Writing About Art
On the drizzly hillside JP Devine swayed like a drunkard, shaking his head as if to try to dislodge a trapped insect. Through fractured vision and mind he contemplated his hands, red as a butcher’s.
“Never judge people from the outside, JP,” his mother’s voice said. “It’s like judging the size of an iceberg from what you can see and being surprised when you crash. Remember that you never know what’s going on deep down.”
JP wished that were still true for him.
One month earlier
Really JP preferred landscapes to portraits, and abstract art to both, but street portraiture was one of the few ways he could think of making decent money in London, where the prices still made his Clonakilty mind whirl. His portraits were good, too – the sitter’s friends always gasped at how well he’d managed to capture them without resorting to boring realism or offensive caricature. “How did you know he loves Amaretto?” they’d gasp. JP would shrug, barely able to remember painting the picture at all. But there it was, a man surrounded by video games and piles of washing, drinking an Amaretto while a ginger cat lay on a stack of paperwork. The word SLOTH crossed his mind for a moment.
He didn’t think about that again until a week later. This time the sitter was not so pleased with her portrait.
“Has Jasmine been talking to you?” She shouted angrily, then glanced around and reduced her voice to a growl. “You’d better tell me who put you up to this.” She leaned in so close to JP that the smell of Camel Ultras and ineffective cover-up chewing gum made him wince.
JP couldn’t see what the fuss was about. In the picture his sitter was passionately embracing a much younger dark-haired woman; a fire notice on the door and card slot by its side told you they were in a hotel room.
“Madam, nobody put me up to this but you. Now, don’t you worry, the sign does promise that you don’t need to pay if you’re not-“
The woman grabbed the picture. “No way in hell am I letting anyone see this.” She opened her wallet, passed JP every note in there, and leaned in to give him another dose of Camels. “You carry this on and those delicate fingers won’t be painting any more dirty pictures.”
Lust was the word that floated across JP’s mind like a cinema subtitle now even though that was definitely not the feeling he was getting from the woman. He stared at the painting, rolled up and already cracking under the woman’s arm as she stalked off. Lust.
Sometimes he thought he was starting to get it, but his head was so fuzzy. Any time he tried to think about his portraits in detail they defocused like a bad camera image. He’d never been great at art analysis or writing the kind of nonsense his art school had liked, but this was something else.
Wrath was the next word to force itself into his brain. Not wrath from the next sitter in front of him, who seemed strangely calm and pleased with his portrait, holding down an excitement he didn’t want anyone to see. Wrath in the painting. The arms, the legs, the throats, the blood. JP was glad this one went out of focus when he thought about it.
The next day JP was nervous about taking his spot up again, concerned that the man of wrath would return. But he had rent to pay and the square was unusually quiet anyway. None of the other street artists or mimes were there. Had he somehow missed a train strike perhaps?
The square was not completely empty, however; there were many people milling around, and JP noticed with a frown that they all appeared to be businessmen. A silent, straight, sombre line of suits formed in front of his easel.
“What’s the craic, eh, fellas? Is this, like, the world’s dullest flashmob or something?”
The first suit in line shook his head definitively. “We don’t know each other at all.”
“No, we do not,” confirmed the suit behind him.
“This is not arranged,” said the first suit.
“Ok…” JP could hardly tell them to leave for being too polite. He got out his paints.
He painted and painted and the sitters, one by one, nodded with their heads to one side, exchanged glances with each other, then rolled the paintings up and motioned for the next person to take their seat before JP had even come out of the daze induced by the last work.
Wrath. Pride. Sloth. Lust.
Wrath. Greed. Pride. Wrath.
Greed. Greed. Greed.
By the end of the day he was relieved when two of his customers hoisted him up, their shoulders under his, and carried him away.
The room was stifling and sanitary and magnolia, like a shell in a show home on a newly built estate. Under JP the bed was thin, a fold-up bed, not intended to be there forever. On the floor next to him was a large plastic bottle of water. He gulped it down like a man escaping a desert.
