Sunday, September 28, 2008
It was 1982.
My father, wearing his best shirt and tie, was stationed at the foyer, ready to greet guests and take their coats, before showing them downstairs to the wine and cheese table, which was actually the top of the washing machine, smartly covered with a silk tablecloth. My mother, meanwhile, was busy in the kitchen, cutting cheese into little cubes, diligently skewering each with a toothpick.
My very first solo art show.
I was, I must admit, not a child. I was eighteen. I’d recently returned to my parent’s house in the country, having fled a self-induced poverty in the unforgiving streets of the North Side of Pittsburgh. It was one of a few such similar retreats I would make during my earliest days trying to forge a life as an artist.
What compelled my parents to partake in this madness, to play the roles I’d ascribed to them?
I can only put it down to love, the love of the parent, that great giving resource, those energies kept waiting for just such an undertaking as the one to which they were currently surrendering all their time and dignity.
“What color wine would you like us to get?”
“I think you mean red.”
“You’ve been very noisy up there. Just what are you moving about? Maybe dad could help you?”
“No, I’m OK. Nobody can see it until the show. Where’s my sleeping bag?”
“Yeah, I need it to sleep in tonight.”
“What’s happened to your bed?”
“I can’t tell you. You’ll see tomorrow.”
“I hope you aren’t doing any damage, Jeremy.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not – I promise. Oh, I ran out of sticks for dad’s glue gun. I’m going to need some more.”
That I carried a sizable chip on my shoulder when it came the “art world”, there was no question. My hard feelings towards galleries, the insufferably pretentious scam artist whose work filled them, the inane critics who enthused over their adequacies, and the eager flock of twits that frequented their openings, was probably an inherent outgrowth of the working class roots of my parents, my father’s in particular.
Raised in the industrial north of England, the son of the delivery man for a local butcher, he knew all too well of the class divide, one his own mother, born into a considerably more wealthy family, only highlighted. She died while he was just a boy, leaving him to find his way out from under the oppressive shadow of the dirty brick council houses that obscured his horizons and stifled his imagination. His ultimate escape came with a pencil. Not the roaming, liberated tool of my existence, it was instead the rigid graphite lengths found in a draughtsman’s kit.
On the other hand, my mother, the daughter of a vegetable farmer, raised in the rural south in what today will seem like abject poverty (no running water or electricity), was encouraged to seek out her creative heart. She entered art school at a relatively early age, achieving an enviable understanding of her born talent, before marriage and children monopolized her life, causing a reassessment of her priorities for the future.
It was from these humble, yet knowing, beginnings that I was delivered, destined to further the path my mother had chosen to abort, equipped with my father’s tenacity and awareness of the hedonistic trappings of culture and the supposed wealth it attracted.
Still just seventeen when I graduated high school, I immediately entered a commercial art school in Pittsburgh, which quickly bought these inherited instincts to the fore. Almost instantly realizing that this particular institute of learning was nothing more than a highly-priced siphon, sucking dry the wallets and outsized ambition of the young and naively artistic, I rebelled, hurrying home after only two weeks, announcing to my shocked parents that I was quitting, that the school was like “a day care for idiots” and that I would find my own way in this world without, thank you.
They, naturally, set to talking me out of quitting, making me agree to return and give it a little more time. A few weeks later I was failing most classes, especially cartooning, where my projects were ridiculed and ignored by the teachers. Every assignment became an affront, my mind bunkering itself further and further. An expulsion was inevitable.
I became a furtive ghost student, coming and going as I saw fit, skipping classes, exploring the city with my sketchbook, sneaking back into the school at night for clandestine workshops with two understanding instructors, who acknowledged my frustration and dissatisfaction.
During this time, I watched those still enrolled prepare themselves for their class shows in the school gallery, bubbly events attended by a patronizing, disingenuous teaching staff of failed artists and bitter journeymen. Like the budding villain in a comic book, or a hungry waif in the dark imagination of Charles Dickens, I watched through the gallery window, witnessing wide-eyed pupils struggling to nibble cheese with the bored pedagogues. Fingering the motley collection of pencils and pens lodged deep within the pockets of my winter coat, I knew my destiny lay in never buying into such a blatantly pointless activity.
“Where did that tree in the garage come from?”
“There’s a tree in the garage?”
“It’s for my show.”
“You’re thinking of bringing that thing indoors? Not up to your bedroom? You can’t!”
