Trompe l’oeil

I painted this pair for the Works on Paper show at the Armory in NYC a while back. I’m not naturally drawn to trompe l’oiel but didn’t want to just make a painting of one of my icons. Despite the fact that my small works can be photo realistic, I’ve never considered myself a Photorealist anymore that a Realist. In some cases I have painted works about photos but it wasn’t the core of it. The idea of illuminating a commercially printed picture of an illumination appealed to me. The adding of polaroids gave the layering needed for an illusion as well as providing a juxtaposition for the images. I may come back to this type of work at some point, there are some ideas that need fleshing out.

Constant Twilight

In the evenings, after dinner, my mother would often call us out to the front porch to look at the sunset, announcing it with all the enthsiasm of a solar eclipse. While indeed beautiful, it usually looked pretty much the same from night to night, a velvety blue sky slashed with swaths of red, purple and gold. But that wasn’t the point, it was the hour itself. There was something special, almost dreamlike about sitting on the stoop with a cup of tea in the waning light. Everything warm and familiar, softened into beauty. Ugly was momentarily forgiven, plain became pretty and pretty became wondrous. Sometimes half light shows the potential of something, more than the just the maudlin surface illumed by an oblivious daylight. Neighbors sitting scattered about on the private islands of their own stoops, nodding, waving or sighing a half intelligible greeting. A fiend ambling up the street to share the days events. Nothing was ever rushed, those ten or so minutes of red, blue and gold were an eternity.

I think now that my mother just wanted us to see. She was always pointing out little details as we would walk, a gargoyle carved in a building facade, the difference between two types of brick or even the progress of a leaf being blown down the street. The ability, and desire, to Look is probably the most valuable gift I was ever given.

Twilight in the city is different than in the countryside. In the country it is a given. It’s just another part of the daily, albeit beautiful, cycle. In the city, it can pass unnoticed like a thief. If you are distracted at the wrong moment, it’s gone. If you look at the wrong thing, make a phone call or take too much time eating dinner, it’s gone. This can make it all the more jarring when you do catch it. Not the postcard cliche of a vast city skyline but something intimate, those few moments when garbage disappears, traffic sounds quieter and everyone looks like they’re just ambling along. At those times when you take a second to actively look, you see it and you want to amounce it with all the enthusiasm of an eclipse.

An Unfinished Sketch of Jill

I first met Jill at a Dumbo loft party in the spring of 1983.  I was bored out of my mind because I didn’t know, and didn’t really want to know, anyone there.  A tall girl with a page boy cut sat on the roof looking wistfully bored as me so I took the bait and started talking to her.  She was striking with sparkling eyes and a warm smile.  We started chatting, as one does, about how lame this rich kid poseur party was and hit it off immediately. Having gotten on so well, we made plans to go to a film a few days later.  We went to see a Godzilla movie.  

As I sat in the theatre, I didn’t feel any romantic vibe but figured it was a date so I reached for her somewhat limp hand.  After the film it felt like we were holding hands out of an obligation so I let go.  She told me about her rotten loser of an ex boyfriend and sorting her head out.  No problem, I was going through something similar (I always seemed to be going through something like that, come to think of it).  The five hundred pound gorilla having left the room, we became more animated and open.  

Jill invited me over to her house to listen to records.  She played Da Da Da (I don’t love you, you don’t love me) by Trio. Sitting on the floor in the dark beach house with the didn’t decor I felt one of those intimate sharing moments that come all too rarely.  This girl was ok in my book.  We spent a few weeks hanging out but since she lived out in the Hinterlands of Staten Island and I was in school in Manhattan (and gotten a new girlfriend who placed demands on my time), we fell out of touch.

A year later, cockily walking to school in my beautiful new bowling shoes (so New Wave), who do I see walking towards me but Jill. 

“My God!  How’ve you been?  What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to school here, graphic design.  Nice shoes”

“Fine arts, you like ‘em?  We should get together, let’s go get some coffee.”

“OK” and we did.  We saw each other one or two more times but since we were in different departments and she was still kind of breaking up with her loser boyfriend and I was trying to break up a confusing art school relationship (which is another tale altogether), our schedules made it difficult to spend much time together.  Once again, we fell out of touch.

