t y l e r    c a i n    l a c y

Art

 

"...the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble."

                                 James Schuyler


Room 206. The first appearance of El Greco. St. Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595/60. In the top right corner of the painting is a boogie-man cloud: oval eyes, square nose-hole, O mouth, ashy silhouette. An immediate background of dark nothing outlines the kneeling St. Francis. It's like standing in front of a Sasquatch you didn't know was there. A fuzzy brown cloud. His arms make an X over his heart, and you think about how in Spanish to say this would mean "his arms" would not belong to him, "his heart" would not be possessive, but "the arms" and "the heart." Is this the accessibility of the painting? At the crossroads of this X is a tip-of-the-finger dot on his palm. The stigmata, a wound at eye-level when you walk up. It sticks out just barely like a scab in its final stages of healing, which makes you want to scratch it. Shiny and perfect pink-white like one of those St. Valentine's Day chalk heart candies, bringing you in for its scrawling, its tiny love letter to anyone. The hand the heart rests under is withered into what most of us think of as the "West Side" gang symbol's wingspan, disregarding whatever their actual symbol is, made with one hand forced into a W shape, and this is what you love about El Greco. His hands are always in uncomfortable, overreached, and unnatural shapes humans nonetheless find their hands in from time to time.


Day 2. Sprung. You give up on the line for the bathroom and pee outside, between a bush and a concrete divider. Who's in charge of making the bathrooms of the Art Institute look like museum bathrooms? How could this person resist the urge to produce some sort of homage to Duchamp's toilet in the line of urinals? You know nothing about art.


You are missing the thrush and lull of your life before coming to Chicago—your more exotic or romantic or ideal situation—and most of this has come upon you since reading a novel about a young poet abroad, wondering. One way of handling these feelings is to come downtown where you still feel like a tourist, like you haven't lived in a city you're unsure of for the past two years. Whirling traffic, pigeons and fanny-packs galore. Flash. Surprisingly, coming down here doesn't stress you out, but makes you more alive in the city, seeing a lion in the wild as opposed to behind bars in a zoo.


You have answered the call of the downtown jawline from which, to which, everything goes—Wisconsin soccer moms, bored suburban dads, broken cameras, Nike Saucony New Balance shuffle, European tourists who arrive already knowing they're better than the place they're going. Go straight to the lion and speak into its mouth.


You tried to come yesterday, but arrived a minute before they closed. This is Day 2.


On Day 1, you give the security guard your ticket and make a loop around an ancient Greek torso, and go out the same way you come in. As you pass through the entry/exit gate, the guard says, "A whopping whole minute, huh?" without even looking at you, and you say, "Yes."


The garden is still open, so you sit down in the middle of an otherwise unoccupied 12 ft.-long bench, across from where two (high?) bros are doing yoga while smoking cigarettes, and you light one too, in the middle of the bench, half-looking at them.


Then they come over, ask if you have a lighter.


"Can we sit next to you?"

"Sure, it's a long bench."

"No, but, like, really close to you."

"No."


A minute of silence passes, then you break it. "I like to come downtown because it never feels like I live here."


"Yeah, it's crazy down here, but this is a nice hideout," one says, staring up at the trees and clouds. The other is doing stretches with his butt gyrating in front of your face.


"Yeah, it is."


"Any particular reason you're on this bench?" the taller one asks, adjusting his unseasonably warm wool socks poking out over his clean white Jordans.

"No, I got here late and the museum closed on me."

"There are a lot of nice benches in this garden." Your eyes finally meet his.

"It's a big garden in a big city."


The other one stops stretching and re-lights his dead cigarette. "Smoking fire never gets old, does it?"

"I like to have one every once in a while."

"You wanna roll me one?" the wool sock one asks.

"Sorry, I only brought this one down with me," which is true.

He continues staring at you in silence, like the question came from his eyes.


Another minute passes before he breaks it. "I'm gonna climb this tree." The other one, done with his cigarette, walks out to Michigan Avenue. You finish your cigarette and sit there, in the middle of the bench, while he looks down at you, staring like you intended to stare at El Greco's grotesque figures, or Pollock's splattered paint-talks.


You hold firm, trying to appear unbothered, for a few minutes in silence, then get up and leave because a group of Asian tourists ask you to take their picture.


"Just touch the screen."


You wanted so badly to be in their picture.


Now that you are freed from those dudes' gaze and ready to roam, you walk around the garden and around the building, noting its dull corners and seemingly old bricks. It's a big faux-ancient Greek building built for the World's Fair in the late 1890s with names of dead dudes—writers, artists, etc.—engraved everywhere. You think of some writer, who likewise wonders what if those names were just the names of one's friends, or today's celebrities. Then you go home.


That was Day 1. Back to Day 2—your girlfriend doesn't understand why you're here. You send her a text while she's at yoga cleaning or running errands. "Back by 5:30. El Greco and I have some catching up to do."


