I gave my heart to figurative art in the eighth grade. Largely thanks to Miss Pankiewicz, a free spirit just out of college, who encouraged us to call her “Nadja” and spent a lot of class time perched on the edge of her desk, engendering fantasies.
Starting then and for a long time after, I pictured myself building three-dimensional works up out of nothing. I would make a skeletal frame or armature out of twisted wire, then clothe it with flesh of clay or terra cotta. But this never made me feel “godlike”—just muddily mortal. Till there came a day when I looked at my attempts at molded sculpture and saw them all as lumps. And smashed them, one by inert one.
So I turned to wood—as it were. This despite the counsel of Mr. Clynelish, who’d strayed off the Highlands to teach high school art in the middle of Missouri. He disdained woodwork (“That is a SHOP CLASS! Can ye no’ see that, laddie?”) almost as much as he denigrated realism, photorealism, superrealism—in fact anything closer to nature than the mobiles of Alexander Calder. “Kinetic Clynelish,” we called him (when we felt polite).
But I stuck to wood—yadda yadda—and eventually specialized in sculpting reliefs.
Which sometimes provide their name.
(To me, if not to viewers.)
After college I spent a decade in Milwaukee and Chicago, honing my technique. Going through the usual starter-outer motions. Trying to persuade galleries to take my pieces on consignment. Seeking the pettier commissions, the punier grants and fellowships. Each month I pored over the American Artist Bulletin Board, hunting for the little stars indicating competitions open on a national basis. Till there came a month when I found a star by:
FIGFEST: Cairney Academy Annual Figurative Festival, 7/14-16; open to all living artists w/orig. work. Media: all figurative art. Juried by 3 slides. Over $5000 in cash prizes and purchase awards, medals. Fee $40, entry due 3/15.
Whether any unoriginal non-living artists were allowed to sneak in, I don’t know. Always difficult to tell whether any juried competition is legit or a scam. But the Cairney Academy in Demortuis was and remains an accredited institution (if barely, then and now). It’s at 10th and Julius, the age-hold heart of the streetwalking district—as immortalized in ragtime:
On Julius Street in Demortuis town
I met me an evenin’ lady;
She even’d me out of a couple o’ bucks...
It goes on in that vein awhile, ending:
But you know I think she was shady.
Which may explain why Cairney stages an annual Figurative Festival. And feels impelled to hand out medals shaped like figleaves.
I won the Bronze Figleaf that year for my panel All We Ever Look For. It was the high point till then of my professional fine art career; which could have been a depressing revelation. But before it had a chance to sink in, I met Catapult Woman.
Geraldine Crouching came to the FigFest exactly as she might rummage through a thrift store: trusting to “serendipity,” in search of a Wholly Unexpected Find. Those were among the very words she used (and she used very many) to describe All We Ever Look For, tap-tap-tapping it with her tinted pince-nez.
“I like this!” she staccato’d. “There’s skin for the men—J’accuse for the women—whimsy for the gays—Twilight Zone for the critics! This says POTENTIAL to me, it says savvy, it says bent!”
Bent? So far as I was concerned, anything All We Ever Look For had to say was more than straightforward. A female nude (scrupulously detailed) recumbent on a couch; irrelevant whether she’s dead, unconscious, or simply asleep. A queue of male mannequins, each bearing a lighted candle, filing into the nude’s bedchamber; with the head of the line starting to climb over the footboard.
A gesture open, perhaps, to interpretation. But not, I think, as “whimsy.”
Just as all we ever counted on. (The fingers of one hand?)
Geraldine drew suitable comparisons between my relief and the canvases of Chagall and Chirico, Magritte and Delvaux. Asked to see any slides I’d brought of other pieces. Then let fly her slingshot: “Do you have any professional representation?”
Not even amateur, I told her.
“Well, H. Huffman,” said Geraldine, “prepare to start going places.”
Strolling down Julius Street to Portal Park. Riding to the top of the Cenotaph like any philistine tourist. Buying a rubber mourning dove that went cooAHH coo, coo, coo when bounced at the end of an elastic cord. Savoring the status of professionally-represented bronze leafwinner. At last I was getting somewhere, making tangible progress, ascending the first rung of accomplishment. People began to ask me for directions. My first Demortuis panhandler approached me that summer evening: a big cheerful bearded man, like an off-season Santa Claus. (My first Demortuis streetwalker approached later that night: a thin restive black-eyed woman, like an out-of-sorts Avon Lady.)
Surroundings. Environment. Milieu, if you prefer.
I did prefer it. Gristly City though it was.
