The Trauma of Painting

Note: Title is shamelessly stolen from the title of the exhibition at the Guggenheim in NYC that inspired this. I highly recommend checking out its website, too. At least watch the super-short video here, because it makes the story make a lot more sense.


Horrible. Ugly, cumbersome, primitive, just merde. I should’ve taken a knife to it ages ago. Or a match. It would make a better bonfire than it did a painting, that was certain. I couldn’t turn it in as my final piece, but I had no time to make a new one. It was due in less than thirty-six hours, now. I stood in the middle of the studio, glaring at the canvas, as I tried to think how I might salvage it from my string of mistakes. ‘Happy accidents,’ my ass, Bob Ross.

My phone vibrated, and I closed my eyes, mouthing a curse, when I saw Quint’s name on the screen. “Hi,” I answered. “I, um, I’m not going to be able to make it. This is taking longer than I expected.”

There was a pause before he said, “I don’t want to prevent you from finishing, mon chaton. I do recall, however, Zain saying something last night about maintaining a balance between schoolwork and personal pursuits?”

What he’d actually said was, “Stop being such a goody two-shoes, babe. It’s okay to blow off your assignments for a few hours chillin’ in a park sometimes. Quint, could you drag him away from the books and studios at least twice this week?” And Quint had said yes, of course, and suggested our trip to the Guggenheim today.

When I didn’t respond to his question, he went on, even more gently, “The Alberto Burri retrospective will be closing on January 6th, after you leave. It’s your last chance to see it, and I was looking forward to going with you. These things aren’t Theo’s idea of fun, so I usually would be alone. I’d love to have an artist to lend an expert perspective.”

At the moment, I didn’t deserve the title of ‘artist’, much less an expert one. Saying no would mean disappointing him, though, and he’d probably insist on telling Zain, too. And I didn’t want to be confronted with the depth of my failure with the painting anymore right now.

“Okay, I’ll go.”

“Good,” he said. “I’m waiting out front.”

I went to meet him.

*

He insisted on paying for my ticket — “Consider it an early Yule present.” — and we started up the wide, winding ramp that gradually climbed six levels to the top of the building’s famous Rotunda. The entire thing was devoted to showcasing Burri’s work, starting with three of his transparent Combustioni plastiche suspended from the ceiling of a gallery on Level 1. Quint and I stood off to the side, looking through the windows of melted plastic that reminded me of giant sheets of dirty ice: fractured and full of air bubbles, yet sparkling in the light. After a minute, he asked if I was ready to move on, and I nodded.

Taking Zain to look at art always begins a countdown to when he’s going to start making terrible, inappropriate jokes. By contrast, the older Top was silent for much of the time as we moved from piece to piece, and when he did speak, it was to ask my opinion or offer his own observations. He was the perfect companion. His questions also made me immerse myself more fully into the textures and colors, and soon my earlier annoyance with my own skills faded into admiration of Burri’s.

“I suppose my affinity for him has something to do with being able to see his medical training in so many of his works,” Quint said, in front of one of the Sacchi. “An army medic is about the furthest you can get from a pediatric pulmonologist, yet still. The stitching in the burlap there follows Jenkin’s Rule for the placement of surgical sutures, for example. In others you can see the shapes of organs.”

“There’s a Cretto painting that could be either a uterus or a crucified figure viewed from above,” I said. “I wonder if it’s here.”

“They’re arranged chronologically, so the Cretti series would be near the top, wouldn’t it?” he asked. I nodded, and he smiled, saying, “Let’s hunt for it when we get up there.”

*

But my replies to him grew shorter the further we went. Even stopping every few feet, I began to notice a familiar, sickening feeling behind my forehead, like my brain was swirling soup starting to evaporate.

No! Not now!

“Seb?”

A faint hint of concern colored Quint’s tone, and I realized I’d been staring at a plaque on the wall for much longer than it took to read it.

“Sorry,” I said, quickly turning away. “Got lost in thought.” This was ridiculous. We had to keep moving. I just needed a snack and I’d be fine.

Single-occupancy unisex bathrooms stood on each level of the Rotunda where it connected to the rest of the building. I headed towards the one only feet further up.

In my hurry, though, I walked into the midst of a family coming down the ramp. They jostled me to the railing on the outside edge, and I happened to glance over it at the floor five stories below. Vertigo hit hard. Clutching the smooth concrete with my fingers, I squeezed my eyes closed against the sudden dizziness.

“Are you alright, mon chaton?”

Through gritted teeth, I said, “One sec.”

His hand gripped my shoulder, anchoring me in the spinning world. “Hypo?”

Merde.

“…Yeah.”

“Okay,” he said, with perfect equanimity. “There’s a bench to your right. Would you like to sit down?”

I shook my head, which was a mistake, as it made the top of my skull feel like it had floated off. Stopping, I said, “Too many people.” An audience for my test was the last thing I wanted. “The bathroom.”

“No, it’s not sanitary,” he said. “This way.”

Before I could object, he was steering me by the elbow. I parted my lids a crack as we went around the wall behind the bathroom, to a wide landing of a staircase. A circular wooden bench topped with a thick, gray cushion was there, out of obvious sight for anyone on the ramp. Gratefully, I sunk onto it. Quint stood in front of me, providing even more of a barrier while I tested my glucose. It came back at 49 mg/dl.

I took a granola bar from my bag and unwrapped it as I stood again, feeling steadier. “I’ll be good once I eat this.”

Moving nothing other than a raised eyebrow, he said, “And then wait fifteen minutes. Sit, please.”

“Quint, I don’t ne–”

He swatted me.

Not very hard, but still most definitely a swat. In the Guggenheim.

I dropped down, my face burning.

“Thank you,” he said, sitting next to me and wrapping an arm around my shoulders to pull me into a sideways hug. “I know you’re able to manage the diabetes yourself. However, I can tell when you’re reacting out of fear, not any sort of sound medical judgement, and I will step in to help in those situations, understood?”

Staring at the circular pattern on the floor between my knees, I nodded. He reached over with his free hand and caught my chin, making me turn to meet his gaze, and waited patiently until I said, “Oui, monsieur.” Then he smiled and let go to gently tousle my hair.

“Now, would you like to tell me why you were in such a rush to keep going?”

I shrugged. “It’s nothing, it’s just, um, the faster we get through this, the sooner I can go back to my final project, I guess.”

“If you’re worried about it, we can leave as soon as you’ve stabilized.”

“No!” I said, louder than I meant to. Blushing again, I lowered my voice and explained, “I do want to see the rest of it. I’m having fun. Or I was, until my dumb body decided to ruin it.”

“Nothing’s been ruined,” he said. “We simply need to stay here a few minutes before we go on. It’s only one more level to the top, alright?”

“Okay.”

I tried not to lean on him too obviously while we waited for my sugar level to rise.

*

The painting I’d been thinking of was hung in a little alcove almost at the very end. Quint and I stood shoulder to shoulder looking at it awhile. The cracked, raised surface, like mud dried in the sun, was strangely ugly and beautiful at the same time. Or perhaps the ugliness of it invited you to see the beauty, to empathize with it.

“People claim his techniques wound the body of the painting,” I said. “I think they’re more about healing it.”

“You may be right,” said Quint. “That is what doctors do, after all.”

Walking back down to the exit, I could already picture how I would save my own ugly work.

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