She hated spending a whole day in Toledo, hopping from church to church to see his ghostly saints and flying angels, sad Jesus, tacked up on alters throughout town. That was four years ago, and his hands have stuck with you ever since. Cold, gray. It was a gray day in Toledo, mid-December, and you and your girlfriend were just starting to feel comfortable with each other. As with every other day, it changed your life. Today is neither cold nor gray, but it feels like it is.


Room 211. The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577/79. One of El Greco's finest, you think, moments of trying to capture the feeling of knowing and not-knowing the stories we inherit, the places we are supposed to go. From bottom up goes ground, horizon, and what you guess is heaven. You think she's standing on a tiny sliver of the moon, a cartoon quarter-moon like a skateboard, or levitation board, but really she's just in front of the real moon, which is a tad larger than her arm-span. The beauty of parallax.


Actually, the large moon behind her might not be our moon, but it looks like it because of how El Greco has domed off the painting with a slick of black, making the framed work appear like a curved chapel window, or a world contained.


But what is she standing on, then, if neither are the real moon? We only have one moon for this planet. The barely-open eye, the tiny sliver-moon in the center of the painting, stares at you—a break-up of the clouds and all-around haze of someone assuming heaven, an inviting, innocent light blue you stare right back into.


Not much between that center and room 219, where you feel like Milton in Fuseli's painting of the old writer dictating to his daughter with an ashy-dead face. People move just enough to ground you in a world that's not filled with frames everywhere you look, whispering and scampering like squirrels. A French woman drags her toddler through your view of Milton's dreadful face and the painting changes. He's hopeful, trying to write in spite of what might be his dying days. But that still doesn't account for his eyes.


How to explain your love of tourists other than that you are one in your own skin?


What Fuseli did there with the ash black Goya does better in the split scenes of El Maragato, which makes you think there's no longer a point to the movies. He did storyboarding better than Hollywood ever could.


All this museum-talk makes you want to watch The Da Vinci Code.


You can't quite tell whether the cat in Delacroix's Wounded Lioness is drinking water from the pond or vomiting into it, the tongue confused. 1840/50. Speaking of movies, isn't the shot of J.A. Breton's Song of the Lark a still from a Lifetime movie, or an episode of Little House on the Prairie? The heart, the tongue that the setting sun looks like, stuck-out red, you can't take it seriously. In the opposite corner is a dude standing next to a fried egg about to burst in song. This is Manet's Beggar with Oysters. Room 222.


Whoever came along and ruined Degas' painting, Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys c. 1860—whether Degas himself or a trespasser—got it right: your face just isn't there sometimes, lost in the light brown smudge of the world you can't get away from. Your brain poking your eyes hurts and your eyes are filled with too much color. Room 226. Then start the Impressionists.


Day 3 at the museum. You arrive too late today, with only an hour left before closing, so you can't see much. You go to see the Modern Art (1900-1950) exhibit, but more on that later. More to come.


This is actually Day 4 at the museum because you came on Thursday, but didn't collect or write anything while here. You saw the special Magritte exhibit, The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938. Mostly broken, mostly cold, meandering around black temporary walls. Very quiet throughout the exhibit, apart from the occasional kids ewwing at a dismembered naked body of a woman—boobs that protrude from the canvas and black-wire pubes. Most of the subjects of his works are placed, within the painting, just in front of a background of ocean or mountains, the effect of which draws the focus in on the subject/object because of the stark contrast of ongoing blue turning into the blue horizon that goes on. Beautiful to see when things have been kept intact, beautiful to see when they haven't.


Apart from his work on taking apart body parts and putting them back together in different forms, he played a lot with simple things "to make everyday objects shriek aloud," as the stickered words say about the exhibit back at the beginning on the wall. You keep waiting to see and hear perhaps a kettle squealing even though the water hasn't been turned on. But you guess Magritte never got to that one. You didn't share ideas. How can you paint a sound, or a directive motion that requires a timeline? The water was not boiling before, now it is. Either give up the sound or forsake the motion. And you suppose this is the point of words.


Note to self: read his essay, "Words and Images."


You are staring at his painting, The Menaced Assassin, 1927. Oil on canvas. Suited espionage-looking men, six in total, with various aha's (one man trying to play a gramophone with missing a hand, another using a forearm as a weapon, etc.), and one naked woman's body, presumably dead, on an examination bed. The painting is overpopulated.


A woman obscures your view of the painting, so you check her out instead: white spaghetti strap on creamed-coffee tanned skin, linen flower skirt all the way to the floor, and a tattoo of a square between the shoulder-blades. Maybe 25-28 years old. This is selective staring, ignoring the violence captured and projected by the painting.


Note to self: figure out what Magritte means by "elective affinities."


What would Magritte have thought about the lady wearing one of those beach shirts—cheap white tee that has a cartoony bikini-clad perfect figure painted on it, that always makes the observer do a double-take. Oh, it's their shirt, not their body. They're always funny to notice.