Now here I am, more than a dozen mortal years later, Last of the Red-Hot Chiselers, feather in nobody’s cap (Wild Turkeys excepted)—heading back down again. Same thing happens to every kind of artist: actors end up in summer stock, musicians play oldies on tour. No one says you can’t continue creating. Or that you have to sell any of it (so long as you keep your dayjob).
Eyesnag: this time by a quartet of Vietnamesettes. Teens by the look of them, doing some afterschool hanging out. Despite the February wind they’re dressed as if for April, allowing midriffs and rumps to run free in lowride jeans; garish-colored pantybands on proud display.
Students at “Saigon CC,” the local community college? Or still in high school? Yeedge!—they might even be eighth graders, flaunting freshly-blossomed T&A. Jailbait times four!
(Best fall back a step or two, son.)
No, they can’t be that young—too damned appalling otherwise. How could a latter-day Miss Pankiewicz hope to engender any fantasies with those four in the classroom?
The shortest and hottest one has the hiccups. Each time she goes off, the other three giggle in choral response. “Stop laughing you guyees!!” she yelps at them, flapping aggravated hands.
The quartet turns into the Paktong Palace, a cutrate emporium. To find something so cheesily rinkydink it will frighten the spasms out of Shorty Hottie? I linger outside, as though waiting for the light to turn green. “As though?” What else? If I were a younger man or more criminally decadent, I might claim to be from the Blah deBlah Modeling Agency: care to put the rest of your fine young selves on Glorious Fourfold display?
Damn. Get a hold of your own sorry self—and not literally, either, here on the street corner. Light does turn green; move the hell on.
(So who needs Viagra?)
Fortunately there’s never been need for deceit of this magnitude. My standard op is to post an ad on the Cairney Academy bulletin boards (and in recent years their website) stating only the obvious. Go there to check out respondents; try a quick preliminary sketch. If a prospect shows promise, arrange for her to come to my studio on Green Creek Lane for a studio session. All on the up and up, more or less. And it’s not like I’ve had crowds of women streaming through a revolving door: only one or two, every year or so. Nina and Stormin’, Josephine and Miranda, K.T. and Amy-Kay, Sage and LaQuita, Pluanne and Rachael, Megan and Candy.
My Diverting Dozen.
Or Diverted, if you prefer. Though they were all paid for their posing. And only half of them, in fact, came out of the Cairney ads.
I hooked up with the first one via Antonio of the FigFest, who introduced me to the model Nina Silbergeld: rather like Garbo as Ninotchka, without the laugh. Grave dark face. Every move she made was measured, unhurried; she even chewed gum in slow motion. Nina not only used words of one syllable, but only one at a time: “Hi,” “’Kay,” “Here?” She could hold a pose almost indefinitely.
Antonio drove her to Green Creek Lane and stayed for the first session. He and I traded desultory remarks while Nina gradually undressed in the bathroom. “She’s just a wee bit pococurante,” Antonio confided. “Nina darling! Did you fall in or what?”
“Sec,” replied Nina. She emerged ten minutes later wrapped in a towel that she lowered, indolently, to reveal implants the size of unexploded zeppelins. Their effect was less voluptuous than grotesque: as if we could next expect a man with tentacles instead of fingers.
“Ah, she’s something, is she not?” smiled Antonio.
Chomp went Nina’s jaws on Nina’s gum. Chomp. And, after a moment, chomp.
I did what I could with her, trying (unsuccessfully) to disregard the outgrowths where her breasts should have been. Whatever stance I had her assume, they protruded like frozen sandpiles: nary a quiver or jiggle. In one sketch I tried approximating how her original bustline must have appeared, but Nina disputed this use of artistic license.
“Hey,” she said. And would pose no more for me.
So I advertised for a replacement. Scant interest shown by anyone at Cairney—except Stormin’ Molly Brown, who danced at the Salome Oasis down the street but liked to check out Academy exhibits. She was largely self-educated, well-read, with a taste for mythology and a penchant for improvised pronunciation.
“Can you sculpt me as an droMEEda?” she asked at our first session.
“You know: the chick in the chains on the rock with the sea monster that perSeuss killed after he cut off the Gorgon’s head with the hair like live snakes.”“Oh,” I said. “Sure, why not?”
“Great!” said Stormin’. “I’ve got my own chains here, and I can bring the snakes next time!”