About a year later (this was starting to become our routine) we ran into each other again.  Jill was still dumping her boyfriend and I was with a girl I could only see on weekends because she lived about two hours away.  Somehow, we managed to keep in touch this time.  We started spending a lot of our time together.  She was someone who “got it”: smart, clever, creative, ambitious and downright silly with a genuine lust for life. Every conversation made you feel like a coconspirator in some grand scheme. As we became closer she finally cut off her loser boyfriend.  I was never able to understand the Svengali like hold he had over her for so long.  He was short, chubby, sulky and treated her like dirt but he always seemed wounded.  Jill had a huge heart and probably stayed with him from pity and guilt (a situation I would become familiar with some years later) but enough was enough.  Free at last.  

When it came time to breakup with my girlfriend, an tumultuous three-year affair that resulted in some of my finest work, Jill was my rock.  While we were tending bar for a high school reunion she strengthened my resolve to do something I’d needed to do for the last few months.  That night I went home to my apartment and ended it with my girl.  We both knew it was over long before but neither of us had made the move.  She thought Jill, who she never really liked, was trying to steal me away.  While it wasn’t exactly the case, we did share a closeness that my girlfriend never fully allowed. Jill and I now had all the time in the world.

We were both single now and, surprisingly, not too thrilled about it.  Jill had found an apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village: a tiny one bedroom in a six-story walkup.  Every night we’d be out drinking, conspiring and commiserating.  Often it wouldn’t make sense for me to take the train back to Brooklyn so she’d have me crash at her apartment. Soon it became standard practice.  She only had a small futon so we slept spooned like chaste lovers.  We’d become joined at the hip, so we decided to get an apartment together.   

After searching for a week or so Jill said, “Why don’t you just move into my place?”  My apartment in Park Slope was huge but I had two roommates and my share of the rent was more than she was paying by herself and you couldn’t dream of a better location.  Besides, I was already there most of the time.  I gathered up my art supplies and most important belongings and gave the rest away.  A friend of mine took over my share in my in the old place and I became a Villager.

We quickly settled into a simple life with all it’s rituals.  Jill didn’t cook many things but, what she did, she cooked well.  Although we still went out drinking, more and more time was spent at home lounging about in our pajamas (the only era I wore pajamas and it made perfect sense, not from modesty but because we were such homebodies), drinking cocoa and listening to music.  I even let her mix my record collection with hers once we started buying them together, this I had never done before. After jumping around the apartment to Sylvester (the gospel version of Mighty Real can still move me to tears), Salt N Pepa (our first co-purchase) The Fall et al,  We’d play “Low” by David Bowie every night before bed; “Always Crashing in the Same Car” was our lullaby.

Jill smoked.  Hipster that I was, I’d started smoking cloves around this time, one a night, and only when drinking, but I was tiring of getting dirty looks and even being thrown out of one place because of them.  Jill offered me one of her Camels as we sat in a café one evening.  It was the perfect combination: coffee and cigarettes.  Sitting in the candlelight, drinking well-brewed java, casually drawing on my smoke, conspiring with my best friend. I could have died a happy man then.  I’d bum one her from time to time to have a prop for dramatic effect and in no time I started paying for her packs so I wouldn’t feel like a leech, then two packs so I wouldn’t leave her short.  Then I started carrying a pack in case she ran out.  Around this time I realized I was a smoker.

One evening after some heavy drinking, Jill offered to cut my hair.  She had a buzz thing but had lost the attachments so she used a comb instead.  I said, “It looks so easy, can I try?”

“Are you sure you want to?” she asked, taking into consideration the state we were both in.

“Definitely!  How hard can it be?”  She reluctantly handed me the clippers and I got to work without the benefit of a mirror.  In my mind, I was a regular Vidal Sassoon; maybe I’d cut Jill’s hair when I was done.  Maybe not.  Jill handed me the mirror after a few minutes: I looked like I had mange!  She decided the only way to fix it was to cut it to its lowest common level, and that was bare scalp.  This was the time when my style of dress had veered to leather jackets, jeans and Doc Martens.  With the addition of my new hairstyle, or lack thereof, I looked the perfect skinhead.  While nothing could be further from the truth, I cut quite an imposing figure.  People crossed the street to avoid passing me.  I felt bad when a black kid backed away on the subway platform, I felt like telling him “No, it was an accident!  I’m not a skin!”  Then the thought struck me, if there were five of him instead of one, I’d be done for.  I changed to Chucks and a blazer until my hair grew back.  

