An art gallery opening is not an event that includes the opening of an art gallery.*
* This is a purposeful trick to keep the uninitiated baffled. Using familiar English words against their meaning is a tool characteristic of both totalitarianism and artsy pretention alike. Consider:
“I attended a gallery opening last night.”
“Oh? Where’s the new gallery?”
“Tell me, darling: is this innocence of yours confined to the purely visual arts, or do you also clap between movements?”
Instead, an art gallery opening is the launch of a new exhibit within a previously established gallery.**
** I don’t know what they say when they actually do want to open a brand-new exhibition space for reals, but I would expect the term to be misleading. In art, language is used to obfuscate rather than reveal. Consider:
“What are these seemingly random brush strokes with bits of rubbish glued over them supposed to mean?”
“Let yourself deinculcate; Fluxus escapes the fixity of ‘meaning.”
Art gallery openings are useful places to find free food if you are a relatively well-kempt hobo or a hungry art school student. While this usually means having crab paste and duck liver on crackers for supper washed down with a warm glass of cheap white wine, I remember this one wonderful time when somebody served hot dogs at an opening in order to be ironic. I ate seven.
(This is before that, though. That is, the passage below takes place prior to the paragraph above.)
Anyway, this one time at an art gallery opening I was a teenaged bartender and also tipsy. For all three of these reasons I was a magnet for drunks. The people-people took their plastic glass of excessively dry white wine or instant-headache red wine or cup of frothy beer and went away; the drunks, in contrast, lingered. They wanted to talk to somebody young and impressionable enough to possibly be impressed by something they had to say about Impressionism, and also to be in close reach of the cooler and cartons in case they needed topping up when they paused for air.
My master had instructed to keep my mouth largely shut, so I just smiled and nodded. The drunk would step aside of the line so they could keep talking while I served the next person.
They liked to tell me that they liked me, and wanted me to appreciate that this was generous of them because they considered most people to be awful. “I can tell from the way you listen that you really get what I’m saying here. You understand in a way beyond words, kid, I can see that.”***
*** Telling people that they obviously command a rare comprehension of indescribable things is one of the higher forms of flattery in the art world. It’s basically a leg hump.
Male drunks at art gallery openings like to pontificate or soliloquize. Female drunks at art gallery openings like to perform interviews. In my experience, the interviews always opened with the same opening observation expressing delight at seeing a teenager inside an art gallery.
“I think it’s so wonderful that you’re here and so you’re so young. That’s amazing. Most young people have no idea at all about the art world. Is it rude if I ask how you came to be here?”
I shrug, raise my brow inquiringly as I tip the white wine bottle toward her plastic wine glass. She nods. I pour. “I’m Vincenzo’s apprentice.”
Pretending to know who Vincenzo was came next, and then I would be asked to point him out in the dense, milling crowd which was impossible because he was too Sicilian. “Well it’s been ages since I’ve seen him but do say hello from me because his work and so wonderful and how did you meet him?”
It would have been inappropriate to say that he was sexulating the department head at my vaguely Fame-like high school so instead I would make up something shorter and simpler. Besides, people assumed I was attending a vaguely Parsons-like art college instead of a vaguely Fame-like high school, which was an understandable mistake since I was serving them liquor.
Plus, the department head herself was next in line at the wine box. The shadow of her Tim Burton hair slinked over me, bringing a chill. “Aren’t you under age, Mr. Brown?”
“Under age to drink, ma’am, not to serve. It’s a different law or something.”
Eyes narrowed. “First of all, it is not allowed. Second of all, you are drinking.”
“Vincenzo is going to hear about this from me!”
“You have no power here. Begone, before somebody drops a house on you.”
My interviewer wants to know who that was, and how I know her, and whether she has any pieces in the show, and if so what they look like (they look like golden vaginas – they always look like golden vaginas). She wants to know if I think her Tim Burton hair is a wig (it is, but it isn’t my place to say so). She wants to know whether I have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and what we do for fun (I sixty-nine with a lesbian but that’s none of her business). She shifts her hips in her leather pants, puts a leather paw on my forearm. “I simply adore the energy of the young.”****
**** I know how this plays out and it won’t make for a Penthouse letter. It isn’t the first time my teenage self has been approached by an older woman wearing leather pants. She’ll flirt until she’s flattered herself that she’s caught the eye of a substantially younger man, then throw back one more white wine before going home alone to tickle herself. Well, except this one time. But that’s another story and shall be told another time.
