Issue January 26, 2011

Literary LEO 2011

SHORT FICTION — SECOND

Art Lesson

BY DAVID OWEN

My name is Art. It isn’t short for anything. It’s just that my mother loved art, and maybe for that reason I never took to it. Of course I’ve had to endure all those word plays on my name; you know, like Art follows function, Art imitates life, art for Art’s sake, and Liz’s favorite, How Great Thou Art, all very funny, ha, ha.

But of course that doesn’t mean I know anything about real arty kind of art, or didn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I find myself in this little place on Frankfort Ave., called The Gordon Gallery or something. I don’t usually go to places like that, but Rory does, and that’s where she told me to meet her before going on to dinner. Rory writes about art for the paper, and has been very nice to me since my wife, Liz, died about a year ago, and I’m grateful for that.

When I get there the place is full of people smiling and talking, and pretending to kiss each other on the cheeks, but only kind of touch cheeks instead, you know what I mean. They’re drinking California wine out of those plastic wine glasses like you get at Liquor Mart, and eating canapes, whatever those are. Of course, nobody is looking at the art. It’s like one of those funeral visitations, where everybody is smiling and talking and not paying one whit of attention to the guest of honor.

I hang out near the door so that when Rory finally does show up — which knowing her should be sometime in the next two days — we can make a quick get away. But knowing Rory, when she finally does materialize, hopefully wearing that little black Anne Klein number that looks like she threw on the slip and forgot the dress, she’ll want to dive into that crowd of cheek kissers, and I’ll be lucky if she doesn’t drag me along with her.

With nothing better to do I start looking at this really goofy painting near the door. It’s fairly big and doesn’t look like anything, except that maybe the artist did it last, as a way to use up all his paint and have less cleaning up to do. A card placed discreetly next to the frame says $850. Well, I think, hope springs eternal.

I must have been studying that painting a little too long because the next thing I know I hear this voice next to me saying, “How do you like it?”

I turn my head and here’s this good looking guy in a blue velvet blazer and a flowered shirt open at the neck, I think it’s rayon, standing next to me looking affable. He must have mistaken me for a real aficionado, is that the word? Or maybe even a buyer.

“How do you like it?” he says, looking at the painting.

“I don’t know if I like it or not.”

“Why not?” says the guy.

“Well, for openers,” I say, “I don’t know what it is.”

“Uh huh,” says the guy.

“Your’re the artist, right? Tell me what it is.”

“I’m Vince,” he says, offering one of those limp handshakes. “I’m not the artist, but I am an artist, and I know that the artist would say it’s whatever you want it to be. Let it speak to you.”

God, I hate when people answer a question with a riddle. “It already did speak to me.”

“And what did it say?” says Vince, arching his eyebrows.

“Well, to be honest, I think it said he’s not an artist.” I can be very blunt at times.

“Why do you say that?” says Vince, unfazed.

“Because that painting is not a picture of anything.”

“Oh, but it is,” says Vince brightly. “It’s whatever you want it to be a picture of.”

There he goes again, I think, and decide to try another tack. So I say, “Well, he must have had something in mind when he decided to paint it.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure he did,” says Vince. “But what the artist had in mind isn’t important.”

“It’s not?”

“Because when you look at a painting, especially a painting like that, when you look at a painting, it becomes yours.”

Oh boy. By now I wouldn’t be surprised to see a very large white rabbit, with an oversized pocket watch, come bounding through the place.

“OK,” I say. “Suppose I want it to be a picture of my late wife, Liz. She never looked like that — all those weird colors dripped and slathered around.”

“Oh,” says Vince, “You’re thinking of her appearance.” He has that kind of effeminate yet confident way of speaking. “But a picture of your wife wouldn’t really be a picture of your wife, would it?”

“It wouldn’t?”

“Oh no” he says, so self-assured. “It would just be a picture of a woman with a unique appearance — a picture of her external self, the self she wanted to show to the world. It wouldn’t show what she was really like. Inside I mean.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, look deep into the picture and think about what kind of person your wife was. Underneath. Not just underneath, but deep down inside.”

Just then this sweet young thing, looking all upscale artsy in her designer pants and Birkenstocks, interrupts us and drags Vince off to do the cheek thing with some newcomers.

I look at the painting again, at all the colors, the strokes and slashes and drips and try to think about Liz — not just how she looked, but how she was underneath, but not just underneath, but deep down inside. And the more I look at that crazy painting the more I see, or think I see — Liz’s charm, her humor, her curiosity, her energy and drive. And looking further I see her obsessions, her anger, her narcissism. Then I wander off into a fantasy. Liz and I are in an enormous bed, in a room totally dark but for a dozen tiny candles she’s scattered about, and our favorite music, I think it’s Vivaldi, barely audible. God how I miss that woman.

I must have been transported into a kind of funk, because I jump when I hear a voice next to me, and it’s Mr. velvet blazer again.

“So, what do you think?” he says, looking at the painting.

“Wha I tink?” I croak. My throat feels dry and constricted, and with some effort I say, “What do I think?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, I’ve got a question,” I say, blinking back the moisture in my eyes.

“And what is that,”

“Do you take MasterCard?”