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September 25, 2023

The Painting

By Frederick Foote

I'm on the Western end of Mott Street in the derelict and decomposing belly of the seamy underside of San Juan, California. Here, a feral pack of artists has homesteaded, squatted, appropriated, and otherwise occupied a handful of abandoned, derelict warehouses, machine shops, and storage yards for studios, living space, and entertainment venues.

If past practices hold true, this community will have a life span of six months or less before the city leaders rally law enforcement to batter, evict, and banish the rabble and restore order and respect for property and propriety.

I love the history and outlaw mystery of these alleys, byways, and dilapidated buildings, especially after dark.

I know many of these artists. I have read my works here and participated in the plays and performance art of my fellow artists.

On this mellow spring evening, I'm here for the debut of three new artists at the Free Sphincter Gallery where the shit literally hits the wall on the cutting edge of art.

Free Sphincter, or FSG, as the residents of this art colony refer to it, is a floating gallery of freestanding walls that display the artists' work in natural light or, as is the case this evening, a complicated system of overhead and ground lighting.

Young Sang-soo owns and operates the gallery, and abuses the artists, patrons, observers, and casual passersby as she sees fit. And, we all take it because Young Sang-soo has an unparalleled eye for avant-garde art, and an acute instinct for connecting art and money. Tonight, there'll be buyers from New York, Montreal, Paris, London and other far-flung art capitals.

Young does not advertise her shows in any mainstream media, but the buyers take the time and trouble to keep track of her underground displays.

I can't afford any of the works to be shown tonight. I'm here to trade insults with Young and to marvel at her latest finds. She has never failed to surprise, shock, and amaze me. I would rise from my deathbed to attend one of her events.

Young, in a red miniskirt and red sleeveless top with a black superhero cape, pushing a yellow wheelbarrow, braces me a block from her gallery. "Hello, hello, it's Ambrose Washington, the cowardly lion of literature. What was that shitty little story you must have paid to have published, 'Storm Door?' I should charge you for reading that crap."

"Young, you look as sweet as vinegar and as cute as cancer, but I think you need a bigger wheelbarrow to carry your ego."

"You're so fucking right. I deserve a humongous ego and your ego's equal to your talent and could fit in a thimble with room to spare. Come on, would be world-class scribe, help me pick up some lights from my truck."

We walk, and talk. Young's tight, jerky, nervous, edgy. I have never seen her so ill at ease in the ten-years I have known her.

"Young, what's bothering you?"

"Ambrose, don't pretend to know me. You don't and you never will."

"I knew you once --"

"Bullshit! I know you! Your priority was and is your bullshit art. We were just two strangers fucking in the dark."

I take a deep breath, hold my temper and try to respond like an adult. "Young, I was a kid. I was just getting started as a writer ... I lacked confidence ... was insecure ... I was stupid."

Young pokes her finger in my chest as she replies, "Ambrose, you're older, but nothing else has changed. You're still a tentative poser and none the wiser."

Acting like an adult's way overrated. "Enough, already, Superwoman, you haul your own shit. Alone, like you will always be." I start to walk away.

Young grabs my arm, tugs me to a standstill. "Ambrose, tonight I want, I need you to tell me what you think of the works ... do a quick walk through, and find me, Okay?"

"You need me, really?" Her expression says she does. "Sure, but what're you worried about? What's frightening you --"

"I, I have some pieces, which set my teeth on edge ... I just need a second opinion."

"You got it. Which pieces?"

Young kisses me on the cheek, shocks the shit out of me. "Ambrose, don't buy or barter for any of the paintings tonight, promise me that."

"That's an easy promise. Your prices are way out of my league. You know that."

Young has turned away and is adding a light to the wheelbarrow pile.

"Young, if you're not going to tell me which pieces, at least tell me which artist?"

Young snatches up the handles of the wheelbarrow and rolls toward the gallery site as I fast step to catch up with her.

"Only one artist tonight. The other two canceled."

Now that makes no sense at all. A show with Young Sang-soo is the golden opportunity of a lifetime. No artist has ever canceled on an FSG show before.

* * *

Kok, pronounced, "Coke," Layla is the single artist exhibiting. And, as usual, no one has ever heard of her or viewed any of her art. We only know that Kok is a her because Young has reluctantly verified her gender.

There're about a hundred and fifty individuals milling about the gallery, food trucks, and drug and sex vendors; internationally known art critics rub elbows with the homeless from the riverfront, the wealthy gallery owners and buyers mingle with our local artists, thugs and hipsters.

Young is sullen, brooding, and quiet. Her mood infects the growing crowd.

This has always been a rambunctious, boisterous, loud, and exciting gathering. Tonight, it is anything but.

The jostling to be first in line to review the show turns ugly until Young bars the fractious parties from the event. This harsh penalty astonishes all who observe it.

The mood turns somber and resentful.

As the unveiling approaches, Young again snatches me by the arm, and pulls me to the front of the line. She whispers in my ear, "Remember, find me."