On the way out for the day, you decide to stop in one of the smaller contemporary exhibits on the first floor. You still have 20 minutes to kill before the museum closes.


Clown Torture by Bruce Nauman. 1987. Pitch-black room looping clowns projected everywhere in every direction. Different sizes, different gestures, but all clowns, all scary. What's art about it? Not sure. On the one hand, it de-scarifies the clowns by claiming it an act of "torture" against them, but you are so frightened all you can do is laugh. The security guard stands still against the wall without a smile. Maybe the work releases the fear-tensions loose, but any time you go in a dark dark den you're still going to be afraid of the possibility of what's in that black, regardless of whether you recognize the sounds of monstrous things growling at you, or snoring, or laughing maniacally in high-pitched voices. It's the potential of what's there, what could be there, that keeps you on edge.


You head out. You have memorized the doors, the PUSH and PULL by now. You pass the concrete lions guarding the entrance and get your bike. There is some sort of event at the lake, but it has been cancelled because of inclement weather—gray on white on foggy mist—so the bike ride down and back is stressful. People everywhere, everywhere people. Are these people your people? Do they belong here?


Little lions. On the path, you see a kid jump off the tandem bike he is sharing with Dad and leap into the angry lake. Then a tiny girl trips just after you pass her on your bike. Disaster averted. A group of people jumping into the burping waves in all their clothes.


Day 5 in the museum. The unthinkable happens—you see someone you know, two someones you know, who then lead you to back to the exhibit of scary clowns which, scatterbrained and sweaty-palmed, you lie about not having seen. Oh, that sounds interesting, you say. It doesn't. One of the someones said they found one of the clowns sexual, to which the other says oh I wanna hear more about that. You don't. You've been found out. You are not a tourist, if you ever were. You pass through the glass doors understanding their language, all the PUSH/PULL. Your home is just a few miles north and your fanny pack means nothing.


Now you stick out to the tourists as you begrudgingly carry on conversation with these two someones that is just loud noise, language-less chatter that fills the room and mixes with the palette of clown-shrieks and crying babies that your comments and how's-it-goings rise above and disrupt. All the words cling to the black floor, the black ceiling, and get stuck. Italian toddlers are hugging their Italian mothers' legs.


Finally, you say you have to go, and leave the dark clown room and squint, even hold your hand up to cover your eyes amidst the abrupt change in light. Natural light. Afternoon light. Time for coffee.


The clowns, the people you know, have shaken you up so much you can't write today. You are sweaty and on-edge. You tried:


Museums have such nice air-conditioners.


You want to talk about the Modernists from the other day, but no way now. Like Beckmann's Self-Portrait, 1937. Room 395A. How did we pass through El Greco's hands, so simply and hauntingly writhed, into Beckmann's awkward hot dog hands nearly 400 years later?


Max Ernst sometimes paints the ground like a beehive. Does that mean he sees from higher up than the rest of us? See: The Blue Forest, 1925, room 395C, for example. Is he within the tree looking down at a hive while we're standing down there straining our necks?


It's a pleasure to see Magritte's work again, this time in his own time and company. His Tune and Also the Words is a re-production of his famous pipe painting, hung up on a wall, framed. Then Magritte paints a frame around that frame, and then someone else framed the whole thing to collect and display. How silly.


Now you keep looking for the someones who might still be here, or any other people you might know. You are trying to hide, to blend in as a tourist. For this reason, you don't speak—you could be anything, speaking any number of exotic tongues in your head to those moving all around you.


Room 289A. A secluded spot with no one inside. Contemporary Art. 1945-1960. Barrett Newman's Untitled 3, 1950, is a half-cross, really, otherwise known as a line. But it's in a frame that keeps the line, the story, straight and since it is an "unusually thick" frame, three-inches deep, and since the half-cross is painted with lines of blue-gray-gloom-gray and red, tongue red, it sticks out, is seen.


You head out, still anxious and bothered. You are full of hot air. It's time to go home.


You barely miss holding the door open for someone and do the double-back to grab the door for him even though you know he'll reach it first. It's sweaty outside.


You, Eating a Banana. 2014. How silly is art, anyway; two squirrels are chasing each other all around the garden.


You bike home along the lakeshore path like its California, or the Coast or something—something blue, deep-water blue and high-blue, stoplight green and fake green, like looking down at Earth from another space-angle, a window that fits your face. You get goosebumps like you're not from here, a different creature with weird skin. Still statues though—some gods and mounted horsemen and generals of far-gone wars—and shirt-off tattoo toughies, and painted-on yoga pants, footprints on the man-made beach, and men so buff they look like they're made out of boulders stacked together in oblong shapes and half-assed angles, playing tug-of-war between a muddy puddle.


There is a lot to see.

 

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TYLER CAIN LACY lives in Chicago. He is the author of REUS (Press Board Press, 2014), and is a 2014 Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill, Bombay Gin, Powder Keg, Word for/ Word, Banango Street, and Stolen Island, among others. Find more here.


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