Where's the Art in That?

by Richard Jay Shelton

When I woke up, my roommate, Nathan, was getting dressed. He was wearing his best blacks. He was excited, even happy. Today was Robert Weston's opening. Nathan thought he would finally get a chance to talk with Sherry and set things right. He had bought her a gift that he showed to me. It was a gold heart shaped pendant with a tiny diamond set in its center. On its backside, "With All My Love Nathan" was engraved. He had also written her a love letter explaining how he felt, "just as a precaution," he said, "in case I'm unable to express my feelings to her in person."

I knew he was courting disaster and the letter and pendant were just a few tiny flares sent up to light the battlefield, too few, too late, the battle having been won by Robert Weston. I felt, as a private might standing behind his defeated captain, that he shouldn't venture out onto the battlefield alone. I told him I was going to the opening as well and that perhaps we could drive out there together. "No way," he said. "I am taking my own car so Sherry and I can leave together." He actually expected to bring her back with him that evening! A classic example of the valiant warrior looking at defeat and seeing future conquest instead of devastation.

The opening was from 4 to 7 p.m. He left at 1 p.m. He wanted to get there early just in case she showed up so they'd have time to talk. I left at 3:30. When I arrived at the gallery, Nathan was standing alone at the front door. He had a glass of wine in one hand and the gift and letter in the other. He asked me if I had seen Sherry. I told him I hadn't, that I had just arrived.

The gallery was a large open space. It was overflowing with stuff, so much stuff, that the hundred or so people who showed up to see the show could barely move without bumping into or stepping over something. All these items were the things one would find in a suburban garage except for the fact that instead of appearing tidy and unused, this room was a riot of tangled and stacked junk. Was his father really such a slob? I wondered. Is this a literal recreation of his father's garage, or a mangled mess the junior Weston orchestrated having the foreknowledge that in contemporary art disorder is always perceived as creative, whereas, order is a harder sell, being generally perceived as unremarkable conventionality.

There were shelves full of hardware, stacks of lumber, tools of all sizes, boxes labeled Christmas Lights, Baby Clothes, Taxes, cans of old paint, used paint brushes, old dirty clothes, garden tools, a broken down baby crib, stacked folding chairs, worktables, crushed beer cans, and sawdust and plaster dumped on the floor. A mommie's worst nightmare. On the back wall of the gallery was an altar of sorts; a worktable with "Post-it" notes stuck to it with descriptions of things needing to be done like, build shelves in pantry, fix faucet in bathroom sink. A calendar hung on the wall with photographs of young girls posing in tiny bathing suits. There were four pictures of kids on the wall next to the calendar with nails hammered through them. On the worktable, a moldy cup of coffee sat next to a blotter pad full of doodles. Lettered on the wall to the right was the following aphorism: "If a machine stops it doesn't mean it's broken." On the wall to the left of the worktable, built out of old weathered wood, were the words, "Under(mine)ed Dad(a)." Hanging next to it was a framed drop cloth that had layers of dripped and splattered paint on its surface. "Dad's Pollock Painting" was cut out of its center.

In sum, the installation was the virtual essence of chaos and everybody seemed to love it. It was the type of space we moderns love to frequent: a cluttered and busy space that appears significant, because nobody can make sense of it. The ideal spot for a meaningless chat with a friend over wine while being bombarded with images and objects so common in their origin one can feel an instant connection with them. What a perfect evening. You have a pleasant social encounter and, as an added bonus, leave feeling you have been exposed to a meaningful cultural experience.

I was standing outside, a few feet from Nathan, talking to a friend about the intended meaning of the nails hammered into the photographs of children when Sherry arrived about 5 p.m. hanging on the arm of Robert Weston. This fashionably late arrival by the artist was calculated to create a favorable impression upon all those individuals at the exhibition that mattered, first and foremost, any and all in attendance with money to spend and, secondly, those few higher ups in the art world who define and maintain the status quo for the aforementioned art financiers. By arriving late, Robert Weston displayed his disregard for the entire production. It was an accepted form of one-upmanship, a symbolic flaunting of artistic  superiority. He was proclaiming from his elevated position: "What do I care what you think of my work? I know my work is important and I don't need your approval or support." Of course, this was far from the truth. Once he entered the gallery he would spend the remaining two hours groveling at the feet of not only those that mattered, but also at the feet of a few who didn't—though he wasn't privy to the fact.   

