If you want to feel humble and small compared to the great painters, pick a colour and paint a room it.
By Mark Fenton
Published August 16, 2013
Epigram 1 (This will get referred to in the body of the essay)
...the new piece is, like, how not to throw your newspaper away [...] and if you are conscientious at all, information there, in one newspaper, no matter where you pick it up, will blow your head. If you pay $15,000 for something you're not going to wrap the garbage in it. Right? I don't know who buys newspapers but I know how they don't read [th]em and take them seriously. And it's the best book [...] in the world.
— Robert Rauschenberg (Interviewed in Painters Painting, Emile Di Antonio 1975)
Epigram 2 (Ditto for getting referred to)
We can [...] abandon ourselves to one of two forces, of which one rises in ourselves, emanates from our deepest impressions, while the other comes to us from without.
— Marcel Proust (From The Guermantes Way)
It all started with a trip to our cabin. My wife Jennifer and I were going there to continue renovations. We would be working hard. We would be hungry. Armed with a grocery list I set out for Fortinos.
I was departing from an address just north of King Street and just off of Breadalbane Street. It's not as simple as it sounds. This will be explored.
I went on foot. It took longer than I'd hoped, but was without incident. The problem, as any pedestrian in the area knows, is the absence of a pedestrian light to cross King Street from the west side of Dundurn.
In other words, if you approach on the west sidewalk, you need to make three crossings rather than just one, thus doing a three-quarter circuit of cars held back from entering the high-speed ecstasy of the 403 like feral dogs held back from a banquet of free range chickens.
As I waited for the lights at the southwest corner of the King/Dundurn intersection, I noticed the remains of a car accident.
The bright pink paint around it might be graffiti. It might also demarcate pending construction. In my pre-travel anxiety, it resembled crime scene markings. The creepy chalk outlines of dead bodies from '70s movies that indicate a victim's paroxysms of agony frozen into an eternal moment.
No kidding: I squandered my walking man window to I capture it on my Blackberry camera phone. Having preserved the debris for eternity I reoriented myself to the reality of pedestrian travel.
I waited for the mildly condescending walking man to reappear, crossed eastbound on King, waited for the increasingly disdainful walking man to appear, crossed northbound on Dundurn, waited for the downright disgusted walking man to appear, and crossed westbound on King.
Because that's what I have to do if I want to get from Fortinos to an address north of King, east the 403 and west of Dundurn. And the walking man knows I'm lower than a pawn in the transportation hierarchy.
As soon as I'm back in the house, I put the crash photo up onto my Macintosh screen - yes, I know, I really should have been on the road by now, but I'm not master of my whims and doubt I ever will be - and I see just how underwhelming an event it is.
I am mildly interested in how the sprayed hot pink on grey and the general we-didn't-even-try-with-the-picture vibe summons up the album cover the groundbreaking and game changing and just generally awesome 1973 second album by the German electronic band Neu!
But that's not what I wanted to capture. I wanted to capture an abyss I'd seen into. An abyss of madness and volume and multifarious crazed and conflicting motorist agendas. An abyss of broken glass, twisted metal, deployed airbags, severed limbs, screaming EMS vehicles, howling loved ones, and a chorus of seasoned rubbernecks cautioning teen rubbernecks to never, ever, ever text while driving.
But all I'd really photographed was splintered taillight plastic. Less than a fender bender.
Surely it is ambulatory urban journeys like the above which make us want to flee the city for a faux pre-industrial experience of living off what we call the grid (having, in the broad span of human development, so recently invented a grid.)
Our family possesses such a cabin. We have spent a lot of time this summer painting its interior.
The above picture is a shot at random. After a certain number of hours of painting walls, it no long matters what you're painting. It not longer matters what colour you chose. After hours, days, weeks of painting, the above picture is your world and it's an identical world in any direction.
If you want to feel humble and small compared to the great painters, pick a colour and paint a room it. Sure, Michelangelo at one point must have said "I make a florin or two more an hour than a house painter, but what I wouldn't give some days to just roller this and be done with it and I bet those guys get benefits and sick days." But most of us would trade places with Michelangelo.
