For your summer reading pleasure, BURNAWAY brings you Just Like Suicide, a novel by artist Mery Lynn McCorkle, set in the Los Angeles art world. She writes from experience, having lived for years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when it still was the art frontier, and then LA; she now resides in Rome, Georgia. She describes the book as “a compendium of interlocking tales cataloguing self demolition and success in the Los Angeles art scene, from the point of view of artists, dealers and family members.”
We’ll post sequential chapters from McCorkle’s book every Wednesday and Friday over the summer (and on Monday’s beginning in August!). Or click here to buy the book now.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.”
Conflating language with the divine has a long history. The first writers in ancient Sumer, as well as the Shang Dynasty and Olmec empire, were priests. Even as late as the Renaissance, writers were exalted as having divine inspiration while painters were restricted to the same guild as apothecaries and sculptors with brick masons. Anyone who actually believes in the primacy of the word, though, is short sighted. The need for expression and for ordering experience may be a universal human attribute, but words themselves are transient, crippled by time and location. They are puny little things.
Compare the fragments of the Parthenon marbles with Euripides’ “Women of Troy.” The fragments by Pheidias in the British Museum are out of context: they aren’t even displayed at the height they were designed to be seen from. The creatures, half man/half horse, seethe with raw energy, hooves and long arms lashing out with pure animal vitality, at war with the orderliness, the steadfastness of the men. The duality and dilemma of being human is so manifest in these – the barely contained animal versus the composed mind. No one needs to translate this. No one needs to know the story of the drunken Centaurs and the Lapiths bravely protecting the women from rape in order to understand what is happening. There are no lost cadences or metaphors, no footnotes required to explain wordplay or allusions lost in the translation. Even as fragments, the meaning is completely clear. Reading an English translation of Euripides, though, is like looking at the bloated figures in William Blake’s engravings and thinking you are seeing Michelangelo’s sculptures.
The brittle nature of words seems so obvious to me. Maybe if you’ve lived in one place all your life, it isn’t so obvious.
Since my father was a sergeant major in the Army, we moved all over the place. When I was almost eleven, he relocated our family to a base in west Texas. My mother always called it Godforsaken Texas. One of my little brothers wrote that down as his address in school. His teacher was not amused. For me, Texas really wasn’t so bad. Our backdoor neighbors were also military, Air Force. Their father was a fighter pilot, and both households were stranded with just our mothers for months at a time. Carla, the youngest of three, was my exact age, and we instantly became best friends. It was a great experience since I had never stayed any place long enough to have a real friend. I was the oldest of five at that time. My four younger brothers were a handful, even the baby. When the Sergeant Major was away, our house was a constant trash heap. Everything we had was chipped or broken. I gave up trying to keep my dolls and books intact. I gave up trying to keep Momma’s ash trays clean and all of her beer and bourbon bottles out of the bathroom. The only things on the walls in our house were a calendar mailed to us from a mortuary with a picture of a smiling blond Jesus; the large plastic crucifix the Sergeant Major glued above my bed before he shipped out; and photographs of us in ever increasing numbers, mostly standing awkwardly to one side in front of his newest car purchase.
Like anyone with an ounce of sense, I escaped at every opportunity.
Carla’s house was the opposite of mine. The rooms were tidy and the furniture was real nice. The couch had embroidered cushions and all, and the kitchen always smelled clean. The walls even held paintings, oil paintings with swirls of color in some; foreign looking people in others. Unlike my momma, Carla’s had an outside job as a nurse. She worked at ‘putting soldiers back together,’ as she explained it. I stayed there as much as Momma would let me. No one ever hollered in Carla’s house. It was as quiet as an empty church.
They had one room where children weren’t allowed to go into. From the doorway, all you could see inside were potted plants. Carla’s mother would enter and not quite close the door. I would sneak up to peek at her sitting in there with her perfect posture, cross-legged on the floor, her hands lightly on her knees, like gravity didn’t work there. She would sit like that for long stretches. Carla told me it was her mother’s way of praying. We were all praying a lot those days. Several kids in our school got news their fathers had been killed in action, sometimes in Iraq, sometimes in Kuwait. It seemed every week another photograph would appear by the Principal’s door with “Hero” written under it. Any ring of the doorbell and Momma would start to crying.
For eighteen months we lived there. When the Sergeant Major finally came back, the very first thing out of his mouth was an order to prepare to move. Again. The boys started wailing they didn’t want to leave; my mother hid in a corner while my father, who had pulled off his belt, launched his usual campaign of whipping the boys into shape. Hit twice myself, I eased out the back door and bolted between the trenches and holes dug by my brothers and jumped the fence toward Carla’s house, even though I knew Carla and her sisters were at the movies, even though I knew it meant trouble for me later. Their back door was never locked. I went in. No one was there.