One evening, in an altered state, Jill and I were eating dinner at home.  I became fascinated by how the butter had softened.  As my knife cut through it I was mesmerized.  “It cuts like flesh!” I deliriously intoned.  Jill didn’t say anything then but informed me a few years later that for the following three weeks she kept a hammer under the bed, just in case.

I had built a loft bed in the apartment over the studio but rarely used it because it was an ordeal to climb up into; besides, we’d usually fall asleep watching TV from the futon. These were idyllic times.  Snuggled in our pajamas, we were like brother and sister (although I never spooned with my sister).  Now, I tend to be a very heavy sleeper, but one night for some reason I awoke… to a surprise.  Jill was leaning over me, gently kissing my face, working her way towards my mouth, apparently thinking I was asleep.  “This is interesting” I thought.  Under different circumstances I would’ve been creeped out, but my friendship with Jill was beyond any kind of shame or judgment.   Let’s see where this goes.  I turned over to return the kiss and, and… in a flash she flipped over, pretending to be asleep.  Huh?   I lay awake beside her the rest of the night, knowing she was awake too, not knowing what to do.  Maybe she was half asleep and didn’t realize what she was doing.  Not the way she spun around as I stirred.  We hadn’t been drinking that night.  Maybe she was just curious, or horny… had she ever done this before? I decided to do nothing, I’d destroyed a previous relationship by sleeping with a girl who’d been a good friend, I felt like I’d committed incest.  Maybe it would have been different with Jill but it wasn’t worth the risk.  When morning came I acted clueless and, while a bit quieter than usual, Jill did the same.

After that, we started spending more time with our other friends.  We were still thick as thieves but we didn’t feel like we needed to spend so much time alone together, possibly because we both knew now that we’d never be lovers.

Things went along this way for a while until one evening when one of Jill’s friends set her up on a blind date.  She figured, “Why not?”   When her intended suitor arrived at the apartment, he’d brought not one, but two friends with him.  I wasn’t feeling well that night and Jill wasn’t sure if she’d need a way out so I stayed home, bade all a good night and climbed up into the loft.  They all wound up staying in and while her intended didn’t seem to hit it off with her, one of his friends did.  As the evening wore on the two of them were rapt in conversation and oblivious to all.  The other two fellows decided to call it an evening but he stayed on.   At this point my cold, thankfully, got the better of me and I drifted off to sleep.

By the time I awoke the next morning, he was gone.  Jill asked me, “So, what do you think of him?”

“Honestly?  I think he’s a pompous ass.”

“I know… but he’s kind of sweet and he’s got puppy eyes.”

“Are you going to see him again?”

“I don’t know, I think so.”   She thought right and soon the inevitable happened.  He started spending more time at the apartment and I started feeling like a third wheel.  Since the apartment was only about four hundred square feet I decided to move out, so back to Brooklyn. It would only be for a few months until I found a new place in Manhattan but I thought it best to leave on a high note before we began to get on each others nerves, nothing is worse than a new couple with a single hanging about. 

 After a month or so, Jill and I decided to go to England and France, immediately.  That spontaneity was one of the things I always loved about her.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be with the new boyfriend and had never been abroad.  It would be a perfect way to think things through.  No one needs to ask me twice to travel so we would have left the next day but for two things: money and visas.  The French still used visas for Americans in those days and we were forced to wait a few days until they cleared.  We had some cash, enough for tickets and a few hundred spending and I had a credit card (still a novelty in those days) but nowhere near enough for two weeks of lodging.  No problem, Jill had met a fellow from London on the ferry about a year before who told her that if she ever came over, she could stay at his flat.  She also had a friend of a friend who lived in Paris.  Perfect! What could go wrong?  She rang them up and both agreed to let us stay with them.   We bought our tickets and we were on our way.

We traveled light, taking only carry on bags.  Our only indulgence was a pair of Pixelvision video cameras and my 3d camera.  Pixelvision was an inexpensive children’s toy that used ordinary audiocassettes to film very grainy, black and white movies.  We imagined ourselves great auteurs and filmed each other on our jaunts around the neighborhood.  They always elicited comments when people saw us using them and are still quite sought after by indie filmmakers.  Unfortunately, we left them running in our luggage and burned them out, so we never made our European epic and I no longer have any of the other cassettes.

