The traffic on the main street of town was light for 6:30 on a warm fall evening. If one were to count the seconds between the passing of cars, an average of nine seconds could be arrived at. Jay sat on the worn limestone steps of the Church of England building and watched the comings and goings across the street at the Red Lantern building, a five story limestone structure which showed some vague Art Deco influences but was mostly notable for the varied and colourful tenants it attracted. Its low rent and downtown location made it ideal for members of the arts community and for alternative, and sometimes shadowy, businesses. It was at the leading edge of what would turn into gentrification.
In a window on the third floor a hairdresser was talking and gesturing flamboyantly while setting the curls in his customers hair. Another window displayed an array of Doc Martin shoes and boots in a darkened boutique. At a window one storey up, patrons gazed at paintings while sipping wine and chatting at a gallery opening. A gallery opening which Jay had elected not to attend on the basis that representational art was “all bosh”, to use Evelyn Waugh's characterization of modernism. His girlfriend however had gone and he could see her through the window gesturing as she talked to the artist. Jay's eye crawled up and down the building, noting the cracks in the stone work, the silver and gold lettering that spelled the name and civic address and the conical pointed crenellations at the top of the building. How strange, this medieval flourish on the otherwise disciplined facade. The loud rumble of a Harley Davidson approached from the north and stopped directly in front of him across the street. The rider set his bike up on it's kick, turned it off and dismounted. He was extremely skinny, quite tall, about six foot two and had coke-bottle eyeglasses. He was unshaven, wore long stringy hair and a black leather vest with a small badge on it that read Hells Angels M.C. Jay thought to himself, he'd never seen such a geeky biker. No sooner had the notion formulated itself than the man across the street leveled a hard, withering gaze at Jay. Jay returned the gaze as though he were watching a movie, simply observing the situation until finally he understood that communication was being made, and it was of the most caustic form. He quickly looked away and stared down the street, still feeling the casual animosity directed at him. When he looked again, the biker had turned and walked through the double glass doors of the building. He watched as the winged skull disappeared behind elevator doors. He sat reflecting on the curiosity of the mind, how he had been unaware of his direct involvement in the forgoing encounter when a movement across the street took his attention. It was the elevator doors opening two floors up and the re-emergence of the biker, who, due to the setting sun in the west staring down on the bank of windows that opened onto the central hallway of the building from ground to top floor before him, had no idea he was still being observed from the street. He walked down the hallway, back toward the street and stopped to knock at a door, the door of the Doc Martin display. Jay looked at the window display and saw a movement in the semi darkness. He was amazed at the scene unfolding before him. It was just like Rear Window. The movement materialized into a person responding to the knock. The biker walked into the small store and immediately turned to the window, looked directly at Jay and pulled the blinds. As Jays gaze fell away from the building it was immediately taken by a man walking down the street in bare-feet, carrying what appeared to be very expensive shoes. The man was singing in a mumbled high pitched voice the words to a Bee Gees song, “night fever, night fever we know how to do it yeah.”
* * *
He could smell the sulfur ten feet away when he walked out of the store. She was on the sidewalk, upwind, trying to light a cigarette, but the matches blew out almost immediately in the autumn breeze. She’d gone through half a pack already when he walked up to her.
“ I thought you’d quit.“ He said as he offered his lighter.
“I have. These are clove cigarettes. No nicotine, no tar.” She lit up.
“Blech, they stink.” He pulled the neck of his shirt up over his nose like a bankrobber. “You might as well just smoke oregano, or tea leaves, or tree leaves, at least they’re free.”
“This relaxes me.” She drew hard on the pseudo-cigarette, burning away a third of it and coughed as she exhaled. “What did you buy?”
He drew the record out of the grocery bag and showed it to her, waiting for the ridicule.
“Oh...them” she more or less muttered.
“This is a good record,” he intoned in what he knew was a higher register than sounded self assured. “It's an important record.”
They had started walking down the sidewalk, past the Old Burial Ground. There was a monument to two dead soldiers from the Crimean War inside the gates on top of which stood a fierce looking lion. The lore amongst drunken seamen held that the lion would roar when a virgin walked by. Jay glanced furtively at it but was unsurprised at the silence as they passed.
“I thought you already had it. When are you going to give up on those guys and get with the times? Christ, that record is twenty years old and they're so out of date.” She took one last drag on her cigarette and though it was only her third she dropped it and crushed it under her foot. “Sexist jerks.” She added thoughtfully.
“This is an original Decca recording. And it's better than anything you can buy now. What would you buy, the English Beat or something? Talk about old hat. That stuff is just rehashed Herman and the Hermits. Its all so lame. This record had a huge impact on the sexual revolution in its day.” He stopped short, knowing he was getting himself into dangerous waters.
“Oh yeah, how? By referring to his girlfriend as a squirmy dog? Or maybe the general sentiments of Stupid Girl show how enlightened and progressive they were.” A slight tinge of red was developing at the top of her cheeks as the anger began to mount at the very thought of such expressed emotions. “Those guys are dinosaurs and sometimes I wonder about your unexamined devotion to them.” She quickened her pace.
He was struggling desperately now to disentangle himself from what he knew could be a funk that would darkly color the rest of his day.
