CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
When I was little, just a boy living in Pensacola, I used to chase gopher snakes, and I don’t remember anyone calling them their proper name, indigo snakes, no, they were just gophers, or rainbow wrigglers, or shineys, or oilers, which was my favorite name for them because their skin was truly the deepest jet black you can imagine, and in that ugly, heavy sun the black skin would flint sparks of teal, gold, violet, all the rainbow colors of an oil slick. Magnetic in their power, those colors. I chased indigo snakes up and down, in all the marsh and damp land behind our house as long as I wanted. Since my father died my mother raised me not in his image but in hers, as a seeker: no matter what it was you sought, she said, other than to hurt people, you had to keep seeking, and if you didn’t seek you might as well die.
So, in her way, she wasn’t as lax as people said she was, though she might have been more careful in those odd times, when suburban fathers were being locked away for kidnapping, abusing boys. But, truly, the closest I ever got to danger was the two-foot indigo, slipping through the wet in an ultramarine flash, just fringes of color in the dirt and shadow. When I caught one, I tied it down and cut it, cut it open because the colors were so thick and full and I wanted to see what was inside, and every time, I touched the snake’s pale, white flesh. I wish I could show my son Nik those snakes to make a point, that you really can find that kind of infinite beauty in nature, that wonder reveals itself to the right eyes.
But here in the Shenandoah, the fallen leaves around my house only hide beetles, limestone, white moss. There probably isn’t an indigo snake to be found for a hundred miles south. All this doesn’t matter anymore, as I’m living alone now, because Camille, my wife, moved out with Nik only a month ago, leaving me in this empty, tall house that I wander through, unmaking and remaking Nik’s bed, beating the rugs outside with a broom handle, smoking rolled tobacco on the front step, watching the night. The house threatens to swallow me, and so I come out here on the front step to think, grateful for the silence out here too, that doesn’t challenge me or tell me what I did wrong. I count it a blessing to be able to sit in the dark like this. Maybe I’m feeling a little bit better today, I think to myself, better than yesterday.
I met Camille Inaba in a store. I had just finished art school the year before, and was living in a five-person rooming house on R Street, in Washington, DC. I was looking into a furniture store window for a lamp, and I saw this girl, looking at a pathetic little painting with a sales clerk, and I thought, She can’t buy that, so I ran inside and told her, I can do a painting for you that’s a hundred times better, for free, and she was so surprised that she agreed. Her lips were two crisp, smooth planes, and her hair was ideal, blue-black. She was sweet, yet her eyes had a serious strain. I had been waiting for something like this to happen to me, and when she arrived, I knew exactly what to do, which was save her with beauty, the way I had always imagined it happening but had no hope that it actually would.
I did paint her a better painting, and of course it was of her, a love painting, like a love dog or love baby. She’d given me a photo of herself. I carried the piece, wrapped in butcher paper, to her apartment. I felt pretty crazy making such a grand gesture, but Camille took me seriously. She set the painting against a window’s iron grill, considered it silently. Right then I could see, examining the texture of her skin, her alert profile, how much of her essence I missed in my technical portrait.
“It’s true to life,” she said, smiling mildly, the most diplomatic answer she could have given. Camille was just completing her masters in international relations at Georgetown, and would work that fall as a First Secretary in the Brazilian embassy, a tinted glass cube on Embassy Row. Her passion was diplomacy. Great speeches, the matrices of nations and their treaties, ethical triumphs: money withheld from poor countries for bad behavior as with a dog.
Before I met Camille, I was a die-hard cynic. Love was just a word, crusted over in one too many barnacley disappointments. Before Camille, I’d never known a truly positive woman. Camille’s hopeful words could tie suture knots. She wasn’t easily wrecked, as she had, in her youth, decided to abandon the state of indecision many women that I knew inhabited, neither happy nor sad, neither dedicated nor aimless.
I used to find, when making love with other women, that it was hard to really be there with them, to make sure there wasn’t a single moment they felt used. But it was easy to be with Camille, even though, that night, I couldn’t see her clearly in the dark, as the moon was screened by the trees. I used my hands to find her, sense her progression, keep her close to me. As I tried to bear in, right to her heart, she felt this and pressed back against me, with her hands and legs, so we were both present and when we’d both done, she was on her side holding me in her still, our legs wrapped around each other, and I felt unafraid and unashamed, as did she, she said, and we talked quietly of how we should live somewhere out in the woods.