If Nina was another Garbo, Stormin’ was definitely descended from Bettie Page: the beaming gleaming queen of Fifties girlie mags. Stormin’ cultivated this resemblance with her brown hair in bangs, alarmingly high heels on her shoes, a proficient interest in bondage and so forth. Fully dressed she looked like an on-air meteorologist—what used to be called a “weather girl”—smiling brilliantly as she announced the approach of big warm fronts and so on. Such had been her girlhood ambition, before she detoured into exotic boogaloo “just for a little while” that lasted throughout the Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing eras. Now over thirty, Stormin’ Molly wanted redirection—and me to provide it.
(Sure, why not?)
She showed up at Green Creek toting a suitcase packed tight with props and accessories. Began to undress before she got altogether upstairs, shrugging off my offer of privacy—“I’m not changing into anything, you know”—along with her bra. Shimmy-pirouetting at she slung it across the balustrade: “Only way I can take my clothes off anymore. You should see me at the doctor’s office.”
(Her bosom, by the way, was naturally unsinkable.)
Always very chipper, very lavish, endlessly inventive. Things clicked between us. The charcoal loved her, the wood seemed eager to embody her, and many relief panels resulted over the next couple of years—more than I’d produced over the entire previous decade. Better ones, too, and more marketable. Each time Geraldine unloaded one, I upped Stormin’s modeling rate; and she would give me even more of her all.
True, she wasn’t the quietest woman on the face of the earth. Nor the absolute tidiest, when it came to littering a fellow’s studio with discarded garments, left-open jars and bottles, unrinsed cups and plates, and enough crumbs left on floor and futon to lead a dozen Hansels & Gretels out of the forest.
“You want a maid, go to the Yellow Pages,” said Stormin’. “Now in this one I don’t think it’s clear I’m wearing black nylons. Maybe you could do more of an intaGLEEoh pattern?”
We were working together when Desert Storm broke out, the first Gulf War. Stormin’ added khaki and camouflage highlights to her dance costume and started raking in the dough. I did likewise by depicting her in a variety of “baloney oasis” settings. The best of these, Gatherin’ Stormin’, snagged the eye of Edgar Clint, heir to a formaldehyde fortune who collected anything even remotely erotic. He’d begun with underground comix—hence his byname, “Double-Bag Eddie”—and was now edging into more conventional (though still erotic) fine arts. A dealer’s dream: Eddie gets suspicious if the asking price seems too low.
Geraldine was ecstatic at corralling such a customer. Gatherin’ Stormin’ was my first four-figure sale; in its honor I carved myself the improved copy that hangs above my drafting table. And a second one for Bettie Page Jr., as a parting gift. Her attention had turned to computer BBS imagery, “Go Graphics” and suchlike. In a very short time she staked out a corner of the Internet and was able to retire from dancing. Today Stormin’ Molly Brown is something of a virtual madam, with her own retinue offering a vast array of digital cheesecake and online intercourse. I still receive Christmas cards from her.
A flock of applicants responded to my next advertisement, and I was able to take my pick. Rather to everyone’s surprise except the selectee’s, I chose Josephine Hynde. (Never call her “Josie” or mention pussycats in her presence.) She was hardly the obvious standout of the flock—or for that matter its Miss Congeniality. Josephine had an air of self-assurance, if not complacence, that seemed at odds with her slightly pearshaped and puddingfaced appearance. Yet at second glance she left no doubt about her own particular gift.
It was all in her regard. Eyes always half closed; a mouth that smiled without adjusting its lips. A demeanor both knowing and faintly derisive. Wise enough to the ways of men to dismiss both us (the men) and them (our ways) as silly, foolish, futile. She had a gift for silence and stillness, waiting and watching, that translated somehow into immense appeal. I set her in ruined schoolrooms and on isolated reefs.
“All we ever look for” is not always what you expect. Stacked beauties can fall short; scrawny plainjanes can outshine.
And there have been changes over the past twelve years. Less silicone but more tattoos. More piercings but fewer pubes. Too shaven ‘n’ shorn, in my opinion; like yanking the gold star off the top of a Christmas tree.
Overall quality has declined of late: models, pieces, sales, life. The models have gone from being my contemporaries to younger than me, to much younger, to Generation Gap Revisited. The last two, from the autumn before last, worked as a team: Megan Sorrel and Candy Hardy. Both were streetsmart (Julius Avenuewise?) yet awfully juvenile. Both accommodating, yet their every move seemed spurious. Obscurely like cheating. Our sessions were antiseptic to the point of sterility. Where Stormin’s eyes had danced with zestful relish, Megan’s and Candy’s shared an Arrid Extra Dry.
But if you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink evaporated milk.
Hoary old cliché: the middle-aged coot lusting after much younger girls. Picturing casual strangers in and out of their garish-colored underwear. Admirable habit? Of course not. Breakable? Unlikely, so long as the sap keeps rising. (To a different kind of saphead.)