“Men had to free themselves from the social mores of the time in order to advance the cause of women…at the time.” He trailed off, doubting whether this last statement would mollify her. He wondered just how out of date his notions really were. Surely he was not a sexist. He glanced over at his companion and felt a black aura engulf him. Shit. There goes a beer after class. Now he would have to spend the evening discussing Fassbinder films with some Visiting critic (a culture vulture, he thought) if he were to dig himself out of the hole he was now in. Shit.
They walked in silence through the warm October day, past the parade square where the local Marxist/Leninists were passing out The Socialist Worker and warning interested passers by (more than usual) of the dangers of the new National Security Service. One of them looked just like Stalin, only with longer hair and a corduroy jacket. Jay wondered what the status of brown corduroy would be under a totalitarian regime. Brown; good. Corduroy; superfluous. Call out the firing squad. Rodchenko probably would have gotten away with it. The cool communist artist. Malevich, on the other hand, would probably have been considered a fruit. His name lacked the fricatives necessary to support such a bold initiative and he would be sent to the gulag to paint abstractions in his own shit on his cell walls. Jay looked again and noticed that the Workers had made a new recruit. An attractive young woman. How did that happen? Why would she want to waste her time with these disheveled bozos? Although she did explain the number of downtown business types who were suddenly taking an interest in radical politics.
As they entered the school, Simon Wool, professor of New media, Head of the Fine arts Department, immediately waylaid them. He had a dirty blond goatee that looked like it could remove paint from an iron bed and a handlebar moustache, granny glasses and beige cords. A perfect candidate for the gulag, thought Jay.
“Uh, Vette?” He spoke in a transatlantic accent, which had probably helped land him the position of acting head of the New Arts department.
“Hi Simon.” Vette mewled, her mood abruptly shifting from one of a despondent sulk to pandering cheerfulness.
“I’ve read your proposal for a study of sexuality in Abstract Expressionism. I’m particularly interested in the latent homosexuality informing the work of Dekooning and Pollack and how it is manifested in their social activities at Village bars. D' you think we could get together and discuss how you’re going to explore these themes? Shall we say two in my office?”
He had pronounced the word office in an accent that modulated somewhere between Brooklyn and the Thames valley.
“Sure Simon,” Vette bubbled. “Your office at two o’clock.”
Simon walked away after saying goodbye to Yvette and acknowledging Jay with an expression of either concern or apprehension. Jay had been observing the foregoing through hooded eyes. Watching him disappear into the stairwell, Jay observed how his buttocks road high on his legs and extended out somewhat, like a grackle.
“Did he just invite you to his orifice?”
Vette’s sullen mood returned as quickly as it had disappeared.
“Oh don’t be stupid Jay.” She was digging in her purse for her worry beads. “He happens to be a leading expert of art in America at mid century and I’m thrilled to be able to study with him.”
“He’s a goof. Where’d he get that accent, anyway, in Kensington market? Or from watching too many episodes of Doctor in the House? Or maybe it’s an accompanying injury from the accident that jacked up his ass.” He was smiling at his wandering humour. She was not.
“Just because he’s managed to accomplish something, to get somewhere with his intelligence doesn’t entitle you to make him the butt of your childish jokes. At least he’s got an office. All you have is an orifice.”
His smile was gone. It was his turn to sulk.
He went to his studio, hoping the darkness of his mood would inspire some creativity. His studio was the end of a large room that he shared with four other painting majors. He had the windows, which were large, nearly floor to ceiling. They were arched and adorned the penultimate story of a nineteenth century Italianate row of buildings close to the city’s waterfront. From the inside all vestiges of the original architecture were lost except for sandblasted beams. He shared this quarter of the room with another painter, Isaac. But Isaac had abandoned painting and taken to writing poetry, which he lifted directly out of ads from fashion magazines. He had recently happened upon a huge haul of Vogue and Sears catalogues from the fifties to the late seventies at a yard sale in the suburbs. He’d had to borrow Jays father’s station wagon to move them all and spent a day humping the load up the two flights of stairs to his tiny apartment. He now spent all his time carefully leafing through each one, taking notes and cataloguing the entire collection. He hadn’t been seen by any one in three weeks, but people living in the building said they heard the constant sound of paper being riffled and ripped, occasionally abbreviated with chuckles and “oh yeah”s.
Jay had the area blocked off from view with some tarps, a piece of plywood and blankets he had stolen from his mother. The blankets kept on disappearing because one of the other students in an adjoining room, Lester Noseworthy, had taken to living inside a crawl space he had built out of lockers under a table in his studio space after being evicted from his apartment, having spent his entire student loan in two weeks on beer and LSD. He was now attempting to live on nothing more than multi-vitamins and such scraps as he found in the studios late at night. Jay had constantly to go wake him and reclaim his property.