I can cry thinking of that night and I hope to God everyone feels this way with someone at one point, even if it will never happen to them again. You should hold someone in you once as they hold you, so you can’t see a thing and would happily go blind for your joy in them. I say this in full allowance of how things have come to pass. I always have had that time to echo in me.
My paintings from that first year were nostalgic. I painted Camille, incarnations of her simple, open face and its freckle constellations. I only knew that I wanted to paint, that this was the exciting thing about living, about driving through the woods or kissing Camille on her neck, or feeling the autumn descend with her, that everything I saw and did and felt could be shown, through empty metal silos in fields, beehives filled with flowers, children in the forest licking the leaves.
When Camille was pregnant with Nik, I thought of him nestled in her womb, globby fists beating against a translucent ruby sac.
We moved into this house, all dark rooms with high ceilings. I built an elevated, shaded deck with striped Ipe wood. It juts out into the forest.
Camille taught me a meditative ritual in our first months living here. See, the center room of our house was made for it. The walls and floors are black ash. Fifteen silver metal balls, heavy as bowling balls, fill the room. Camille got the first as a gift from the German ambassador. We rolled them in straight lines across the room to each other, sometimes with our eyes closed. It was soothing.
Once Camille sat on the floor, I remember, cross-legged to protect her stomach, and talked about an article on eudaimonic happiness, or “finding one’s most golden self.” She said we had to help each other strive towards our best selves, based on each of our particular talents. She wondered if Nik would be her best self and mine. Like two rods soldered together without a hint of fissure. She could sound silly, like a New Age disciple, but she was right. Helping oneself is hard.
I started the first of that series that would bring me so much grief. The first painting was of him at four months, naked and propped up against a white wall. I made his eyes big, far too big for his face, like a marmoset’s. But they were still real human eyes, a hundred layers or so deep. If the canvas is held at certain angles, the eyes vary in depth, from flat to nearly physical. That first year I spent painting Nik was easily my happiest. I got to spend every day with my son, mopping after him and figuring out ways to keep his attention fixed on the ceiling mobile. All twenty-six paintings went into a big opening when Nik turned one and a half.
“Why is he naked?” Camille asked me at the opening, holding Nik in her arms. She was wearing a new green dress that fit tightly under her bust.
“Nik. Why is he naked?”
“Because that’s how it is.”
“You couldn’t have put clothes on him? His bits are out for everyone to see.”
I looked at a painting and at the people standing in front of it.
“What’s wrong with that? That’s not the point of them, anyway.”
She looked stunned and held Nik’s head close, whispering, “I still think you could have put some underwear on him.”
There was the critic Henry Arlen’s review in Forum, and I’ll never forget his wording: “The Nik paintings allow the distinct eroticism of a child to shine through, and Bell’s rhetoric is daring. He stretches accepted political boundaries with actual talent …” To my chagrin, this moniker stuck to me. Bell the “baby painter,” the sensual child painter. It was all so foreign to me, how an expression of wonder was seen as perversion. They made me feel I had actually displayed my child as in that science exhibit with the real Chinese bodies.
I got over it, but Camille did not. She collected and worried over reviews. She talked for hours on the phone with her parents, (“We just have to let the fallout pass”), her eyes on me riven with pity and contempt. I recognized that look, which she once wore telling me about an official in Rio, a former colleague of hers, who embezzled IMF funds and was jailed for twenty years.
I felt her watching me closely as I held Nik or played with him. God, there is no more poisonous thing to live with than such fears. She either believed the reviews or her parents had suggested that even the worst is possible. Camille began to sleep in Nik’s bed, her forearms X-ed across his chest, her hands clutching his shoulders. She’d enter silently with a cup of scallop soup as I sketched Nik, in overalls, now, and sit at his head. She was afraid. I was dangerous, a rogue element: she never said this, though, because how can you say a thing like that, and how could I bring it up?
After a few weeks of this, Camille dumped a white box of thick folders on the deck one afternoon. She announced that she’d quit her job and would work from home. She said, “I want to spend my time with Nik … These are his key years …”
I learned to live in artificial solitude, Do Not Disturb written on a napkin in pencil, posted with scotch tape to the basement door.
I was sitting right here in this spot, smoking. Beren parked his green feline car at the top of the drive. He wore a light grey summer suit.