As they approached, Nathan became anxious and nervous not to mention self-conscious (to an extent I would never have guessed possible). He finished his drink, set it down, and turned to the large plate glass window at his right to inspect his reflection, not as Narcissus might have, lovingly, but as though he felt sure something was amiss. He turned around at the precise moment Sherry reached the door. He stepped in front of her. This blocking of her entrance startled her and threw a twist into Robert Weston's posture, forcing him to spin at the hip. He gave Sherry a tug that lifted her into the air. She bumped Weston's shoulder, which sent him banging into an unsuspecting young man. Weston looked angry. I'm sure this was not the choreographed entrance he had rehearsed in his mind.

"Sherry," Nathan blurted. "We have to talk."

She recoiled from his touch as if it scorched her flesh. Weston straightened up, lifted his head high, lit up his face with a smile, and plunged forward dragging Sherry behind him. Nathan followed, and stated again, "Sherry! We have to talk!" He somehow had the presence of mind to sense this approach wasn't working, so he ended this demand with an imploring, "Please."

Sherry turned to him and replied, "Not now, Nathan! This is not the time or the place."

By now Weston had turned on the charm and was chatting it up with a distinguished elderly gentleman. Sherry turned her back to Nathan and assumed the supporting role demanded of her. "So nice to meet you," she said to the gentleman Weston introduced to her.

Nathan stood immobile, apparently unsure of his next move. He glanced at the threesome chatting and then at the gift and letter in his hand. He looked as though he was about to turn and leave but then reconsidered. I doubt that he was actually thinking about anything, but rather waiting for the inertia that had enveloped him to pass. It did as soon as they moved further into the room. Nathan maneuvered his body around a set of saw horses supporting a sheet of plywood, past a half dozen spectators, and into a position in front of Sherry.

"Look," he said lifting the gift up in front of her with his two hands, "I bought it for you. It's..."

Before he could finish his sentence, Sherry leaned toward him and said, "Fuck off, Nathan."

Talk about a pivotal line. I think even Shakespeare would have been in awe at the chain of events these three words set in motion. I walked over to Nathan, grabbed his arm, and said, "Come on. Let's go outside and get some air." But that arm instead of coming with me, plunged into my chest sending me flying back into a group of conversing onlookers.

As he thrust me back, he yelled, "No! I have to talk to her!" He grabbed Sherry's arm and spun her around. Somehow he managed to maneuver the gift and card out of his hands and into hers. With a forceful tug she freed herself from his grip, then took the gift and card and tossed them into a trash can filled with wood chips. As she did this, Robert Weston stepped in front of Nathan and said, "I think you better leave." Nathan shouted, "I'm not going anywhere until I talk to Sherry."

By now a crowd had gathered around the three of them. Everyone seemed amused. They apparently perceived this drama as a performance piece intended to accompany the exhibition. As the voices escalated, the crowd gave approving nods and passed approving smiles around as though to say, "Clever, don't you think?"

"If you don't leave I'm going to have you thrown out!" Weston screamed.

This threat didn't have much effect upon Nathan. Weston was a thin artistic type and Nathan knew ten little Westons couldn't budge one heavyset Nathan. He simply said, "Get out of my way," and brushed Weston aside with a sweep of his thick arm. Right about then two larger art types stepped forward and restrained Nathan, one on each arm.

"Throw that asshole out of here!" Weston demanded. The crowd cheered.

"Get your hands off me!" Nathan screamed as he struggled to free himself. He was attempting to get to the trash can to retrieve the gift and letter.