“Ah, Mr Devine, I’m glad to see you’re awake.”
The voice sounded vaguely familiar but out of place. JP frowned. Did he even want to know?
“Yes, you do know me, Mr Devine, or can I call you John?” The man was kneeling in front of JP now and he couldn’t pretend not to know him any more. Everyone in the country knew him. Many hated him, and many feared him, but many had also voted for him.
“The biggest bastard in the country,” JP muttered.
“Ah, the rebellious artist! You fit the role perfectly, I must say.” The man reached his hand out and twirled a lock of JP’s hair in his finger then stroked it gently along his throat. JP’s body froze while simultaneously every millimetre of his skin tried to shrink as far away from the man as possible.
“Hmm,” said the man. JP gulped. He hated himself for it but he couldn’t help it.
“Right!” in a change of tone, the man got up. “Come. Here.”
JP’s own easel and paints plus an expensive set of extra oils and acrylics were set up in between two green camping chairs. The man lounged comfortably in one of them, and beckoned sharply toward the other.
“Paint,” he ordered. “I want to see what you will see.”
Three hours later JP was dragged to the door, his items all packed into a rucksack with the label still attached. A soldier in camouflage gear pulled JP very close to his face for a moment, letting him breathe in the heavy sweat and testosterone, saying nothing. Then he shoved him through the door and into the world.
Back in the magnolia room the man was jubilant, capering in front of a canvas completely empty of any picture.
“I knew it! I knew it! I knew I was the one in the right! See? No sins! No sins to show! He found out the rest of your secrets without even trying, but me? Tabula rasa! Doesn’t matter what the losers in this country say, someone up there approves!” He smiled, looked heavenwards and put his hands together.
“Well, I’ve got work to be getting on with.” He laughed. “You know the saying: let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”
On the Clonakilty hillside JP Devine toppled to the ground. Blood from his nose soaked into the moist green grass. Around him, covering the entire hill in viscous oils, wrath and greed fought for dominance over their brood of sins.
JP had always preferred landscapes anyway; this landscape was the only canvas he knew that was big enough to fit that man’s portrait.
Screaming mouths, red groins, huge, dead eyes, glittering money and jewels, children holding their dead parents, champagne pouring, rags unfolding into a man, blood, ruins, and fat pink faces guffawing at it all. The hillside absorbed it all.
And all the sins washed down into the world with the rain.
This picture – “Peaches on a Stone Slab” – will do. Rachel settles herself on the stone bench in front of it. It looks peaceful enough yet, somehow, it provokes her. She wants to stay uninvolved, closed to its beauty but, already, it has oozed into her senses. She wanted to be intelligent about it. She snorts and hopes the guy at the far end of the gallery didn’t hear.
She jabs impatiently at her tablet while she tries to wrestle the painting in front of her into her small, spidered words. The description she types darts away and hides from the meaning she intended. The adjectives run for the dark corners of her feelings. They go and retrieve places she tries to forget she’d ever been. At her time of life there’s an awful lot more to forget than she wants to remember.
She shakes her head clearer and stares, her narrow neck bent to one side. The painting has no frame, it isn’t symmetrical and the perspective is conventional for a still life. She can't think what to say about that. What is it trying to tell her? That the peach in the middle would taste delicious.
She could bite into it in her imagination the same way thousands of people must have done. Everyone tasting exactly the same thing at the same moment of their lives. A shared moment that hangs in the air like a eternal raindrop, the moment when they all first saw this painting.
She can feel the taste jump her tongue. She can sense the juice run down her wrists, chest, the insides of her knees and ankles, pooling in her pulse points. Rachel stands and hums the feeling as lyrics begin to rise from the music. Fat, burnished apricots, sweet intensity, the slightest hint of fur's warm brush, the colour of flames. She finally has it – a peach within her wired word cage.