Jay now started his routine for work. He dug in his paint box for the pipe he had made out of plumbing fixtures in sculpture class and felt in his pocket for a piece of hash. He loaded his pipe and lit up. He took a long drag and held the smoke in his lungs for as long as he could. He exhaled and coughed for what seemed a long time as he watched the world narrow to a fine point of focus. He put a cassette tape of Mingus in his paint-besmirched ghetto blaster and recharged the pipe, took another drag and ran to open the window. He didn’t want any other students coming to bum smoke off him. Now he was ready for, what? Action? Acting upon what? He didn’t know what he was doing. His latest painting was at a standstill, and the hash had made him desperately hungry. He couldn’t go to the cafeteria now, he was too stoned. He’d seen a banana next door in Gretchen’s studio, the German exchange student. It was part of a piece she was working on. The banana protruded out of a crotch of wood she’d found and was evidently intended to be a penis. A banana was just the thing for his sensitive stomach and he’d be able to replace it as soon as he got up the nerve to go out. He snuck out from his enclave, shiftily looked around and made off with the banana, tiptoeing as he snuck back to his space. He thought he heard a noise as he exited. Something falling? He put the sound out of his mind. Must stay focused. Must survive. The banana was large. He could barely eat it all. He tossed the skin on his worktable and turned his attention to his maquette.
It was a grouping he’d made of the Raft of the Medusa from the painting by Gericault. The raft was made of wood he’d scrounged in the wood shop and the figures were represented by G.I.Joes which he’d stripped and reclothed in rags and positioned as closely to those in the painting as their physiognomy allowed. He’d been photographing this group in different light and with different backgrounds for six weeks and he never tired of it. On the walls around him were various drawings he’d made of the group, one showing the anguished expression of a G.I.Joe a la Ingre, another, a hastily scratched picture of the raft being sucked down a toilet. There were photographs of G.I.joes as dead figures, dusted with flour to appear drained of blood or in contorted positions. One showed just a pair of plastic figure feet sticking out from beneath a white sheet. He had also disassembled one of the figures and had begun work on drawings of the constituent parts in preparation for a full sized, or even oversized statue of the G.I.Joe, posed as the David. He was trying to decide what to do about the erogenous zone; add genitalia, which would be untrue to the model, or perhaps a leaf? Or portray him in his true desexualized nature. This last seemed the most logical.
His Advisor, Larry Macdonald, was perplexed by this turn in activity that Jay had taken. In the previous semester, Jay had been one of the prized painters in Larry’s stable, making luscious, unctuous paintings of dead cows. They had seemed a clever riposte to the overly hyped, now overly fashionable, Francis Bacon. Jay's use of line and sensual application of paint, in great gobs and scratchings, while retaining a very high degree of realism rivaled much in the contemporary German work.
This most recent tangent seemed to Larry a rather silly departure, and worse still, redolent of some of the post minimalist female artists so popular now on the New York scene. It was fuzzy, lacking in hard edges. Bereft of a strong conceptual thrust. He was unsure whether he still wanted to include Jay in his traveling exhibition Nine New Artists to Watch. Well how could he? No paintings had come out of this new project.
Jay was aware of all these reservations that Larry had, and it troubled him. Larry had been good to him. He let Jay clean his studio for eight dollars an hour and didn’t complain if he was slow. He sometimes took him to lunch at the Garden View to discuss David Hockney and Anish Kapoor. He even let J. paint the clouds in one of his now famous Tug Boat paintings. (No fee of course, that was fun.) But Jay was drawn to his G.I.Joes. He felt as if he was on to something.
As these thoughts flowed through his mind, he sat dreamily, completely absent-mindedly playing with one of his dolls. When a perplexing thought passed through his mind, such as the dilemma of dealing with Larry, he would make the G.I.Joe scratch his head. And continually, G.I.joe was scratching that place where his creators had failed to endow him with his full physicality. Jay was only subconsciously aware he was controlling these movements on the part of what seemed to be becoming a proxy expression of himself. So when he slowly turned his head to find that his studiomate, Noah, was staring at him from the opening in the partition, he was startled nearly beyond recognition. His heart jumped, he uttered an unrecognizable sound and the G.I.Joe went flying in the air, plastic hand still held to crotch as he landed face first in a dollop of vermilion red oil paint on the table.
“Hey man. I think your soldier is injured there. Didn’t mean to scare ya.” Noah had a huge grin on his face, which Jay took as an indication that whether or not he meant to scare him he was enjoying the fact that he had.
“Hi,” was all Jay could muster as he recovered from the near heart attack he’d just suffered and considered the level of embarrassment he might attain for both his inability to deal with surprise and his propensity to play with dolls.
“I hope you haven’t spent all your allowance on those dolls.” Noah said this in a high, mocking, mother like voice.
“Actually, mom, I got most of these at a yard sale, for fifty cents a piece. The lady selling them thought it a little strange that a virile young man such as myself should want to play with G.I.Joes, but I kept my cool and acted like it was perfectly normal.”
“Hey, was that the same yard sale where Isaac got all the magazines?”
“It was a veritable cornucopia for the young modern artist, my boy. Many a career will have found its inception at that one yard sale. It was like the Armory show of our generation. You should have come. There was a bunch of Tonkas there and some handsaws. You too could have had a career.”
“I think I’ll stick to more traditional materials. Judging by you and Isaac there’s a high price to be paid in sanity for that one yard sale.”
“What do you mean?” Jay looked scandalized.
“C’mon man, it’s like some Edgar Allen Poe story where the items for sale are cursed. Isaac is like the tell tale heart or something, ferreted away in his apartment, driven insane by the models of vogue, and you, creating a parallel world of dolls. I don’t know.”
