“I wish we were back in school, Curt… first year was the best, trying to hone our gifts… searching for our styles… experimenting. I was alive back then, work was exciting, it was fresh, and everything was possible. Now, it’s the same pallet, the same size canvas, always the same subject. Do you know I used the same stuffed owl in my last five pieces, and no one noticed or cared? My paintings grace the space above many of the finest couches in the world.” I had never heard the word couches used with such distaste.
“You could change your style,” I told him as I paid the cabbie. “Do something different, something new.”
He considered what I had said as we climbed the stairs to my place. “I don’t think I can, Curt. This rut is too deep. I’ve considered it; believe me I have, but—what the hell is that?”
He was staring at my latest piece, a portrait of the heroin addict from down stairs. I had to admit it looked strange, like a cross between a late period Picasso and an atmosphere study by Turner. Tom moved closer and ran his fingers along the edge. He looked around the room.
“That is a fantastic piece of art, Curt, but how are you getting the picture to the screen? It looks like a plasma television. Where is the original?”
“That is the original, and it’s not a television,” I explained. “I have developed a coated glass to use as my canvas. The colours are applied using this.” I held up my emotion extractor. “It is called an emotion modem.”
“It looks like something you use to measure brain waves.”
“Good observation. It sits on my subjects head and connects to the glass using these three contact points—one point for each primary colour. It transfers the emotions it receives from the individual to the glass, as colour and form, to produce a portrait of the person. The piece you are looking at is of a heroin addict who lived downstairs. She’s gone now. I have tweaked the device since I did this portrait. Her colours were too muddy. I wanted crisper. They should be clearer in the next piece.”
“Can you do me? Can you paint my pain?”
“Sure. Let me set up a new canvas.”
* * *
The colours were much more to my liking after the tweak, and in my run-down neighborhood it was easy to find models for my pieces. In a few months I had a body of work to show my boss. He liked it enough to inject me into the gallery schedule. My show received rave reviews. Picasso’s forms with the emotion of Munch’s, The Scream, one critic said. Clare and Beverly both attended my opening. I met up with them in front of Tom’s portrait.
“Curt, I love these pieces, this one is amazing. So much pain, frustration, and self-loathing captured in an abstract, and you still brought out the individual. It’s Tom isn’t it?”
“Yes, Bev. I did it six months ago after his last show.”
“I haven’t seen him for ages. How is he?”
“We connected just before that show,” Clare said. “He was a mess, and someone said he made a fool of himself at the opening.” Her words reflected the bitterness etched into her face.
“You’re right, the opening was bad, but Tom is at peace now.”
“At peace,” Clare said. “I wish I could close my mind off and find peace.”
“Maybe I can help with that, Clare,” I told her.
© Dave Skinner, 2016