The first picture's three by four feet. It's patchy shades of black and gray. A total disappointment. I don't see what's terrifying Young -- shit, wait, wait -- in the patches are shadows, suggestions of movement, hints of motion, glimpses of actions; gut wrenchingly repulsive, irresistibly inviting; stunningly brutal, superb sensitivity; the essence of inhumanity, the heart of humanity; relentless agony, exquisite ecstasy; debilitating torture and redemptive tenderness.

"Shit! What the fuck is this?"

All amid a feast of fecal matter, blood, human and animal parts, dung hill creatures, and cups of tears, sweat, venom, and bile.

Set to the music of the screams; of agony, the insane, the inconsolable, and the damned.

The guests watch, cheer, laugh, at the suffering. They dance, fuck, drink, snap photos of the dying. They grin as they butcher their own living meat, turn, face me, with bloody teeth.

"Holy shit!"

I can hear the crunching of jaws, the cracking of bones, the endless screams -- I smell the blood, cum, and feces. "Fuck!" I jump back from the abomination. Race away, vomit and vomit to dry heaves, sweat a salty creek, try to catch my breath, steady my mind.

The hell with this shit! I'm out. In the wind. Long gone. I only get two steps away. I need to check on Young. I promised. I don't have to look at any more pictures. I just need to find her and extract us from this madness. I can ignore the pictures. I can ignore the pictures. I keep repeating this mantra to myself as I move back to the gallery.

What the hell! There're only a few, maybe ten people, still there.

I see Young at the far end of the gallery talking to two dealers. I move quickly into the hall of horrors. All the pictures have "sold" stickers on them.

A picture of a woman in bed, horrified something's stalking her, stealthy, carnivorous, ravenous. I step closer to examine her terror. Red in the corner of her eye. I move closer. The red is a, a worm crawling, waving, wiggling out of her eye, dripping blood. The eye the pupil, iris, a mouth, opening, shark teeth, bloody, inviting me closer. Inviting me in.

"You seem to be engrossed, engaged, almost embedded in that experience. A pity it's sold already."

The speaker's female, in her thirties maybe. I can tell this from her voice. I can't look away from the picture, no it's not a picture, its life, alive posing. The woman-like thing in the presentation is not frightened, it's a trap. She's the thing to be feared, she's waiting to open her mouth reveal her fangs, forked tongue, savage screams. This is not a painting. This is real, happening to me, drawing me in. I'm trapped. I'm --

"Guess who?" Young has stepped up behind me and covered my eyes with her warm hands. I cry out my thanks as I quickly turn to embrace my savior.

Young's tugging me out of the gallery. "I see you have met the artist. Kok, this is Ambrose Williams, my favorite morally and intellectually bankrupt, would be, great writer."

Kok's walking with us. She's average height, wiry, intense, dressed in a dark brown skirt that reaches her ankles, a brilliant yellow top and a tight jacket of the same color and fabric as her skirt. She's bald and barefoot. Her feet must be as filthy as her mind is perverse.

Once beyond the gallery, I start breathing again.

Kok touches my arm with her too long bony fingers. "Of course, 'The Storm Door.' What a wicked slice of life that is. I devoured it. What's your impression of 'Night Life' the event that enthralled you?"

Kok's narrow face, huge eyes and outlandish painted on inverted Vs eyebrows are like her works, captivating and repulsive.

"Ugly! Disgusting! Immoral! What you do is deadly and dangerous ... sinister ... but, but, oh, God, how I fucking envy your talent. I've never seen anything this powerful, evocative never, nothing even close."

Young grabs my hand. "Williams, you promised to help me pack up, remember. We need to --"

Kok's long hand is on my chest. "You're struggling to get to where I am at as a creator. You may have a greater gift for this than I." Kok turns to Young. "What did 'Night Life' fetch?"

Young squeezes my hand tighter, "That one had a bidding war. It went for $137,000. The most I have been paid for any picture. Ambrose let's get busy and let Kok --"

Kok, steps close to me. I taste her warm, bitter breath. "You know the 'Night Life' episode, bleed it, knead it, fuck it up, suck it dry. Shit out and vomit up the, the event. Spill your infected and inflamed gut. Young will squeeze the buyer and garrote the same price for your story. What a unique collaboration we'll be, an unholy matrimony, for a decadent, avaricious age."

"Ow! Fuck!" Young has bent my index finger back. "Young! Shit! Stop!" The spell's broken. I come to my senses. I decline Kok's generously obscene offer. Young and I quickly bid farewell to Kok.

Young, her helpers, and I dismantle the gallery, load Young's truck. I follow Young home and into her bed and body. A reunion I have longed for, for almost a decade.

I sleep holding Young, but in my mind, I'm writing the story of "Night Life." In my dreams, I lick Kok's grossly repellent feet, as the screams grow louder and closer.

Article © Frederick Foote. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-08-07
Image(s) © Patrick Hicks. All rights reserved.
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