“No, it’s not Poe, it’s Trilogy of Terror. Remember that bad movie where the doll was possessed and kept on attacking its owner? That’s what’ll happen to me. You’ll find me dead in here, my throat slit with a hundred tiny knives. The G.I.Joes innocently sitting on their raft, but smiling. Whooooo.”
“Heh,Yeah.” Noah had lost interest in this routine. “Hey, Where’s Yvette? I need her notes from seminar.”
“I don’t know.” Jay was trying to clean the oil paint from his wounded action figure but the paint was getting dangerously close to the polyester hair line. This was a later model G.I.Joe which had actual fuzzy hair as opposed to a moulded plastic headpiece. ”She’s probably collecting evidence of sexual perversions as practiced by a bunch of dead guys back in the fifties.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very charitable account of her actions. You two fighting again? Christ man, what’s the point in a relationship if all you do is fight? Or is it fight and fuck?”
Jay rolled his eyes. He’d heard all this before and while the question was fair the answer seemed so ungraspable that he had given up on trying to provide one. He didn’t know why he was in the relationship other than the fact that it was easy. Easier to loll in the tepid pool than grab the ladder and climb out. Easier to be in a pretend marriage that he knew would come to an eventual end than walk now, hurt her and have to be alone. Shaking this line of seemingly pointless thought he returned to the question at hand. “She had a meeting with Wool at two. In his Orifice.”
“In his Orifice? What the fuck?”
“I swear to god that’s what he said. She denied it but I’m sure I heard him say that.”
“He’s a letch you know.”
“So I’ve heard, but so are you, so I’ve heard.”
“Hey, I’m just trying to enjoy my college years.”
“Yeah well I guess that’s what Wool might say as well. He’s just dragging them on longer.”
“Yeah. He’s an old man shagging students. I think there are rules about that. He’s taking advantage of his position.”
“You’re noone to talk. What about your self confessed weakness for high school girls?”
“Oh man, that was like years ago. Two anyway. And I didn’t have a position of power. Just Charm. Anyway, I only bring it up ‘cuz your girlfriend is meeting him in his “orifice”. Not concerned?”
“Nah. Yvette can see through his bullshit.” Jay was aware of a rising note in the last sentence that made it sound like a question.
Noah looked at Jay appraisingly, through heavily lidded eyes. “Yeeaah.” He drawled making his skepticism abundantly clear. “Lets grab a coffee before art history.”
Jay was entirely sick of his friend at this point. “No. You go ahead. I want to finish a drawing I’ve been working on. I’ll see you in class.”
“All right, man.” Noah knew he’d pushed a button he probably shouldn’t have and was glad to leave it at that. As he drew on the doorknob he felt a breeze go past his head and saw the G.I.Joe head hit the door as it opened, leaving a stain of red vermilion in front of his face.
“What the… what are you doin’?”
“Go fuck yourself, Noah.” Jay was flushed and his voice was high
“No. That’s more your speed, Jay. Here,” tossing the decapitated projectile back,” give yourself some head.” He walked out.
Noah Bates had come to the school as a mature student. Meaning he was over the age of twenty-five and had been out of school for five years. He had been at the school two years and was now twenty-seven, the same age, he often thought to himself, at which Patty Smith had achieved stardom. This made him quite a bit older than the majority of his cohorts. Nonetheless, he had no difficulty fitting in and in fact usually forgot there was any age difference between himself and his circle of friends. Except, that is, when they acted younger than they were.
Noah had done one year of a liberal arts degree when he got out of high school and bombed out completely. His father withdrew all forthcoming funds and Noah got a job working as a cook in a lumber camp. The pay was good and the conditions were terrible but he stayed for two years and made enough money to go to Europe for a year and live like a bum. It had been perfect. But when he awoke one day in a vineyard on the Mosel, naked and covered in his own vomit, and as his drinking companion from the previous evening headed down the row with Noah’s favorite polka-dot shirt wrapped around his head as a bandana, he realized that life required a slightly higher degree of structure for a person of his unexceptional bearing.
He’d settled on art after visiting the Centre George Pompadou in Paris and saw the Brancusi studio. That was what he wanted. A little building of his own, a bunch of pieces of wood or stone and some tools to work on them. With these things he could be happy. He could escape his father’s world of thankless hours, worthless smiles and expensive cars. He went back home and applied to art colleges in every town where his father’s firm didn’t have an office. He’d heard that his acceptance at this one was as likely due to the fact that he was a Capricorn as anything else, but this didn’t bother him. He was unlikely to have been given the red carpet on the basis of his portfolio. He wasn’t a great draughtsman and his grades were only average. He had a good chance on the basis of his maturity, such as it was, and an advantageous horoscope was still better than the thought that the dean of admissions had recognized his fathers name and hoped that a bird in hand was equal to a large bequest in the bush.
He had decided to stick with sculpture upon arrival at school, based on his poor drawing skills and his general dislike of the gooey, filthy and stinky process that is oil painting (the anal urge to soil was a quote he was fond of). After some time in critiques and with some art history under his belt, he was able to displace these purely subjective biases with informed arguments positing the vacuousness of the static, two-dimensional image, the failure of the process to keep pace with shifting conceptual paradigms;… the death of painting. Sculpture, on the other hand embraced all media and techniques. Our bodies were sculpture, our movements, time. Space was the new canvas and what we fill it with the subject of our inquiries. Given the broad parameters and freedom of expression, Noah had set to work on the project which would occupy his time until he graduated. He was building a car.