“I have to, mum, it’s a vital part of my signature piece.”
“I don’t understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish, Jeremy. You need to focus on finding work.”
“I am, I am, but this is not about that – it’s my statement, you’ll see, trust me.”
“A statement on what? That you quit art college and can’t afford to live on your own?”
“No, listen, just listen! It’s about the shallow and phony art scene. I’m going to present a parody of it all, by doing just what they do, but upon matters that I really care about! See how ironic that is? Here’s what I’m doing with the tree, I’ll tell you just that much. I’m putting the tree in a planter of army men, soldiers from around the world, and throughout history – World War II, The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The Napoleonic Wars – Germans, Australian, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, British, American, Arabian, Ancient Turks, even cavemen with rocks. OK? It’s all about how we perpetuate war, by flourishing from it. I’m doing Jospeh Heller, by way of Andy Warhol, if he was John Muir or Robert Frost! The armed, fighting soldiers will be the soil, nurturing the tree, whose limbs will hold the wounded and dying. It’s going to be amazing, just you wait and see! You have to wait until the show to see the rest.”
“You’re using your old collection of army men?”
“Yeah. Why not do something constructive with them? I don’t play with them anymore you know.”
“That’s a debatable statement.”
It was to be my first great, identifying event, the artistic zenith of my young life.
I’d spent almost two weeks designing and building the various installations, stealthily assembling the smaller ones in the privacy of my room and hiding them away. I’d invited some two-dozen friends from the city, a ragtag assemblage of artists, students, punk rockers, troublemakers, and self-appointed bohemians.
I viewed it as a starting point, a growing moment, the very opposite of what I knew my father was thinking. He only saw me refusing to grasp maturity, continuing my childhood, the proposed show being nothing more than another of the fanciful approximations of the adult world I was so fond of in my adolescence: the detective agency (unwittingly helping the township police locate a pot-smoking hideaway in the woods – oh, the shame!), the book publishing empire (setting up office next to my father’s actual office in the house, forever bothering him to use his stapler), the insect zoo (crushing my big toe looking for beetles in the dark), the puppet shows (knocking myself out when I leapt from a chair, hitting my head on the basement beam, collapsing at the feet of the audience, still wearing sock puppets on each hand). In retrospect, of course, I can see his point. It was a continuation of my childhood occupations and fancies, as has been most of my life. It’s what I do, it’s who I am.
My “Art”, if I can use that lofty, abused word, is an ever-running reflection of what I’m told is the legitimate structure, and subsequent culture, of our “grown-up” civilization. It is an exploration of these accepted functions and particulars, taking the shape of a voice looking in from the outside, a boy forever standing at the gates of the “other people”, those who seemingly have embraced their civilization without question, without reserve, who measure it with a seriousness, a gravity, a purposefulness that I will never ascribe to. That I have meanwhile managed to eek out a living drawing pictures as a commercial artist is beside the point. There is no wisdom gleaned from such activity, no real contentment, no true fulfillment, there is only the knowledge that I have a trade, a talent that can be offered and sold. The years since have taught me that I will not starve if I gather my wits and keep my fingers from the thresher.
“It’s starting to snow again. The driveway is nearly white.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“I don’t think anyone will drive up here from Pittsburgh tonight, Jem. I really don’t.”
“They will, you’ll see. Maybe we should open one of the wine bottles?”
“Let’s just wait a little bit for that.”
“Stay at the front door, dad, in case anyone comes. I want it to be like a real gallery. You’re supposed to be the gallery owner, remember.”
Why are you doing this, Jeremy? Why aren’t you out there undertaking an entry into the real world like most everyone else? Do you want to be alone like this, to be so different?
“That jacket is an original. All those different sections, it’s like you spilled a paint box on yourself. Is that a piece of our old curtains from Blanefield?”
“Where did that bit of a bra come from? Why does it say Urgh?”
“You really need to start focusing on your future.”
Are you ever going to relent? Are you ever going to join the rest of us? What are you possibly gaining from all of this, this obstinate living inside of yourself?
“No one’s coming, not tonight.”
“I hate to say it, Jem, but I agree with your father. Don’t feel bad, it’s nasty out there, you can’t expect them to drive up here with the roads like that.”
“I’m going to put the cheese back in the fridge.”
“No. Just wait a bit more. Someone will come. They have to! It’s not too late yet.”