 When we arrived in London, Jill rang up our host who gave directions to his flat in the north of town.  Simon, our host, turned out to be as bleak and run down as the neighborhood.  He was pasty and somnambulant but we didn’t care, we were after adventure, with or without him.  As we looked around the sloppy apartment, the first thing we noticed was that there was no place for us to sleep.  “It’s not much, but I’ve an extra mattress you can share.” Simon shrugged.  I started to wonder if Jill had told him I was coming with her and if he’d expected her to share his bed.  

“He seemed a lot different on the ferry,” Jill whispered as we reluctantly unpacked, “We’ll just stay a couple of days to save money.”  Simon came in with the “mattress”; it was a thin strip of yellowed foam rubber about two feet wide.  I looked at Jill and shrugged, “We wanted adventure, we got adventure.”

We decided then and there that we had to get rid of him but it was too late to find a hotel for the night.  Jill and I had decided to go clubbing that night.  She wanted to try a new drug called Ecstasy that  was popular in London but hadn’t yet caught on in the States.  Simon insisted that the clubs were all boring and that, as our host, he must take us to dinner.  We took the tube downtown to look for this “lovely” Moroccan restaurant and promptly got lost somewhere in Soho.  

“I think it’s just around this corner” he reassured us, “or maybe after the next street.”  He didn’t even remember the name and no other place would do.  After an hour of wandering up and down the same streets we decided to lose him.  When he ducked into a bar for directions we slipped away and off to a club.  It was more like someone’s basement; down a flight of stairs, no band (the burgeoning rave culture seemed to be doing away with them) and no atmosphere, just packed, sweaty teens and a bored looking DJ.  Jill just started going up to people and asking, “Hi, do you know where we can get Ecstasy?”  What she lacked in subtlety she made up for in enthusiasm.  Although everyone appeared to be on it, no one knew where to get it.  One lad gave us the address of an after hours club nearby where we might find some so back out into the night air we went.  

Jill and I had no luck there either and, I must admit, I was a bit relieved for it.  Admitting defeat, at least for the evening, we hopped a taxi back to Simon’s flat.  He seemed upset answering the door at two in the morning, as he had to be at work in a few hours.  “Where did you go?  I was looking for the two of you forever!”

“Where did you go?  We waited on the corner for a long time” Jill lied, “and then Larry went in to look for you and you weren’t there!  So we just looked for a way back.”  Apparently he didn’t smell the alcohol on our breath because he just shrugged his shoulders and took what we said at face value.  “It’s easy to get lost in a town like this.”

We slept fitfully, thanks to the tight squeeze, sharing our strip of foam.  In the morning, after Simon gave us the key to the apartment (how trusting!) and left for work, we packed our things, washed up and left, leaving a thank you note explaining nothing.  We headed for a Bed and Breakfast that I’d stayed at and liked in Russell Square, the St. Athans.  While we’d arrived early enough for breakfast, which was wonderful, they only had a room with a single bed available. At least it was a real bed, with pillows and blankets.  We ate like fiends and went off to enjoy the city. 

We spent a few pleasant days and nights doing the usual things but money was starting to become scarce, we hadn’t counted on spending for hotels.  After about a week it was time for our next stop, Paris.  Jill’s friend of a friend there was an artist.  We felt better about Three Square (that was his Art name, I’ve forgotten his real one) since someone had vouched for him.  It turned out his art was graffiti.  He was a very nice and unassuming fellow who lived out by Boubignon Picasso.  When we reached his apartment, we found out what our sleeping arrangement was to be; a thin, yellowed strip of foam almost identical to the one in London!  Maybe it was some strange European custom…  

Over the course of the next few days we were treated to the courtesy the French are so famous for; sneers, rolled eyes, cold food and incorrect change. My cash supply was quickly dwindling when Jill came up with an idea; she would buy things with my credit card and give me the cash.  Unfortunately, she didn’t have much more than I so she wound up with a few pairs of shoes and I had a rather substantial bill waiting for me at home.

Since I spoke passable French, I did most of the talking in public.  Language would follow a fairly predictable pattern; Jill would start to ask something in English, the Parisian would sigh and play dumb, I’d struggle to rephrase the question in French and only after that would they answer us in English.   Our host thought it would be nice for us to meet his American artist friend.  She was a spoiled girl from Long Island who was spending her year abroad painting mediocre flower pictures in an incredible apartment that looked more Parisian than any cliché. She was trying to out French the French. When we arrived, she would only speak French.  Three Square told her, “I think it would be more polite if we spoke English in front of my friends.”