He’d started tentatively. Cut some circles out of steel, join them with a rod, join the rods with some angle iron. A few pieces of cut out sheet metal with some bends finished that up nicely. The first critique of his car had been kind of rough. What were the political implications of building a non-working, full-size model of a car in the present context of the post-modern dialectic? Was building a toy car a fulfillment of a latent male urge to dominate his present surroundings? Was this art or therapy? How does the object relate to ones knees?
Noah had been unable to answer any of these questions in a meaningful way. He’d stuttered, offered a lot of “well I don’t know”s and heaved a huge sigh of relief when the inquisition moved on to it’s next victim. He’d walked through the rest of that crit in a state of perplexity. He listened as the same questions were hurled at each student. Regardless of the nature of the piece, whether a plaster carving of a human molar, a wooden construction resembling a cage with a t-bone steak thrown inside, a four-foot cube made out of drywall or a pile of I-beams messily welded together. All were potentially in the service of a capitalist hegemony, ripe for co-optation by multi-nationals or simply woefully unaware of the situation in Nicaragua.
At the next crit Noah was better prepared. He’d painted his car purple and decorated it with peace signs and made a sign, which read “Che’s Chevrolet”. He hooked up a real car battery to a reel to reel tape deck which he stuck where the dash board should have been and ran a recording of a car engine turning over followed by a slightly speeded up loop of the crowds chanting “seig heil” which he’d taken from “Triumph der Willen”. It actually sounded like a car motor when listened to for long enough.
The sculpture teacher, Emil Harmon, took one look at this rehashed effort and wished he were back home working on his barn. Invoking Nazis was a strict no go in art school. Only trouble could issue from this. Perhaps he should have been more proactive at the last crit, helping the newer students to defend themselves from the withering anarcho-feminist attacks put forth by his teaching assistant, Jasmine Sikes. He no longer had the fire in his belly to engage all the latest political art developments. He barely knew what they were. And happily it was not necessary in order to qualify for, and receive, lucrative grants, which made the erection of his barn possible. Soon he would be able to add the cupola he had long dreamed of. Just a small project grant should do it. His reverie was disturbed by raised voices.
“Don’t you think you need to have a better rationale than that if you’re going to use material so fraught with political baggage?” It was Jasmine bearing down on Noah, who was withstanding the storm better than Emil had expected.
“No, I don’t. I think if I choose to use something on the basis of how it looks or sounds, I can. If that disturbs you, then I’m glad to hear your concerns. I may think differently in future, but I won’t second guess every move I make in the creative process.”
“Ah, the creative process. The mysterious world of art making. Don’t you think we need to demystify this process and be responsible about the means of production?”
“The means of production?” Noah was incredulous. “What are we, workers in a collective? I’m not. I’m an artist working in the capitalist system. I hope to make some money at this someday.”
Emil visibly cringed. Noah had now broken two golden rules. No Nazi’s and no profiteering in art. He had to step in.
“I think to be able to support your practice is an important thing, but we have to bear in mind that the work is an end in itself and not the means to an end, that is, money.”
This pearl of wisdom seemed to have a sedating effect on the class and Emil felt that he had gained control of the situation. He stood looking at the new shipment of “I” beams, gauging the appropriateness of one size over another in the construction of his cupola when Jasmine burst into his thoughts like a bright light on an interrogation victim.
“I think it’s completely irresponsible to talk about art as a for-profit venture in a school environment. We should be examining the value of our praxis in the context of a society that dehumanizes labour and therefore renders valueless the objects of that labour, including the work of art. The art-work,” here she scratched with two claws at the air to indicate her contempt for the concept, “is not some magical, ephemeral object resulting as a product of some mysterious process, it’s an attempt to reintroduce value into the endeavor of work. It has to critically examine both the means of production and meaning of the thing itself.
Emil had turned his attention back to his cupola as Noah raised his arm to signify a seig heil salute. A copper roof would be a very nice thing. Perhaps he could get that chap who specializes in standing seam copper roofs to come and give a course in the winter semester. Yes, Sheet copper as a sculptural material or some such thing. Very good for the students. He may even learn to do the roof himself. More likely get the chap to do it in exchange for the opportunity to get to teach a course in the winter when business in copper roofs is slow. He was contemplating the design of the weathervane as Noah goose-stepped out of the room and Jasmine hurled a shop-worn “Methods and Materials” textbook after him. Not a horse for the weather vane, too traditional for a modern artist, was his thought as another student restrained Jasmine from throwing the rebar through the door’s window.
Yvette Polder exhaled heavily as Simon Wool withdrew himself from within her. She was surprised at how quickly Simon had finished. She thought a man of his age and experience would be more long lived than the average teenager, but in fact the whole encounter had reminded her of back seat fumblings in grade ten, right down to the hicky she now feared was going to show up on her shoulder. She wondered if it would be better the second time, if there would be a second time. She was aware of how encounters of this sort were often regretted by the man, out of guilt perhaps, for having taken advantage, or for poor performance, who would then blame the woman and become cold and withdrawn. That would put her independent study at risk. She couldn’t get another elective credit at this stage in the term and that would put her graduation in the spring at risk. She would have to do some damage control.
