Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sheila's Cutting Masterpiece

Before Sheila Blackwell’s senior art show I felt at liberty to offer up my astute appraisals without the need to self-monitor. I considered it my duty to halt the creation of deficient work in its tracks and I did not balk when the output warranted a negative review. I felt compelled to provide truthful insights whenever I was asked for an assessment. It was without hesitation, yet great assiduity that I passed on my viewpoints to assist others in their betterment.

I was bolstered by the knowledge that I was truly talented and my gift unquestionable. I had been offered a full scholarship from a very prestigious art school and had chosen to attend because the premier superstar in the field of realism not only taught there, but had also singled me out as one of his favorites.

I was not a braggart. Rather, I was deeply embarrassed by all the attention and felt the amount of recognition I had thus far received a bit over the top, but it was simply so. Not only was I a recognized realist artist of great depth but I also possessed an uncanny, unerring ability to detect good from bad.

When I viewed a phenomenal piece of art, a brassy, undeniable joy bubbled up from my heart and took full command over my brain. It was as though I had zealously snorted three lines of coke in its purest form. The possession was instantaneous and held me prisoner for hours.

On the other hand, a bad painting viciously stirred the insides of my gut and left it sweating in embarrassment for the creator. When being forced to engage with boorish art I would quickly cast my eyes away from the barbarous savagery. If I lingered too long, as if in retaliation for my slowness, I was left with a vile taste erupting up from my gut for days.

When Sheila entered our master level painting class, that same repugnant taste corrupted my mouth. It was not her ratty, greasy hair left unattended to such a great degree as to arouse concern for the safety of one’s own mane when sitting adjacent to her, nor was it the intrusive manner in which she set up her easel, nor her ridiculous steampunk costuming. No, I believed the horrid, acrid taste that sat squarely on my tongue for an entire semester was the direct reflection of her abysmal lack of talent.

I was proven correct within the first hour of our figure painting class. My attention was so distracted by her crude representation of the human form that when my mentor, Professor Thane, came round to review our work, my canvas was found blank. I was forced to move my easel from my regular spot with the first-rate view of the nude male model to some dark corner in the second tier so that I could begin to focus upon what was truly important.

During the break, the three most senior of us huddled together. "Have you seen her work? It seems a bit clumsy for our class." I commented. 

“I think she’s interesting. Give her a chance. She’s here for a reason,” responded James, my favorite cohort artist. I swooned whenever in proximity to his narrow frame and nerdy glasses, as his work was simply glorious.

“I heard, actually, that she’s a the granddaughter of President Zucker. That she is in recovery from some horrible drug addiction and that she’s a real artist alright…..a real make-up artist,” laughed Zella, who spent most of her time cleverly tearing down everyone around her.

“Ahhh, well that explains quite a lot,” I answered.

When we returned to our easels, I noted our brilliant professor making a hardy effort to guide his newest student.

“You are focusing too much on the minute parts of the body. Rather, try and view the entirety of the human form within its environment. If you map out your proportions prior to beginning in earnest, you will not run out of space,” he explained.

Professor Thane was a patient teacher but his efforts with her did not last long. After the third week he no longer even stopped to acknowledge her work, passing her by with a walking nod.

First off, she did not take direction well. With any critique, a darkish tinge seemed to creep over Sheila’s face and her glazed eyes would fixate upon some faraway point while she struggled to maintain her composure.

Secondly, she did nothing to correct her errors. Although she somehow managed to pass through three times as many canvases as anyone else in the class, her figures remained unchanged over the entire course.

I found it odd that James chose to pay her any attention at all. I admit he dropped a few rungs in my eyes, for what value could he possibly be finding in the interactions? I could only guess it was because she was so closely tied to the President of our University.

Near midterm we were coupled into teams to help one another formulate a presentable project. I recognized Professor Thane purposely partnered me with Sheila because of my strong voice and expertise. It was during my one-on-one interaction with this discourteous girl that I received some evidence (beyond the caustic taste in my mouth) that she was not quite right in the head.