The only creative challenge is to keep from getting paint on the floor. Paint, like a toddler, wants to play with every object you don't want it to play with and none of the ones you do.
One way to keep people interested in the daily news is, as Robert Rauschenberg discovered (scroll up to Epigram 1 at the head of this article), to embed it in a painting you sell through a Soho dealer for $15,000 USD (1975 dollars, and I don't want to know what it costs now; but then in a few moments I'll be discussing a painting someone purchased for 20 million USD, a picture of a person screaming with an intensity I can achieve myself just by trying to cross five lanes of traffic to Fortinos, so what the hell do I know about the images people will spend serious cash for to hang over a sofa).
Another way to keep the daily news from getting old is to throw saved newspapers down to keep paint off the flooring while you paint the walls. I promise you, every sentence, every photograph, every layout and typesetting decision gains a profundity you never attributed to the daily news. Given the choice of doing more painting or reading an entire sheet of newspaper for the fifth time, I know what you'll choose.
Here's the one that caught my eye repeatedly.
It was several days before I realized I was not looking at last week's paper, but one from over a year ago.
The article that catches my eye reports that "The Scream" by Edvard Munch has sold for almost $120 million, a new record for a private auction. The image makes me glad I'm away from urban angst for the time being.
Edvard Munch (hereinafter referred to as 'Ed') was fond of returning to images he'd painted years earlier. In the case of "The Scream" the nuances that differentiate the versions are worth investigating.
Here's the version most people know, which I'll call Exhibit A
This is the most reproduced version. Alongside the Mona Lisa it's the one painting that anyone with eyes could be expected to recognize.
It's also the version that was stolen by Pål Enger and co. from the Norwegian National Gallery in 1994, and recovered in a sting operation three months later and can you imagine hiding out in a basement just waiting for Oslo's Finest to crash through the door and the whole time you have this screaming person staring at you from behind the ping pong table; your earbuds pounding post-Neu! Euro-techno into your brain at full volume to eclipse the deafening thuds of your heart?
But what interests me isn't the painting's dark provenance. What interests me is the twin figures at left centre.
The figures are not only dark and faceless, they are indistinguishable from one another. We can be pretty sure that they approach the foreground figure with no good intentions.
Interchangeable and expressionless twin figures will haunt us throughout the 20th century. They appear in the famous Diane Arbus twin photo
who are redoubled a decade later as ghost twins in The Shining
(Why am I positive the Arbus twins are also wearing Mary Janes, even though their feet are out of the rectangle? And why is this default footwear of wholesome girlhood more sinister than any other?)
Identity contains an idea of individuality. But what happens to identity if it's doubled? A person doubled, in look and dress and stance, belies uniqueness. To say nothing of the unsettling mathematical possibility.
As soon as a figure is doubled, surely it can be doubled again. There could of four of them behind me, or eight to my left, or sixteen hovering somewhere above me. You see were this is going.
And then the aggressive, almost martial quality of the stiff frontal presentation, as though the two have gotten together and formed a plan (probably against rather than for me, as none of these twins model "I need a hug" body language). Already there are two of them and one of me. I'm outnumbered.
But the picture of Ed's that I see in the year-old-paper as I'm painting the cabin is not the most recognized "Scream" with its two figures haunting the upper left hand side of the canvas, but rather a pastel on board version. The two figures are there. But they aren't pursuing the screaming person.
They're just hanging on the bridge. My guess is that it's sunrise not sunset in this one, the morning after a 'boys night out'; in fact the figure on the right looks not so much to be hanging as hungover. In any case they're wishing the anxious figure neither well nor ill. The bridge dudes are just there.
There's yet another version where the guys seem to be standing casually, legs slightly apart, with that posture of men who do hard physical work all day and want to relax every muscle made tense by repetitive strain and sheer backbreaking labour, and they've probably just wandered out of the factory and onto the bridge for a smoke.
There are still other versions of this image Ed just couldn't seem to let go of, but I don't have time to treat all of them in an essay that's supposed, for crying out loud, to be about how to get from the south end of Breadalbane to Fortinos!
My point is that the famous image of The Scream, Exhibit A, corresponds to Proust's "forces that come from without" (scroll back to Epigram 2 at the head of this essay). He's screaming because the trench-coated dudes are coming for him and don't look friendly.