Simon was standing in front of her, his back turned, arranging himself. He’d said that he thought he heard someone outside his office door, though she hadn’t heard anything, and she’d made no noise throughout the encounter. He, on the other hand, had sounded distinctly like a small dog struggling with a rawhide bone. He hurriedly straightened his hair and put his ear to the door and stood prone, listening, as if expecting to here voices from the spirit world. Now he turned to face her, but as though an invisible hand was forcing him. He smiled self-consciously and sniffed at his fingers.
“Well then.” He said.
Jay sat in the window of his studio absorbing the warm October sun. Below him he watched the few remaining tourists from the summer amble about the courtyard, pointing at the badly restored buildings and buying up sea-going memorabilia manufactured in Singapore. One middle aged man with a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves hanging over his chest, walked directly below Jay to peer in a tartan shop window and Jay carefully let a large gob of spittle fall from his mouth and watched as it fell. The ball distended into a string and formed two smaller balls, tumbling over one another through the air. One grazed the tourists hair and then landed on his shoulder. At first he brushed at the side of his head and then found the offending sputum. He looked at his hand, looked up and then looked at his wife. They exchanged a couple of words, out of which Jay recognized “pigeon” and then both looked up again. They spotted Jay in the window smiling like one of the gargoyles that adorned such buildings. Jay fell back into the studio, laughing and wondering why he hid. He crouched at the sill and watched through the glass, opaque with the late afternoon sun upon it. The tourists were walking away, the man glancing back at Jay’s window. They walked past a couple who stared at each other in an unsure manner. The couple were talking and gesturing but neither seemed to communicate anything. They looked like they didn’t know one another but pretended to nonetheless. Jay watched them for a few moments before he realized that the couple was Yvette and Wool. From the split second of observation of their incomprehension of one another came a full understanding on his part that they had slept together a short time before.
He felt the anger well up within him and dissipate just as quickly. The sense of loss was overtaken by a sense of emancipation which was supplanted by a sense of sadness which he willed into place in order to more fully take advantage of the wounds to which he was now entitled. He thought back on all the good times he and Yvette had had together. He remembered introducing her to his parents and burying her in a pile of pillows on their sofa. He remembered going to breakfast at a diner and teaching her the correct way to eat pancakes. He saw them walking through the graveyard, his favourite haunt as though through a haze as the tears began to well up within him. Memories came rushing in of their time together now. He saw the past year as though they were characters in a Woody Allen movie. Bittersweet reflections on a good but flawed relationship. He remembered when they first got together how she, at some party they were both at, slipped discreetly off with Lester while Jay held forth with witticisms, and how she seemed somewhat flushed when she returned fifteen minutes later, Noseworthy appearing a minute later looking very self-satisfied, a superior grin on his face when he looked at Jay. The tears quickly began to recede as he remembered this and other injuries he had endured for the sake of his pretend adult relationship.
There were steps on the stairs outside the studio and then the door opened, unseen on the other side of his barrier and he recognized Yvette’s light step and smelt Simon Wool from across the universe.
There was singing outside the doors of photography. A woman was singing spirituals in the hallways where the sound bounced around the concrete block walls outside the bathrooms and next to the stairs. The effect was like heavy reverb applied to a vocal track where all the instrumentation has been removed. It was in no way natural sounding and it was a surreal background to the plish-plash of heavy paper transferring from one bath of chemicals to the next as the image revealed itself under the yellow safety lights.
Lisa Johansson was just finishing developing her 8x10's of the grain elevators on the waterfront. The photographs were beautiful. The contrasts were a perfect delineation of the gray scale and the composition was flawless. In a couple of the pictures chance had intervened into her deliberately lifeless photos to reveal a seagull flying by, a cat crouching in some brush at the bottom of a staircase. Where once she would have culled these extraneous features out of her rigorously formal themes, she now allowed their presence on the basis of pataphysics, the science of chance. It ran contrary to the Marxist approach encouraged by her teacher, Pam, but she felt there was a shift in the air, that a strict Marxist approach was becoming tedious and the boundaries for political discourse in art had to be broadened. She intended on introducing the Duchampian theme of chance into the discussion with the hope that it might lead to an investigation of fascistic tendencies in the artistic discourse. Plus the cat was so cute.
The sound of the liquids in the developing trays always made Lisa thirsty and now she hung her photos in the drying cabinet, returned the chemicals to there respective shared basins and headed to the bathroom to fill her water bottle. The singing she’d heard was coming from the staircase. The voice was beautiful albeit frequently out of tune. The song was a generic rendition of a gospel number where the singer was making up her own lyrics;
We’s all gonna get what we came for
we’s all gonna get what we need
We’s all gonna get what the lawd promised us
When we get there, yes indeed .
She ran into Pam Dawson, her photo teacher, in the bathroom coming out of a stall. The sound of the echoing flush drowned out the singing.
“God I wish she’d do that somewhere else. What does she think is, a slave in the old south? She’s a Jewish princess, for god’s sake.” Pam washed her hands and dug in her purse for eye shadow.
“I guess she likes the acoustics in the staircase.” said Lisa “I think it’s kinda nice.”
“You don’t have to deal with it all night long. She used to be one of my students and she was always going on about how we should just try and make nice things with our art. Easy to say when you’re never gonna have to work for a living. Do you have your photos ready for class today?”