My vamp has moved away, now hanging off someone else’s elbow and imploring them to introduce her to Vincenzo. Wearing his tallest shoes Vincenzo’s eye-level is in line with her sternum. On the other side of the room the department head of my vaguely Fame-like school watches, poised, her Tim Burton hair quivering. Vincenzo’s appraisal is cursory. Unimpressed, he’s turning away even as he greets the woman. The department head relaxes. Elsewhere, oblivious, Vincenzo’s girlfriend is being chatted up by a boisterous gay pedant.
Next in line for drinks is a very tall and gangly fellow with a large leather folio-case slung over one shoulder. He steps up, stoops down politely and makes an incomprehensible joke, a hook designed to force you to ask him to tell you more. I squint. “What?”
He waves it off. “Nevermind, nevermind. Can I get two beer at the same time?”
I reach into the cooler and bring out a bottle, uncap it and upend it into a red plastic cup. The cup fills with foam. I have no clue how to pour beer.
“I have to confess something,” says the very tall man, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Both these beer are for me. I came here by myself. I just don’t want to have to stand in line again. I’m telling you this because I’m dedicated to certain principles. I believe in true honesty.”*****
***** Claiming to worship truth at any social expense is a common affectation among people met at art gallery openings. It’s the easiest way to rationalize poor behaviour that doesn’t seem otherwise sufficiently artistic to be justified as a performance piece.
I hand him his cups of beer, but instead of walking away he steps aside. He ducks his head down close to mine so he can continue to explain himself. He tries to put his deception into perspective for me by elocuting on its harmlessness. “Ultimately, I mean no offense by these tiny lies, but sometimes it streamlines the process, you know?”
I smile and nod.
“See, you understand. I can see that. I knew you would, because I’m sensitive to people that way. You’re different. I mean, you must be, right? Or you wouldn’t be here. You know? It’s people like us who come to events like this; it’s not just anyone. It’s the inquisitive, and the raw. It’s the artists. In their hearts. Do you know what I’m saying?”
I shrug/nod while dispensing red wine to the next person in line.
“I’m an artist-sans-portfolio. Do you know what I mean by that? I haven’t got a portfolio, right? Or if I did there’d be nothing in it, because I haven’t made anything. But in my heart I’m an artist.”
I cock my head and furrow my brow at the folio-case slung over his shoulder.
“These? These are just drawings from a life-drawing class I take. You know, like evenings. Tuesdays. These drawings aren’t art. I mean, that’s obvious. Because I believe in perfection.”
“But it’s Thursday.”
“I brought them to show a friend. But she didn’t show up.” He bobs his head awkwardly as he pretends to survey the crowd. “At least, not yet. I don’t see her. Maybe you’ve seen her?”
The gangly man proceeds to describe her to me, intimating that the sort of friends he meets at art gallery openings are as fabulously attractive as they are unconventional. “Her blonde hair was green last time I saw her,” he tells me, “but that was last Tuesday, at coffee. It could be any colour by now. She’s crazy, my friend. But great. You know?”
“Really I’m a misanthrope,” he claims, giving up his scan of the crowd. “I don’t normally like to be around a lot of people. But then sometimes you’re at an event like this, you get talking with someone, and you get a connection. You know? You meet another artist – even if they’re an artist-sans-portfolio. And you both know, you know?”
I nod. “Sure.”
“You’re an artist-sans-portfolio. I can tell. We recognize each other, our kind.”
I shrug. “Well, I have do a portfolio, actually. Er. A small one.”
“But you’re a student. That’s different. You’re not living off your art or, as in my case, not-living off my not-art. You know? You don’t feel the pressure to define yourself against it, to see your destiny in it. Not creating art is more than just my profession – it’s my vocation. Can you appreciate that?”
“Can I get two more beer?”