My father poured two plastic cups of wine, handed one to my mother and followed me, up the stairs and along the corridor to my bedroom door.
I must have looked like a Peter Max painting, standing there in my pop art jacket, my head adorned with a tweed beret to which I’d affixed a plastic cardinal outfitted with baby doll arms (an assemblage I wore often). My heart aching horribly, feeling like the biggest fool the human race had ever known, I steeled myself and opened the door, flicking on the lights.
There was a terrible, damning silence.
My bed, sitting on one end, was climbing towards the ceiling, literally covered with black ants, which I’d drawn and cut from paper. The two-dimensional insects streamed from under the covers, across my pillow, about the bedcover and over the headboard, where they marched up the wall and onto the ceiling, ending in a confused jumble about the overhead light. The sliding doors of my walk-in closet where partly removed from their tracks, left hanging like November’s leaves, revealing a torrent of old drawings, childhood renderings I’d taped to every surface within, a snowstorm of my past. The curtains at my window were similarly caught up in some invisible gale, held aloft by fishing line that ran clear across the room, to which I had attached various tokens of my past; cub scout clothing, baptismal certificate, report cards, immigration papers, all liberally interspaced with intended symbols of the damning world; magazine pages of car accidents, flooded cities, police actions, begging children, army recruiters, racist gatherings, hunters displaying their trophy dead, gloating businessmen with cigars. Beneath all of this, situated about the room, were the main events of my youth, trophies of Christmas mornings past, readdressed to confront what I saw as the injustices of the world, all with a knowing wink and a sharp elbow to the gut of artistic pretense and superiority.
There was the piece entitled The Infantree, featuring the dead arm of branches that I’d pulled from the woods, sprouting from a large planter, growing in its fertile plastic battleground, dozens of tiny injured effigies glued to its spidery limbs, bandaged American GIs lying on stretchers, fallen Union soldiers clutching at head wounds, shrieking Arabs dropping their scaraboid knives.
Then there was Modern Hell Mountain, the two-foot tall plastic Guns of Navarone Playset that I’d covered with paisley fabric and game pieces from an assortment of “conformist” dictates, old board games like Life, Go To The Head of The Class, The Dating Game, and, of course, Monopoly. Inside sat a tape player, spewing out the cacophonic noise recordings I’d made throughout my teen years.
Every component of the installation was dutifully labeled, in suitably pretentious prose. I had left little to spare. Even the light sockets were decorated with logos of “evil corporate power entities” like General Electric and Westinghouse.
My poor parents, taking deep, simultaneous breaths, proceeded to stroll about the mess, sipping their wine, smiling awkwardly. I stood nervously in the doorway, trying to imagine what they must have been thinking, just what it was that I was thinking.
I spent the next day taking it all down, restoring order to a world I desperately desired to destroy. I wondered if the whole planet wasn’t laughing at me, if my supposed friends in the city weren’t foremost among the grinning mob.
It was only later that evening, when I received a phone call, an apology for not having been able to risk the wintery roads, that I began to feel I might survive. My spirit still resolutely crushed, an ache still deep within my heart, I sat on my bed, eating cheese cubes, declaring to myself that I’d never again undertake such a foolish performance, wondering what career my father must be lining up for me, in what factory I was to toil away the rest of my days.
Not long after, I dragged myself back to the city. Once there, I returned to the madness of a broken artistic culture, one I raged against daily, with new vim, indulging again in an unpredictable life of personal design and poverty, which I’ve essentially kept at to this very day, carrying that aching heart with me, forever seeing my parents moving slowly about the wreck of my room, witnessing the tropes of their hard work literally upended, the furnishings of an ordinary life desecrated, the objects of their accomplishment treated as the villainy of normalcy, all in the name of irony, and a young man’s bleeding self-esteem.
Though the intervening years have seen my work displayed in a variety of shows, in galleries here and abroad, though I’ve met the fleeting embrace of our popular culture, I’ve kept to my promise to never again open myself up so completely, to make my very home a venue for artistic consideration. That was, until just two weeks ago, when I decided to shake the festering monkey in the painter’s smock from my back, once and for all.
Ignoring the old feelings of ridicule and disappointment, I set to creating new work, designing a personal gallery space and sending out invitations to some two-dozen friends, inhabitants of the city I now call home.
I bought cheese too. And wine.
I’ll tell you how it all went, in about twenty-five years.