“I just finished them up.” Lisa said .“What’s her name?”
“You mean Aunt Jemima out there? Its Fran. Fran Somethingstein. I have to go and get ready for class. See you then.” Pam skipped out of the bathroom letting in the song as she opened the door. She looked back, rolling her eyes.
Lisa wondered at the cruelty of Pam’s comments towards someone who, after all, was only singing. Was she being funny (she obviously thought she was being funny) or was she truly so uncouth. It was hard to know. She’d often noticed a latent anti- semitism among her Marxist friends but had thought it generally harmless. And the paternalism showed towards minorities, blacks in particular, she’d taken as a compassionate tendency. But perhaps she was wrong. There certainly were no jews or blacks in the local Marxist community. No, that wasn’t true. There was Roger, who was black. He was also a big mouthed, over educated drunken ass who was always making passes at her.
She screwed the top on her water bottle and walked out the door, running bodily into a beautiful woman with one crossed eye. She knew immediately this must be Fran Somethingstein, alighting from her perch in the stairwell.
In class she sat at a large table with twelve other people who all had folders full of photos and negatives in front of them. The lights were low and a slide projector sat at one end of the table in front of an empty chair. They were waiting for Pam Dawson, who would give a casual lecture on some aspect of the history of photography and then each student would pass around their photos and endure the criticism of their peers. Some chatted while they waited, or drank coffee. One of them, Lester Noseworthy, was obviously stoned, looked to be on the edge of death and sat fiddling with his face, scratching and picking, leaning over and burying his head between his knees, groaning. He was across the table from Aileen and she could easily smell him. The pungent odour of freshly smoked marijuana married uneasily with the more pungent stench of his body. He obviously hadn’t washed in some time, his hair was greasy and spiky and though disgusting, conformed nicely with the punk fashion of the time. Aileen had seen him at the beginning of the previous semester and remembered how conformist he’d then seemed. He was egg-headish and rather cute, understanding the terminology of the art world immediately and putting it to good use in crits, cutting people down when their logic faltered. He then wore knit pants and golf windbreakers. In fact, he still did, but these having remained unwashed for so long and the paint which besmirched them now gave a sinister look..
Pam walked in and proceeded to set up the slide screen with great efficiency, a task that challenged most other members of the faculty.
“Has everyone got their ten pictures together?” She asked while looking at her list of slides which sat in the carousel. There were murmurs of ascent, one or two positive confirmations and one groan. Pam looked in the direction of the groan, knowing full well who it belonged to.
“Lester?” She asked with an expression that approximated compassion.
“Well, yeah. I got ten pictures. But they’re not 8x10. And they’re not perfect. Those parameters are so arbitrary.” He stared at her in a semblance of defiance that any heavily beaten dog could easily muster.
“We’ll deal with those questions during crit. First I want to look at the work of Walker Evans.”
The next half hour was spent in an agreeable darkness with pictures of the old south and Coney Island flashing by. There followed a conversation about photography and french literature and poetry, Flaubert and Hemingway and American foreign policy which Pam carried on almost entirely on her own. The student photos were passed around and discussed. Lisa’s pictures drew comparisons to Bernt and Hilla Becher, with there reliance on formal studies of utilitarian architecture while another student”s evoked Garry Winogrand.. Lester’s pictures, which were printed at roughly 5x7 and badly cut to size with scissors, were thought to be a cross between Robert Frank and some person with absolutely no knowledge of photography or composition or images in general. It seemed that Lester’s technique was to hold the camera at waist level and snap pictures at crowds without thinking about it. He then printed the pictures in sequence as to avoid any aesthetic decisions.
“I mean to remove myself from the process as much as possible. To let the machines go about their work and do away with the notion of authorship.”
“Isn’t that kinda nihilistic?” Asked one of the students.
“I believe in a nihilistic art process. The very act of creation implies destruction in the long run. I’m just trying to eliminate all the qualitative processes in between.” Upon saying this, Lester hung his head below the table where he couldn’t be seen and uttered a long groaning bellow.
“You mean life don’t you? Isn’t that the process that occurs between creation and destruction?” This came from the same student, who was flushing with evident anger and craning her head to try and see Lester, who had not yet emerged from his place of refuge.
“You can call it what you like.” Came the muffled, pained response from beneath the table, as Lester seemed to be trying to crawl bodily into his shirt.
“Its still a phenomenological process from which I’m trying to divorce myself. As a so-called artist. I want to embrace a new kind of machine aesthetic. Rather than admire the machine as a thing of beauty I want to become the machine.” click
“Oh yeah, you’re a machine, buddy.” This comment from a student whose education was payed for by the Armed forces and who always came to class in fatigues and marching boots. He rarely spoke but often made his impatience with modern art parlance known with frequent eye rolling and general restiveness. His quip was greeted with laughter by all but Lester who remained below the table.
“Yeah but don’t you see that my photographs perfectly illustrate what you do? Your roll is to go through the world with a gun and shoot blindly, automatically. You’ll become one with your firearm, destroying on command.” click, click..
“Do you think that’s what a soldier does? What about peace missions, public emergencies? Even when we are forced to go into combat we don’t walk around like automatons shooting mechanically. Nobody hates the loss of life more than a soldier, because we see the suffering up close and personal all the time, pal.”