“I do not know what to focus on. I love playing with the mind and fashioning something that already exists in 3-dimensions into something else altogether. I find it exhausting to try and work a flat blank paper into a figure. There is nothing unique about this tedious process,” she said in an effort to explain away her shoddy work.

“I think you should focus on getting better Sheila. You must start anew. From the ground up. You have no foundation upon which to build anything of worth. I do not think even our brilliant Professor has much to add unless you make a genuine effort to learn the basics. You must rethink how you see things. Forget your 3-dimensional canvas,” I implored.

I halted a moment because all of a sudden I realized what her canvas of choice was.
“Wait, are you speaking of your makeup artistry?” I asked quizzically. Sheila nodded excitedly and I admit it, I started to smirk. 

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“No, that is where I do my best work,” she explained rather forcibly.

“Well, therein lies your problem. That is why your paintings are not up to snuff, because you do not know how to create from a blank canvas. You do not really know how to draw, so your figures are empty and characterless. You need to toss out your crude attempts and begin with a renewed effort.”

As I was making a sincere attempt to help guide her she began scrawling words across the figures in her drawing pad. Across one of her awkward torsos, she hacked the word CRUDE in all caps with her black charcoal. She ripped out CRUDE and threw it down. Then she focused upon the word EMPTY. Again she tore out the page and tossed it to the ground. CHARACTERLESS was next. The letters were nearly indiscernible upon the newsprint page as this time she had selected to use a white conte crayon to block out the letters.

It was at that point I had the sense to get up and walk away. She yelled after me “Hey thanks so much Prissy Zilla. You’ve just helped me create a fantastic midterm project.” I felt a wad of paper hit me in the back.

I did not speak to her again for another six weeks. It was at her opening that I learned the power of words, of words lovingly strung together like the beads of a bridal necklace or carefully formed into symmetrical alliterations for cleverness sake but especially of those cut out and left brutally alone.

I have little tolerance for Shock Art from Carina Ubeda’s menstrual blood to Andres Serrano’s fecal matter to Richard Whitehurst’s Rape Tunnel. Ms. Sheila Blackwell managed to take this genre to a whole new level.

I identified a conversation I accidentally overheard in the hallway between her and the dazzling James to be the impetus behind the direction she took with her senior showing.

I don’t have anything more to say to you. I’ve said it so many times but you don’t seem to be picking up on this. I do not want to see you. In fact, I find your behavior disgusting,” he said.

She stood limply in the long hallway, steel lockers encircled her while they stood as sentries for James. I glimpsed that familiar expression on her features. She stared off fixedly into the distance trying not to cry. For a brief moment I almost felt sorry for her until I heard her speak. “I hate you,” was uttered with such complete conviction I felt unease for James, until I saw him turn and leave.

For the final show each student was asked to go out into the small downtown area surrounding our campus and find a gallery or business that would display our senior work. It was an opportunity for the Art Department to interact with the community and for our students to learn how to sell ourselves. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Sheila had been invited to display her work at the most prestigious art gallery in town.

I admit to harboring an intense dislike for this girl and I had intended to pass over her show altogether, but as I walked by The Royal Gallery I noticed James and Professor Thanes standing out front, in what appeared to be a heated argument. I swear to you that I heard James call our beloved Professor a lecherous old fool. They were gone before I could reach them and I allowed the surging crowd to pull me into the gallery.

“I just heard that this show is insane.” “Did you see that instagram of the artist?” “Oh God, that picture made me want to throw up.” “It’s not real you know.” “Ha, I heard it was real.” “Girl, there is no way that shit is real.”

The gallery was jam-packed.

Patrons were pushing forward to view eight 3x3 inch windows cut into an imposing, solid blood red wall at the other end of the 600 square foot gallery. The boxes were backlit and appeared to be floating in the deliberately darkened gallery.

The tiny windows were situated a foot below eye level forcing viewers to bend slightly to see what was inside. The recessed boxes were fashioned out of black lacquered wood and inside, behind the glass, lay spliced pieces of rawhide pinned neatly against their glossy white backgrounds. There was a word tattooed upon each of them. The skin in first box I viewed was inscribed with the word “CRUDE”.