Camille rallied, and led Beren to the deck. As she arranged glasses and bowls of cut kiwi and apple on a tray, she told me, “Don’t worry. This can only be good.”
On the deck we ate the fruit and drank the wine. I could tell right away that Beren had good news. His teeth were brimming with it. The Frick and the Philips Collection were bidding for the “Nik” series, with the understanding that I’d paint more children. Beren said people found the provocative (not pornographic, he added) element, the bare child, fascinating. I told him that I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony. Beren’s thin, dark face shuttered up.
“Bell, the reviews are a good thing. Think of any kind of political art. Ruscha wasn’t a fad, but he embraced the political. Art has to be more than just painting. It has to be political to be relevant.”
Camille nodded seriously. “Maybe Matt could have an interview to explain his reasons?”
Beren smiled tightly. “It’s a little early for that.” He went on about my competition, Outsider Art. He peered at the woods, as though a wooly man would emerge wielding a paintbrush as a weapon. “Besides,” he added, “isn’t it indulgent to loathe the system you’re part of?” He slid his empty glass along the table towards Camille.
“He had some good points,” she said, looking flat under the sheet.
“How do you mean?”
“He just wants to push you to your best work. Maybe order your approach.”
“Enough with the best … self talk, please? All I want is to be left alone.”
“Matt. Structure isn’t a bad thing. There’s an order to everything, even to art.”
“Approach, structure, order…Order, structure, approach.” I turned my head from side to side.
Camille flicked on her light, propped herself on her pillow, facing me. The little light revved my headache to roaring. She held her hands up. “The reviews are just words, right? You could ignore them.”
“They are just words. Poor words. Destructive.”
“Don’t you want to be part of something big? Have your name out there?”
“I don’t want to be part of anything.” I looked at her. “Seriously. Anything.”
“All right.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know. I’m too tired to think this through. I’m just worried that I can’t help you, because I don’t understand what you’re frustrated about.”
“You don’t need to help me. Trust me,” I said, cupping her cheek in my hand, wishing she would stop speaking, wishing I could give her my eyes.
We counted airplanes near Dulles, and Nik leapt to touch each airplane as it skimmed over his fingertips. As the sunlight filled a plane’s flanks, I held his chin gently towards it, taught him the word “reflection.”
I did try painting Nik again. Who was it that said the distance from one side of the nose to the other is an infinity in itself? From the center of one of Nik’s cheeks to another was a whole lifetime. Like Akhenaten, he had the nose of a god. Crossing it, the shadows of desert clouds. I painted a triangle, half black, half white.
Eyesight has a simple how. A light reflection off an object hits molecular gradients inside the eye. The mind produces an image. At first, a basic question tortured me: the specific brain-state of black, red, blue. When I close my eyes and imagine a color, how can it possibly exist in my mind, as a modulation or memory?
I remember Professor Janir from Color Theory, how he threw me with one final exam question: How does the color black exist? I started out with a discussion of Wittgenstein, who we read intermittently throughout the semester, and the mathematical system of pure primary colors. Where Wittgenstein came up short on the issue of black and white, whether they were actually colors, I tried to prove, preposterously, that black was real. I wrote out a long equation to demonstrate black as the composite of all known colors. The math of it was pretty iffy, and definitely did not impress Janir, who wrote at the bottom of my exam, “M.B.: As we’ve discussed in depth this semester, Wittgenstein generally ignored long-established science in favor of color as ‘sensation.’ I can’t tell if this is a joke or not,” and gave me a zero.
That exam answer became important to me when I started my black paintings, because I was trying to explain something else there, not “how” black exists in the mind, but more how it can be made and refined to an extreme. Of course, if I had an extremely powerful computer, I could diagram to the millionth capacity each shade between black and white. Then I’d composite them to make a perfect digital black. Yet that digital black would still fail to approximate the natural perfection of a black opal, which, when cut through with light at a certain angle, appears either transparent or opaque, reflecting the whole color spectrum.
I wanted to experience the progression towards a perfect black with my own mind, understand with my own eyes how colors derive meaning from it.
I spent nights painting small test sheets. I bought a full-spectrum light, mixed every color in the paint catalog in several thousand permutations I tracked on my computer. I got down to painting one black card an hour, each reflecting a wider set of colors under the light. I was afraid I was being too analytical, but eventually the paint and color forced me to make them mine anyhow. Formal structure and science only took me so far.