Exhibit B, by contrast, represents Proust's "forces that act from within" (ibid for the scrolling). In this picture the upstage dudes don't care, or even really acknowledge that the screaming person is screaming his/her head off his/her wiggly torso to get someone, anyone to notice just how strung out s/he is as a result of the murderous bridge traffic, of citizens who pass indifferently cocooned in an overheard iPod's cold and trebly ts ts ts ts-es, and of sunsets angrily intensified by climate change.
This version may even be more ominous, because it implies that the screaming person's off-the-charts anxiety is from things the screaming person imagines are going on and which can't be defined, because unlike the Proustian force from without, the Proustian force from with in is ineffable and ever present and inescapable, and probably gets highlighted in yellow with a DSM IV chapter and section number in the margin, in the screaming person's therapist's notebook when the screaming person starts sputtering about the moment of out and out panic the screaming person experienced on the bridge on the way to his/her session with the therapist (and surely the screaming person must have a therapist).
And I suppose we could go glass half full or half empty with Exhibit C. I mean, I guess those guys could be talking about the screaming person and maybe even engaged in an exchange along these lines.
Factory Worker 1: Do you see that ... um ... person up there?
Factory Worker 2: The idiot screaming you mean?
Factory Worker 1: Yeah, I'm wondering if we should go see if they need help.
Factory Worker 2: Hell, I was thinking we should go over there and toss the dude off the bridge. It's like having your head strapped to a drill press!
Factory Worker 1: You sure it's a dude?
Factory Worker 2: Hard to tell but I say it's some little girlie man. Should try working the night shift. Give him something real to scream about.
Back in the city, even the nightmare of the King and Dundurn intersection is a welcome change after a week of painting.
Once again I navigate the six traffic lights to go the 100 meters to and from Fortinos. Dundurn eastbound. King southbound. Dundurn westbound. The reverse to go back.
The wreckage is still there. The pieces have moved a bit. (Why hasn't it been cleaned up? Isn't that someone's job?) An experienced psychic could read the quotidian changes like tealeaves.
This trip I've reduced my anxiety level by wearing ear buds. I am listening now to Neu! 2, whose album art on the tiny screen not only meshes nicely with the sprayed pink paint, but whose electronic beats are of exactly the driven and constant quality that keeps me on the agenda of buying groceries, and prevents me, to some extent, from 20-minute meditations on stuff scattered and painted on King Street. (To some extent.)
There are alternatives to the six-traffic-light pedestrian route.
The obvious one is simply to hurl oneself across the five lanes at Breadalbane. This is essentially Russian roulette. I'll admit to doing it, but only very early on a Sunday morning.
Sometimes I wimp out and drive to Fortinos, because I just can't deal with the time wasted and the pedestrian anxiety of the six lights and Dundurn/King traffic circling me as though I were a mouse on a bald summit amidst wheeling hawks.
While the jump from Fortinos Parking Lot to Breadalbane is terrifying on foot, I can do it in a car with only a mild upswing in blood pressure, and as I'm waiting to do just that, I see a man who's found a vehicle/pedestrian compromise for the jump
He made the five lanes effortlessly.
This is once again taken with my Blackberry camera, hence the poor detail. I'm not the best spy and clearly, by the second photo, my subject has made me and is giving a backward glance as if to say "Whatthuf- can't a guy go out and get a few groceries without getting some stalker creep on his ass?"
I actually sort of like how his face is reduced to vague eyes and a mouth, not unlike Ed's screaming guy, and I'm damn sure Ed would have snapped countless camera phone images of anxious people on bridges and skateboards and hemorrhaging sunsets if there'd been camera phones in the 1890s.
(Please don't jump the Parking Lot to Breadalbane on a skateboard unless you're as seasoned at it as this guy obviously is. I am not.)
There is another, safer route that eliminates the six traffic lights, though I can't take full credit for discovering it.
One afternoon I was driving eastbound on King over the 403 overpass and saw two boys and a girl of high school age, youths whom I'd guess were Surreptitious Teen Potheads (hereinafter STPs) looking for a place to smoke. Having crossed the non-crosswalk of the 403 off ramp
I saw them move craftily not onto the bridge, but just to the right of the steps and down under the bridge, through this aperture.