When asked, I always say I’m thirty-nine: an age good enough for Jack Benny and Winston Smith. It’s been good enough for me for going on six years now. But does “39” entail acting three times as adolescent?
Never delude yourself. Or let the rest of yourself be hauled around by your schweinhund. As my Grandfather Rhine told me, when I was barely in my teens: “Boy, you best think of that as your tool, and treat it same as you would any other. Keep it clean, keep it dry, and don’t be monkeyshining with it. Else it’ll end up the boss of you, and then when you go hunting it’ll be with a hound that tracks nothing but—tail, let’s say.”
I have been charged—by Io MacEvelyn, a printmaker who shows at the Crouching Gallery and contributes irregular reviews to the local press—with reducing women to objets d’art. Mind you, she’s never said as much to me. But Io often talks about my works to Geraldine, at high volume. And every time she does, Ben Szilnecky (the pencilnecked painter who practically lives at the gallery) hastens to relay it to me, unasked, in his bizarre Budapest-by-way-of-Tennessee-Williams accent. “Ay-utch! Hoff you herdt the layuttest? Lemme tell you somesink—” (Try to avoid him.)
Feminists seek to reclaim their bodies/themselves from what they call objectification. I can understand the basis of their argument. It must be a pain having your chest ogled everywhere you take it, and judged solely on its extent.
However: what doesn’t wash is the prescribed remedy. Sign up with some shrink or other, purge your brain of “unreal fantasies,” start interacting with REAL women—note the plural—and achieve Lasting Intimacy in a Meaningful Relationship.
It’s like saying broccoli is so nutritious it must also be delicious: sweeter than chocolate, more intoxicating than wine. Doesn’t make it necessarily so.
Objectification is an act you can equate with either side of the coin. You can say it DEPERSONALIZES, depriving others of individual character, their sense of personal identity—or that it PERSONALIZES by substantiating, giving concrete form, imparting reality to an objective.
Or: the illusion of reality.
As in artwork. Thanks to trompe l’oeil, “trick of the eye.” The result of careful fabrication on the artist’s part to create something out of nothing, depth where none exists.
Io MacEvelyn interprets this as deceit. Misrepresentational art. As illustrated in her essay “Shameful Subject,” which just happened to get published in the Sunday Memorial the same week my first solo show opened. I didn’t commit the thing to memory, but its gist was that women should only be sculpted, painted, photographed, what-have-you’d—by other women. If done by men, it means subjugation and degradation.
What can I say? Let us brain-purge for a moment and look at the REAL female body. Fundamentally designed for bearing and rearing children; hence the enlarged glands, monthly moodswings, and complicated waterworks. It has its share of moles and tufts, freckles and splotches, sag or scrag or both. All the same secretions and excretions that make men ambulatory shitsacks; plus a few extra.
And yet women are able to surpass all this, and achieve the transcendent.
Not all of them, nor all the time; but always evinced in the way they look. To you and at you. Sometimes with Stormin’s avid gusto; sometimes with Josephine’s mocking cheek. Sometimes barefaced, but more often embellished with cosmetics: as in artwork. (Even Io MacEvelyn has been known to run up a salon tab on the eve of an opening.)
And how do men react? The obsessive fixate; the whimsical impersonate. Others swallow their daily broccoli and call it Meaningful. Ambulate their shitsack lives away on the superficial level.
When, instead, they could be climbing a ladder.
Making it up (or down) as they go along.
Distancing themselves from the surface. Rising above it, delving below it; moving beyond reality. If they unpurge those unreal fantasies, and assimilate them.
Follow the ladder.
In the panel Impossible to Say I had Josephine lounging on a dais, plucking petals off a rose. To her left, men are transforming into swine; to her right, swine are transforming into men. At her feet, a pile of fallen petals and thorny stems is kindling into a blaze. Josephine ignores it all, giving the viewer her implicit closemouthed smirk.
“Weird,” she said when I showed her the completed piece. “What’s it supposed to mean?”
I pointed to the title.
P. S. Ehrlich is the author-in-progress of the Skeeter Kitefly books and website (www.skeeterkitefly.com). Recent selections have appeared in The Sidewalk's End, Ten Thousand Monkeys, The Shadowshow, Entropic Desires, and Rhapsoidia. P. S. himself is employed by the University of Washington (not necessarily as an instructor) and lives outside Seattle. Though associated with no graduate writing programs, P. S. Ehrlich was once reading Jitterbug Perfume in a public cafeteria when Tom Robbins walked by. "Hey!" he said to P.S., "is that a good book?"