“You’re one of us. I can really feel it. You’ve got that knowing look in your eyes. That’s what your little smile is all about.”******
****** All my life people have been projecting their insecurities and aspirations alike upon my little smile, which in truth is not a smile so much as a completely involuntarily nervous contraction at the corners of my mouth. To authority figures it represents sneering mockery and to artists-sans-portfolio it means I grok their spiel. The smirk is a Rorschach.
“You’re exactly the kind of person who’ll be able to appreciate my theory of the psychology behind art-making.”
“I know, I know – what could an artist-sans-portfolio possibly have to say of value about actual art-making? The secret is that I have the outsider perspective and the insider perspective. I straddle both worlds. That’s what it’s all about – riding the schism. You know? I’m in touch with the art world and the – you know – more pedestrian world. The audience world. I’m doing it and seeing it at the same time because even though I’m holding a brush my canvas is empty.”
I nod. I feel genuine compassion. He’s so lonely and inferior. He just wants somebody to think he’s cool.
“There’s a profound insight there,” I offer.
He grins spasmodically. “My name is D’arcy. Always remember me. I’m the artist-sans-portfolio, and I have a lot of perspective to share. I’ve seen a lot. And I’ve felt every minute of it because I’m sensitive to the world. That’s what makes me an artist, portfolio or no portfolio. That’s not what art is about. It’s about experience. It’s about knowing how far from perfection anything you do is, but going on doing what you do anyway.”
“Or not-doing it, as the case may be.”
“Exactly. Exactly. You’re wise beyond your years, my friend. You’re an old soul. You make me laugh, and when we’re artists we can laugh about what pains us most. That’s the expense of taking the world so seriously – it erodes our ability to see our own dignity. Because we know it’s an illusion, you know?”
Never trust an adult who flatters teenagers. That was clear to me even then. While serving the next person in line I pretend not to notice D’arcy reaching under the table so he can stuff bottles of beer from the cooler into his folio-case. As he straightens again the case begins to drip sepia-toned drops of condensation on the polished hardwood floor.
“Always remember me,” he insists again before wandering vaguely off, bobbing his head around as if in search of that friend of his.
“Okay,” I agree.
He slips out the front door and into the night. I turn around as Vincenzo roots around in the beer cooler and comes up scowling Napoleonically. His stubby hands fly wildly as he sputters, “What the fuck? What happened? Where’s all the fucking beer, Brown?”
I shrug. “People drank it.”
“Jesus fuck! Alex Colville wants a Heineken! You hear me? Alex fucking Colville!”
“Alex doesn’t drink Heineken, he drinks Keith’s. You drink Heineken.”
“What’s the fucking difference? Get twelve Heinekens. I’ll man the bar. Just go!”
“Up your own ass. What do you think? To the fucking beer store!”
“I can’t go to the beer store, Vincenzo. I’m under age.”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
As the evening wears my ear is bent to one lush after another – an angry man who wants to ask me loaded questions about my generation and then answer them on my behalf before I can open my mouth, a chain-smoking woman who says I’m lucky because I’m too young to have made mistakes and also that she wants to touch my hair, a vagrant reeking of urine who demands that I take seriously his pronouncement that he is a genuine art-lover and that he has many fine paintings by famous artists on his walls at home. None are quite as friendly or as needy as poor D’arcy who asked me to remember him.
So I do. I guess because I agreed to. I can still close my eyes and see his Adam’s apple work as he struggled to be profound. I recall the smell of his breath. I recall his desperation and feigned nonchalance. Also his haircut, his faux-Palestinian scarf, his expensively poor-looking vintage-style shoes. I remember his folio-case, full of perspiring beer instead of art. He clinked while he slunk.
He made no goddamn sense at all.
But I have delivered him to you, here, after almost twenty years.*******
******* Shortly thereafter the evening depicted here, in the Moore Gallery in the 80 Spadina complex, I would run into him while out walking my lesbian on a sunny Sunday afternoon. He would not remember me. He seemed startled and vaguely insulted to be called an artist-sans-portfolio. “Isn’t your name D’arcy?” I said.
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Look, I have to go. I’m meeting a friend. She’s probably waiting already. Downstairs.”
I smiled and nodded. “Take care.”
D’arcy ducked the threshold and loped away. My lesbian frowned. “Who was that?”
I sighed. “He’s not sure.”