I figured if they could get into that space with that disengaged saunter characteristic of the STP, how hard could it be for a fully engaged, unimpaired guy with decades of taiji and steady employment behind him?
Bad call. The STPs were smart enough to wear sneakers. I was wearing a pair of very old sandals with the treads so woefully worn that they supplied all the traction of the finest grained sandpaper. A child's pair of Mary Janes would have served better (though would probably have gotten me more attention from authorities monitoring persons performing unusual acts).
Once my second sandal hit the sloped concrete, I slid. And slid. And barely prevented myself collapsing forward onto my forehead, or perhaps breaking wrists and fingers to protect my head.
I resorted to that running-to-stay-ahead-of-gravity's-desire-to-topple-you-forward you learn as a child running down grassy slopes when your bones are still supple, and you're short enough not to fall any great distance anyway. The running that accelerates as long as the downward slope continues. The running where you make bets with yourself as to whether you'll make it to flat ground on two feet or whether it will get the better of you and land you with, at best skinned knees and forearms, and at worst with a broken neck.
When Neu! Recorded their second album, they discovered they'd run out of studio time to complete side two, and their solution to the problem was to manipulate, at different speeds, forwards and backwards, the stuff they already had on tape, and then splice it into new patterns. Thus Neu! accidentally invented the "remix" track.
As fate would have it, a maniacally accelerated remix of "Für Immer" on Neu! 2 is bursting into my skull as I hurtle downwards and it's like the soundtrack you'd use for a horror film in which a rollercoaster comes off its rails to a deafening chorus of doomed Edmunchian screamers.
I no longer recommend this album as a good choice for navigating the ambulatory perils of King Street.
But I made it unharmed. Here's me at the nadir, looking at the concrete slide. Ubiquitous urban space never looked so good.
No creepy twin girls in frilly dresses asking me to come play with them for ever... and ever. No Michelangelo painting the concrete supports, cursing the toll on his back. No STPs sitting along the two foot deep plateau at the top of the ramp saying: "-woah, did that just happen?" "-next time just relax into it and you'll be fine, Dude" "-you're not a narc are you?"
No. I'm alone here. Disabled, I could have lain in this spot for days. I doubt anyone would have heard my screams over the roar of traffic.
I haven't done a risk comparison, but I'll wager that this is still a safer bet than running across five lanes at Breadalbane, or crossing at the west border of Dundurn/King where there isn't a light. I'll take a fall and a few broken bones over being hit by an 18-wheeler moving with a more aggressive
d/v ratio than I'd estimated in my calculation of how much
t I had.
Once down there it's simple. The route presents you with a curved walkway that guides you lyrically
into the greenspace labeled Utility Property Not for Public Use
UPNFPU delivers you back onto the South side of King Street, whence you have a fast walk to Fortinos and there's even a sidewalk for this last stretch
(real estate not allotted on this side of the 403 overpass
when last year's renovations were done)
But rather than go to Fortinos, I decided to head south across UPNFPU. There is a dubious energy as I move through this space. The dubious energy of any empty but cultivated space in an otherwise frantic environment. An urban eye of the hurricane. I naturally move quickly. Dark trees blur past me as though I'm in a Norwegian Black Metal video.
I cast a cold and backward eye at Christ the King Cathedral half expecting to see a field of shuffling men in grim robes intoning dona eis requiem.
I am brought jarringly back to 21st century transport when I hit the south limit of UPNFPU. Exercise caution when you come to the 403 on-ramp at Main Street. Nothing there indicates that pedestrians are entering a traffic zone. (Why should there be, since pedestrians have no business in a UPNFPU?)
When I do make it across the ramp and head west, there is a sidewalk provided. It feels narrower than it should be. Fleets of autos whip by. Missing me by inches. The Doppler shift pushes their roar down a full tone at the point closest to their hitting me.
Making my expression something close to Ed's vision of a screaming visage
as I turn and lean in from the leftward vanishing point behind me. And how much fear could any approaching figures produce in me, compared to the terror of the traffic?
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