“ ‘Up close and personal?’ Where’d you get that, Top Gun?” click. Lester had emerged from below the table and now sat with both arms hidden below the table and his sweater laid in front of him so he looked like a disembodied talking head. click. “The fact of the matter is you are a tool. You’re a tool of the military industrial complex. A cog, a machine. And a soldier machine’s main purpose is to kill the enemy. However puppy dog nice he might like to think he is.” click.
The soldier sat glaring at Lester. click click. Lester was not quite able to meet his stare. click. In the uncomfortable silence that ensued one sound became noticeable. click.
“What’s that clicking?” asked Lisa. She looked around and then looked where the sound was coming from under the table. click. “Lester, why are you taking pictures under the table? What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” said Lester “I’m just clicking the shutter. It’s a nervous thing. I’m a nervous person.”
“You were aiming it. You’re taking pictures of peoples crotches, Aren’t you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Lester,” said Pam “that would be a serious offence. An invasion of peoples privacy. I hope you weren’t doing that.”
“I wasn’t. But even if I were I don’t think you can say that under a table is a private space. This is a public area.”
“If you were just clicking the shutter, then there’s no film in the camera. Lets see the camera.”
“The camera’s broke. The counter doesn’t work right. Forget it leave me alone.”
“Just open the back, Lester. If there’s no film it won’t matter.”
“You were taking pictures. You asshole.” Lisa grabbed for Lester’s camera but Lester was on his feet quickly. He jerked the camera back away from her by the strap and as it flung backwards it hit another student in the forehead who howled and fell to the floor. The soldier grabbed the camera as it swung back and opened the back with extraordinary speed.
“Well, well. 1000 ASA film. I still doubt whether in this light you’d capture much under the table. You need help, buddy. For a variety of reasons.”
“Lester, I think we’ll have to talk to the Dean about this. Oh my god, Adam.”
Adam Silliboy was sitting on the floor with his hand to his head and blood could be seen running between his fingers. Nobody had noticed his whimpering in all the excitement but now all attention turned to him.
“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you Noseworthy. If I’m scarred...” His voice trailed off and he returned to his high pitched whimper.
“Jesus, I didn’t mean to...I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.” Lester turned and ran out of the room leaving behind his camera, photos and nearly all his worldly possessions.
“Are you going to the rally tonite Lisa?”Asked Pam as she began to pack up her slides and belongings.
“Yeah, I’ll see you there.”
Pam Dawson’s office was a small cubicle off a central foyer outside the elevator shaft. Its cheap gyproc walls were painted with a semi-gloss acrylic enamel as often as the maintenance staff could get access to the room. Here she had a small desk made of fake wood arborite with chrome legs, a filing cabinet where she kept photocopied articles on famous photographic artists interspersed with cuttings from Mother Jones about the latest atrocitities perpetrated by the American administration. There was a painting on the wall. It was large, thickly impastoed and representative of nothing, yet had a banner at the bottom reading “for the workers of mineshaft 17 Mangan, feb 1974". It had been given to her by her roomate, Meg, when she was a grad student in London. There was a daybed against the wall opposite the filing cabinet where she would recline and consider how the various globs of mostly blue or brown paint might represent a miner or a track or a helmet. Sometimes, when she’d had a couple of glasses of wine while marking papers she thought the same elements much more likely represented breasts, eyes and vulvas.
She was looking at it now, thinking of Megs sumptuous spine submerged beneath a layer of blubber when a knock came at the door. She laid her glass behind the leg of the daybed, buried the Vanity Fair underneath a copy of Artforum and stood to answer the door.
“Simon, Hi, Come on in.” She turned and sat at her desk.
“How are things, Pam?” Simon put his hands behind his back and perused the room, stopping, as always, in front of the painting.
“Good. I had an interesting Class today. Lester had a meltdown, injured one of the students and the Pongo finally talked.”
“Lester had a meltdown? What does that mean? And who was injured?”
Simon’s sense of alarm was enough to banish any lingering pensiveness in Pam’s behaviour and she retrieved her glass from its hiding place, dug the bottle of Hungarian wine out of the filing cabinet and sat back down on what she liked to call her settee, and proceeded to recount the events of the afternoon to Simon, the head of the Fine Arts department, her boss.
“I’m curious you should use the term “Pongo,” it’s a british term you know. That Lester is becoming a real problem. We can’t have students kipping in the studios, it’ll scotch the insurance, not to mention the hullaballoo if he has to go to hospital due to malnutrition or god knows what other misadventure might bring him down.”
“You sound like you actually care about him, Simon. He’s just another one of the rich brats acting out his proletarian fantasies.”
“Well that’s where your wrong, Pam. Lester is actually one of the few working class students I know of in the school, outside the indians.”
“We don’t have a working class in Canada, Simon. They’re just the poor. But I certainly would have thought an asshole like Lester must be from a wealthy background.” Simon stood looking at a photograph that Pam had taken of a group of striking teachers reflected in a bank window, its logo floating on the glass in the foreground like a cloud reflected on the surface of a lake and turned and said; “I slept with Yvette Polder this afternoon. I used the visiting artists suite.”
Pam sat staring at Simon with an undefinable expression on her face until she finally patted the cushion next to her and said , “come and tell me about that.”