She must place his peaches in their time. Not only how the world hurricaned around outside his studio but also where this particular painting sat in the stack he built against the peeling wall. His orange room with its turps scent, translucent paint specks and the sodden, disappointed cloths littering the floor. This picture would be in the middle of the canvas stack. Right in the centre of his life’s seesaw when he didn’t know whether he’d go up or down.
Did his period really matter? Don't artists always push the envelope of their time out? He didn’t seem much bound by its rules. He sold his art on the street and made the most of indulgent sponsors – industry or crown alike. Yet he buried wives and children, there were almost as many stilled lives for him as there are now surviving paintings for her.
Rachel knows that’s why he painted the way he did. All those tiny changes to the same scene. Not the light or angle or materials he used – they were consistent. The colours might be lower key or more saturated but that was for a reason. What was important to him was how the objects were grouped together, how they clung.
She knew from her research that this painting was his twenty-fifth attempt at the same scene. The dominant peaches in the centre look the same to her as his previous attempts. The colours are almost identical to the last image. All that’s new are the bruises on the peaches’ flesh. When she squints at the image they look like ghosts, voids within solids. When Rachel opens her eyes wide they dilute into coarser brushstrokes for more colour depth.
She pushes her tablet away from her. She can’t write about what this painting makes her feel. What would she do with another degree, anyway? She was stupid to think The History of Art was a good subject to distract her.
Her peaches are long past their best and the, as yet unseen, bruises will keep on deepening. So be it. She’d forgotten that the relationship between an artist and an art lover is always a private viewing. She didn’t need to describe how he made her feel. She just had to feel it.
A girl walks through the gardens of a stately home. She is dressed in white, the fashion that of the Georgian era. Her lacy empire-line gown is encircled by a pink satin ribbon that ties at the back and flows in artful curls towards the hem. Her white satin slippers can just be seen peeking from beneath the hem of the dress. She twirls a white parasol over her shoulder, shading her face from the bright sunshine. Her features are fine, framed by dark curls, and a slight smile plays across her lips, as if inviting an observer to share a secret joke.
A girl sits in a studio, painting a picture of a girl walking through the gardens of a stately home. Her auburn hair is pulled back away from her face, and a slender paint brush is lodged behind one ear. A small frown line appears between her eyebrows as she concentrates on her art. She is wearing old clothes, clearly well-loved and comfortable; a grey sweater over worn jeans. She is painting to distract herself from worrying about her brother, a successful architect going through a messy divorce.
A girl watches a movie about a young female artist struggling to make a living. She holds a small pad on her lap and occasionally makes notes with a pen that has a built-in light. She submits reviews to a local newspaper and sometimes sees her name in print. She is trying to find a good way to express the conflict portrayed in the movie between the purity of art and the corruption of money. She wonders if she remembered to feed the cat before coming out to the cinema. What she actually remembers is that she has a paper due the following day for a tutorial Media Arts degree. It’s going to be a late night.
A girl reads a biography of a famous movie critic, marvelling over her humble beginnings as a student reviewer. She aspires to great heights herself, though in the very different field of the law. She has just started a training contract at a large city firm and is looking forward to putting her lengthy studies to the test in a practical environment. Her smart charcoal grey trouser suit is pressed and hanging on the bathroom door, ready to be put on in the morning for another day in the busy office. She dreams of one day becoming a partner in her own law firm, and wonders how long it will take her to get there.
A girl works on a script for a new TV show, about a high-flying female lawyer setting up her own firm in the competitive world of the law. She has faced her own struggles in the male-dominated arena of TV and puts the passion and determination she herself has cultivated into her main character. She has had some success as a TV writer in the past, and hopes that this new project will propel her further in the career she has chosen. She reviews the scene she has just written and tweaks a word here and there. It has to be the best it can be, if it’s going to sell.
Zoom far, far out.
A goddess holds a sphere in her hand, looking down through the swirls of cloud to the world within. She seeks out the creative among those who live there, guiding and protecting them in their endeavours. She watches them develop, producing art in many forms, and smiles at the colour and variety they bring to her creation.