“Boot ah doont want to spik zee eengleesh!”  She replied in a whiny overwrought accent.  This was too much; a few months weren’t enough to lose your native language.  What was she going to do next, put on a beret and sing “La vie en Rose”?   I smiled at her and remarked, “You do that very well!”  She gave me an indignant look but the accent disappeared only to be replaced by her even more annoying Long Island one.  We didn’t stay long because it was obvious to all that our presence was putting a strain on her fantasy.

We’d taken the ferry from Dover to Calais and the trip was as smooth as glass, the return trip was a different story completely.  I had no idea a ship as big as an ocean liner could pitch and turn so.  This was a midnight crossing to save a night’s board; big mistake.  At first it was lots of fun, the rise and fall was like a rollercoaster.  Then some people started getting sick and heading for the bathroom.  Jill and I were made of stronger stuff and proud of it.  We headed outside to watch the waves crash against the side of the ship.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen; huge walls of green water illumed by the boats beams, rolling against the black sky.  After a few soaked minutes we realized that the possibility of being swept away was quite real.   

It was around this time seasickness started catching up with us.  What brought it on wasn’t so much the movement of the ferry but the sight that greeted us when we went back inside.  There was vomit everywhere!  People no longer bothered running to the bathroom any longer, the room looked like a Jackson Pollack painting.  Every single passenger was singing in 3D!  I guess yawning isn’t the only thing that’s contagious; almost immediately, Jill and I sang a duet in the liquid opera.  Afterwards, except for a few rainbow hiccups, we felt much better but had to finish our journey standing since there wasn’t a clean inch to sit on.

Back in London we found a nice B&B in Pimlico and, oh joy, a full sized bed.  We spent our last two days in peace and quiet as Jill mulled over whether or not she should dump the boyfriend.  She knew he really was a pompous ass but still…  We finally flew home and said goodbye at the airport, solitude and a full sized bed at last.

Jill called me the next day to tell me that he had filled her apartment with flowers while we were away, how romantic.  That clinched the deal: she decided to keep him. Over the following years we remained friends. 

Eventually, Jill would move to Colorado and die in a car crash.  There was no goodbye, she just ceased to exist.  I didn’t even have a photograph of her except a color xerox of a blurry slide taken on our trip. Why did I need pictures? She was supposed to always be there.

 Jill was cremated and was to be kept by her mother who’d asked me to make a box to put some personal effects in to be buried in the family plot. She also gave me some black and white copies of photos of her daughter.  I created a glass lined mahogany box with a carved top and brass handles, the saddest object I’d ever made.  When she saw it she decided to bury Jill and asked if her ashes could be put in it for interment. I immediately agreed and also put one of my icons, a note and our Bowie album.  It didn’t occur to me until I saw it at the memorial service that I had made my best friend’s coffin.   

Ghosts

When I was in Art school, and for a while after, I’d sell my artwork to private collectors to pay for my tuition, rent and sundries.  When I could afford the luxury, I would shoot slides of pieces but, more often than not, usually wound up slapping them down on a xerox machine and photocopying them as my only record.  Since most of my work tended to be small, anywhere from the size of a phone to a matchbook, this was an efficient way of keeping track, at least according to my brilliant twenty odd self.  I disliked slides, they gave no sense of the actual object and galleries rarely returned them.  I always had more success just going into a gallery and laying my work on the front desk since I always had a few icons on me at all times.

 

While sorting out some old piles of paper, I recently came across some of the old xeroxes.  It was quite jarring.  Many of the works are personal and, like most all of my work, autobiographical but with the urgency and immediacy of youth, reflexive rather than reflective.  These bits of wood and paint were the most important things in the world to me until they became monsters that had to be exorcised, they’d take so much out of me that selling them end even giving them away to friends, family, acquaintances and in some instances strangers was a cathartic experience.

 

These ghosts, these brittle bits of paper now work for me in a different way.  They are like contact prints (my favorite type of photograph), a direct positive that reconnects me to the original image, no longer icons but relics with the same primacy like the toe bone of a saint or a lock of a lovers hair.  I still have the visceral experience of those works in a way that a high definition digital image or slide could ever provide.