Weston, meanwhile, had become conscious of the crowd's interest and decided, Why not play up to it? He shouted at the top of his lungs, "You're just like my dad! When things don't go your way you become violent!"

"God damn it! Take your hands off me!" Nathan screamed.

Right about then the owner of the gallery called the police knowing this was not a scripted performance. A third individual joined the two restraining Nathan, and together they dragged him outside. All he could do was toss off a few "God damn its!"

As soon as they released him from their grip, he shoved them aside and rushed back into the circle of spectators that surrounded Sherry and Weston. Nathan went blasting through the crowd like a tank rolling over foot soldiers. He went straight to the trash can and overturned it, dumping its contents onto the ground, and retrieved the gift and card. He spun around and again presented them, raised high in his hands, to Sherry, like a crown presented to a queen. He didn't say anything. He just stood there like a sweaty eunuch. This gesture was sufficiently dramatic to send Sherry into action.

"You fucking asshole! Don't you get it! I don't want your fucking gift! I don't want to talk to you! I don't want to see you again! I don't even like you!"

He lowered the gift, "But what about all..."

He never had a chance to finish his sentence. "You just don't get it do you?" Sherry yelled.  "I never liked you. Where do you think I was when I said I was staying at my girlfriend's? I was fucking Robert, that's where I was, you dumb shit!"

This so enraged Nathan that he threw the gift at her and then tore up the letter and tossed that at her as well. About then, his three escorts reappeared and a struggle ensued. Nathan began kicking and turning over objects in the exhibition. Moments later several policemen arrived. Their entrance was greeted by a great clapping roar of approval by the crowd, which still hadn't realized the gravity of the situation. One of the officers grabbed Nathan. When he saw the uniform his reason returned and before the officer even uttered a word he said, "Okay, Okay. I'm leaving." They escorted him out.

I followed them out. I knew my role as arbitrator would be crucial to a quick resolution to this ugly business, a resolution that would leave Nathan free to wallow in his misery (as opposed to wallowing in his misery confined in an iron cell). I approached the officers and offered an explanation of the events that had just taken place. I explained to them how Sherry had dumped Nathan without a word. I told them about the gift and love letter she had so cavalierly tossed into the trash can (which actually wasn't a trash can but a sculpture, though I chose to refrain from explaining to the officers the aesthetic considerations that allow for the possibility of an ordinary trashcan being perceived as sculpture). I tried to play upon their sympathy. They were attentive, but not sympathetic. They had Nathan handcuffed and locked in the back seat of their car. To them this was just another case of domestic violence. They had learned from experience that sympathy in such situations might alter their judgment which they felt to confine within the strict rule of law. Nathan had become violent regardless of who or what provoked his violent behavior. They were reluctant to let him go for fear he might hurt somebody. I understood their concerns but still pressed my case. This guy, I told them, was the most passive I knew. I assured them the passion of the moment had passed. He had reverted back to good old Nathan, the guy who couldn't hurt a flea much less a rodent the size of Sherry. "Yeah, we've heard all this before" was their reply.

It was the owner of the gallery who came to his rescue. He came out and joined in the conversation. He was very sympathetic. There was no real damage done. (Actually, I thought Nathan had contributed to the look of the installation by scattering the junk around in a much more random, haphazard manner, making the environment look less contrived. And the pendant and torn letter added a touch of sentiment that was lacking from this dry, academic presentation). He told the police he didn't intend to press charges. He just wanted Nathan to leave. I told the police that I would see that Nathan got home safely. They released him in my custody and escorted us to my car.

On the way home I tried to console Nathan with dumb trite comments like, "She's not worth it" and "More fish in the sea," but I doubt he heard a word I said. He sat quietly staring out the window as though frozen to the seat, an icy numbness emanating from his immobile body. When we arrived back at the loft he went straight into his room without uttering a word.

BIO: Richard Jay Shelton was born in 1946 on a navy base in Coronado, California, but has lived most of his life in Los Angeles. He is a successful artist whose work is in the Smithsonian as well as other museums throughout the country. He has been painting and writing for forty five years.