“Jesus, that’s not real skin, is it?” 
“Oh hell yeah, it is. I just read the artist’s intent. It is completely morbid and disturbing.”

I moved my eyes left, to where a placard hung.
//What you are viewing is the physical manifestation of my personal pain.
I was born Dismissed. Excluded. Rejected. Shunned.
I was called Characterless. Crude. Empty. Disgusting.
To rid oneself of such pain, one must first be able to manifest it physically.
Over several weeks I decided to tattoo these eight words onto my body.
Using my Tweezerman and my favorite X-acto knife, I then sliced and peeled each word, letter by letter from my body.
The physical pain of giving myself the tattoos and then cutting them out was so intense as to expunge the words themselves from my mind forever. \\
The crowd moved forward haltingly, as it was with intense fascination that people viewed her grisly pieces of stretched skin pinned up against their stark white backgrounds.

Yet, this was only the anteroom.

The real mockery stood breathing in the larger chamber. Dressed up for a masquerade ball, Sheila stood poised primly, shaking each patron’s hand as her cortege passed by. From across the room I could see the freshly formed scabs covering rectangular shaped wounds on her bare shoulders. The closer we moved to the artist, the more gruesome and legitimate her Venetian eye mask grew.

She took my hand and greeted me warmly by name. It was perhaps the first time I’d ever seen her lips turned upward. Tattooed upon her mask were the words  “I do not want to see you.”

As she lowered that hideous skin mask I caught glimpse of a groove contouring the edge of a giant, weeping wound where the skin for her mask had been cut away. It was this sight that caused me to retch. I was not alone.

“Ah Pricilla, are you alright?” She asked it with a certain smugness.

The crowd thronged in around her, its energy manifesting in a destiny she certainly did not deserve. Only I appeared to know the truth.

The taste in my mouth grew even more abhorrent. Her show made mockery of the entire process of creation. Sheila was not a real artist. She did not lend life to the inert. She inked some words upon her flesh. She shaved off her skin and hung it on a wall. She applied layers and layers of makeup to her face and then stood there as though she was someone of importance.  And this was how she had appropriated the attention of everyone I respected.

Art shouldn’t be easy. It’s what separates our work from any other. It's not just something anyone can throw together. That’s what makes it worthy of attention. It is artists such as these that I despise. Somehow receiving all this undeserved recognition. And for what? For being psychotic.

I remember reaching my hand out to her face to wipe away a bit of dripping makeup and hearing Sheila screaming “You crazy bitch, get the hell off of me.”

I felt the weight of many people pushing me to the ground. It was terrifying. I was aghast that one man felt it his duty to sit upon my person. I had done nothing but reach out a finger toward her face.

But, just as she had done in our painting classes, she turned my simple, helpful gesture into something quite horrible.

Her reviews were all positive. One wrote “I have never physically felt another’s mental anguish until I viewed Sheila Blackwell’s Cuttings.” Another complimented her on the faultless fabrication of her infamous bloody skin mask.

All the reviews also mentioned my name. “Fellow art student Pricilla Rockland attacked Ms. Sheila Blackwell in an apparent attempt to destroy her Venetian bloody skin mask. She managed to scratch Ms. Blackwell’s face several times and draw blood before she was forcibly removed from the gallery. We asked Ms. Blackwell what might have evoked such an extreme reaction to her work and she responded “Pricilla’s always had great difficulty in dealing with anything that is outside of her framework. I imagine that she just kind of cracked.”

What conceit on her part to imagine she could know of my intent, my inner workings.

My face has caught many insults today demanding I apply heavy make up before going out. I have found that Sheila was quite right about one thing. To remove one’s pain, it is best to physically manifest it first.
Author's Note

It was a challenging story to write as I wasn't sure I could carry off such a bombastic voice. 
I pulled material from a variety of places. Check it out!

A forward in Maugham's Cakes and Ale gave me the idea for the critic.

The mask came from this Psycho Sandra's website.

The removal of the tattoo came from a real story that popped up in my newsfeed somewhere.

The art shouldn't be easy is a direct quote from Suzanne Heintz.

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