I did what any kid would do – I entered the room I wasn’t supposed to go into. It was a bedroom converted into a greenhouse. Ferns and orchids – plants I’d only seen in books – grew alongside small trees with little clean leaves. Surrounded by some lacy ferns Carla’s mother had hanging in the closet was a small hunk of stone, sandstone. It was carved in the shape of a squat man but his face had been chiseled off crudely. He sat cross-legged, both shoulders and knees worn smooth with time and touch. The stone was surprisingly cool to the touch. Imitating Carla’s mother, I sat in front of the statue and looked at it intently, mesmerized by the coarse gouges on the face, the soft folds of the stone fabric across his chest. I’m not sure how long I did that, but when I glanced up, Carla’s mother was sitting behind me. When I started to get up, she smiled and waved me to sit back down. We sat there for some time, breathing in the moisture of the plants and the quiet of the sculpture. Neither of us said a word.
There is a fundamental flaw in interconnecting god and words. All monotheistic gods are supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Consider the Catholic liturgy. Until the changes of Vatican II in 1965, priests intoned the mass in Latin, the language used by the Church since Rome became its center. The message was soon totally lost on the believers in the pews. Recognizing this, the Church opted nonetheless to maintain this increasingly arcane but universally consistent liturgical language. It remedied the inaccessibility of the message by abandoning the anti-idolatry of its Old Testament roots and commissioning paintings and sculptures to tell the story to the illiterate masses who spoke in so many different tongues. It’s the fate of languages. Latin’s hegemony dissolved. Lingua franca vanished. Any dominant language is condemned to decline. It’s never omnipresent even at its high point.
Words by their very nature generalize. The word ‘tree’ conjures different images in different people. Unless Plato was right and these abstract words have a complete and perfect representation outside of our shadow world, how can language be omniscient? We can’t even define words to everyone’s satisfaction much less use them to explain everything and demonstrate all knowing.
Freud tried to push omnipotent. If you can name a problem, you can solve it. That’s the basis of magic – a set of words can control nature and human destiny. You just have to know the right words and say them in the right order and poof you are in control of the universe. Being able to articulate a problem in no way means you have any control over it. Talking about problems really just gives them more space to expand. It’s like feeding tribbles. They aren’t grateful and submissive, they multiply. They gain unnatural importance by being named. They feed on the light of your attention.
When the Sergeant Major died in a car accident taking five of my little brothers and two empty fifths of bourbon with him down the ravine and into the lake, everyone kept telling Momma that it was God’s will, time would heal, things would work out fine, and comforted me that they were all in a better place. My brothers maybe, but I knew in my fourteen year old Catholic school girl heart that my father was doomed to Hell. He did his level best to make sure our lives were Hell while he was alive, and he killed those five boys just as sure as if he’d shot them. He was trained to destroy: that’s all he knew how to do. I knew God would know the truth about him and return the favor. The “favor,” though, was Momma drinking herself silly. From the time of the funeral, I don’t think she ever got sober. I remember that morning getting dressed to go to my first day in the public school after the Catholic school kicked me out for not being able to pay tuition. I was in regular clothes that weren’t quite clean. Momma was sitting at the battered kitchen table with the three babies, the last one wasn’t born quite right. The oldest one, almost three, was throwing a conniption fit because he didn’t like Cheerios and wanted the chocolate bears. I got him the box and poured it and some milk into his favorite bowl and gave him the spoon shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh. I read those books to them every night, all of us waiting for the honey trouble to start. One was eating with his hands and the little guy was sitting there, waiting for someone to feed him his bottle. Even from across the table, I could smell that Momma’s coffee was mostly bourbon. I filled his bottle up with the last of the milk and helped him to drink most of it but I had to catch the bus. Just before I walked out the door, Momma yelled out how much she loved me. And I smiled back at her, “I know.”
Aunt Odessa was the first to confirm my doubts about words. “Judge by actions, not words,” she would say when any of our relatives mentioned my parents. “Words are dirt cheap.”
I came home from school with milk and cereal in my book bag to find Momma passed out on her bed. That wasn’t unusual. But I didn’t hear the babies crying. They always started hollering when I got home and I’d change their pants, fix them something to eat. Then we’d read stories and I’d crawl around on my knees pretending to be a horse they could ride.
I found all three of them in the bathtub. The paramedics told the police they had been dead for hours.
A few weeks later, Momma died, never coming out of her diabetic coma. It was at her funeral that I saw so clearly how impossible it is for language to comfort. Gestures may comfort, the knowledge you are not alone may comfort, but language itself is a puny little thing. It is best at its original task – inventorying the gifts of nature, adding an artificial structure to perception. It’s best as a wall between us and everything else.