There was a romance, though, to the progressive repetitions. Indeed, my workspace walls had been bare save for a facsimile of an Austrian painter’s asylum diary: ten pages filled with a single word, Water, scrawled a thousand times in even, connected cursive. I tacked the wall around the photo with the small glossy blacks. The purer the black got, the more I felt free from things. I felt my own skin color drained into each layer of paint. I felt my brain turned inside out like a soft chunk of coral and pressed flat onto the paper.
If it is funny to you, believe me, it was funny to me, too. When Camille’s caustic friends were over, they’d ask me, “Found it yet?” and I found myself gasping laughs, thinking faintly, I am ridiculous. But if you’ve ever been obsessed with an idea or a person, you know how thoroughly the search will isolate you. If only you know the object through and through, then.
One more hour. One more round.
Sometimes I caught Camille with a sad half-smile and would start to wonder whether I pushed her into limbo, when she’d nod to herself, snap her eyes briefly up at me, and ask me if I could take Nik to the doctor or to school.
I usually told her I couldn’t, because I needed the morning to work. She once replied, “You could have been a priest, huh.” In the hall mirror, I saw how I looked in my white shirt, buttoned over my throat, my hands folded, my eyes slitted from exhaustion.
I felt like an ice floe, adrift.
I’ve told people that I wanted my paintings to be mirrors, that they should always look wet. They aren’t anything but how I made them. I wanted to make a thing that no one could claim. A void and a life that were entirely mine.
“Look,” Camille explained, “this way you can get fresh air. Clear your head up.” She’d been timing her words, I knew, the way she kept grinding her teeth.
“Ugh.” We got down in the dirt and she was hacking at the roots and tossing them towards me when she asked:
“Why did you do it? Ruin them?”
“Camille.” I saw her eyes. I tried to soften my voice. “Your paintings are still there.”
“Look pretty wiped away to me.” She put down her spade carefully, slipped off her gloves and held out her thin hand. “Those first ones. You did them for me, right?”
“Of course. And they’re still for you.”
“Oh, Matt. You know that’s not true.” She raised her face to me, sharp as ever, as if to say, You don’t have to lie.
“No. I don’t know.” I looked at her hand in mine, trembling like a spider.
She was quiet so long that I thought she’d begun to daydream, when she said, even and forceful, “Three years ago, with those reviews, I should have known. It was hard then, has only been harder since.”
“But I am here, day in, day out, Camille. I haven’t gone anywhere.” I rocked unsteadily on the balls of my feet.
“I’m saying I couldn’t ever really support you. Because you can’t really ever be here, for me, or for Nik. You know, I used to be angry. But then, I understood this.”
She withdrew her hand, pulled on her gloves, patted down the wet sand, and went on:
“You’re a spectator, Matthew. Even here. You can’t be another way. ”
I’d forgotten the power of her honesty.
I was, in fact, alone. I pushed Camille to come; was I to wander around alone for three hours? We leant in the blue shade of the white sandstone mosque at the heart of the island. She wore a short-sleeved linen suit, her hair pulled back tight under a cobalt-and-white striped headscarf. She said coolly:
“Go, go. I’ll be fine. I want to watch the people.” There were boatloads of tourists on the dock.
Now it is clear that Camille only loved the idea of tracing Wharton’s path, and I think of this with great bitterness. We simply didn’t find the same things important or beautiful. I was so distracted then. My eyes were drawn out of my head by the colors: the water, a mile below, was brighter than polished lapis, than the clumps of lupin in vases on deck.
“Beryl,” I told him again, as he fingered the small, ugly sliver, “is the closest to clear.”
“It looks empty.”
“That’s about right. It’s empty because it has no color.”
He nodded. I pulled a white bucket between us. Nik squatted before it. In it I’d crushed charcoal rocks into a fine powder. I scooped up a handful and pulled the through-light over us, and rocked my palm like a boat.
“See how it sparkles? See how it isn’t completely black? You can see lots of other colors in there if you look closely.”
“All right. I see green.”
“Gold.” I pinched his nose. “You have to really see the color, Nikky.”
“There,” he said, pointing at the edge of the pile, and surely there was a glint of gold, and I reached in and touched Camille’s cold wedding ring. I started to cry. Nik, scared, I’m sure, of my grotesque face under the harsh light, he started to cry as well, in small, short sobs, and we sat there together and we cried.