“Alex, it’s not even six in the morning.”
“I thought you said you were a morning person.”
“I am, but not this early every morning.”
“Sorry, Magpie. Do you want me to call back later?”
“No, no, I’m awake now.”
“I read your story and wanted to congratulate you. You win the most miserable childhood contest hands down. I would take you out to celebrate but you’ll have to be happy with an actual award. It’s in the mail.”
Maggie laughed. “I will add it to all my other awards.”
“For speed reading and spelling?”
“For best hair on a lesbian head and least hair on legs.”
“Bazinga, bazinga, bazinga!”
“Alex, how much coffee have you had?”
“Obviously more than you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m still in bed half asleep. I went out last night. On a date.” She yawned.
“Hooray for you.”
“A first and last date.”
“Well, Magpie, you know I’m a great proponent of that Rolling Stones’ song that my granddad sang all the time. You know the one: ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.’”
“And I am conventional.”
“I know you’re shy. If you want to meet that special someone, though, you have to be more social.”
“I used to think I’m shy. Now I know I’m just antisocial.” She yawned again.
“Well, you’re friendly with me.”
“This early in the morning I’m not friendly with anyone.”
“Well, you’re lucky I don’t have a thin skin. I might take that personally. But since you are one of the very few friends I have left alive, I will simply tell you that it’s a blue sky outside my window making it time for me to dress and start my sunny day. It’s supposed to be clear and warm all day here at long last and I’ve got tons to do and see. A perfect day in the making for Brooklyn.”
“I’ll take California splendid over New York perfect any day.”
“Well, boo on you.”
Of course she couldn’t go back to sleep. Who knew caffeine could be transmitted over the phone? Or maybe it was an infusion of all that New York energy Alex loved so much. Either way, she twitched among the warm covers, staring at Tommy’s painting on the wall across from her bed in the near dark, marveling as she often did at how the splashes and drips so perfectly balanced the drawing along the bottom edge of the canvas. Those simple black lines conjuring a row of little ducks, all sticking out their cute pale pink tongues as if their mission was to lick up the stray splashes and drips. All in perfect balance making a perfect composition. Well, perfection is sure a strange concept. Who else would describe this juxtaposition or the messy surface as perfect anything? Like the term “perfect storm.” How could a storm ever be perfect?
Perfect, she thought, perfection is more than a word: it’s a conceptual mirage. A delusion. Here we are desperately swirling to make sense of our lives, spinning off impossible demands for flawlessness amidst the filaments of chaos wrapping us so tightly. Grasping at metaphysical straws. We do so want perfection and it’s always just outside of reach, just beyond the haze on the horizon. Like the perfection of a lost past, the Golden Age for the ancient Greeks or the 1950s for her family members. Yet perfection is like expecting the quiche to stay inflated once it’s removed from the oven.
No one is immune to the delusion. Even scientists still crave perfection, a single mathematical equation which explains everything. But that’s not a new quest. The ancient Greeks thought the precision of math brought harmony. For them the perfect shape was the square. For ancient Romans it was the circle, the sphere, the stimulus for their major architectural invention of the arch. Thus the fusion of square and circle in the Pantheon, the square harbored beneath the dome, the perfection of Athens bound within the perfection of Rome. Interesting, isn’t it, that we know the names of quite a few Greek artists and no Roman ones? Roman writers, yes. Sculptors and painters, no. The arts in Rome were not as respected as they were in Greece because good art in Rome was expected to be mere replication of the visible – making portraits or copying Greek art, requiring nothing more than craft and a good eye. The purpose of Roman art was accuracy; the purpose of Greek, illuminating the divine, finding the ideal.
Perfection, harmony, beauty. All the archaic comforts we deny ourselves. If a neutron can be in two places simultaneously, how can anyone believe in harmony anymore? Everything is speculative; nothing is truly solid or permanent. Perfection may imply excellence but excellence can always be improved. Perfection must of necessity be static, since it cannot be improved. So perfection is not possible when a neutron can be in two places simultaneously, when the universe is perpetually expanding, when nothing ever stays the same. Or did her rejection of perfection stem from our wholehearted embrace of perpetual consumption, everything made to be good enough, made to require replacement, to keep the machine of capitalism going? Would any craftsman in the sixteenth century sell a product which would need a major overhaul in 20 months? Something which needed updating every week? Maybe the f in calculus had infected our thoughts, always approaching, never reaching. Or was the true casualty of radiation poisoning that awareness of an element which never quite disappeared, evolving so slowly, infinitesimally into less efficiently lethal, undermining the essence of solid into the effervescence of decay? But regardless of its roots, a quest for perfection has been set aside for good enough for government work, good enough to get by, good enough to make the maximum profit with minimum expense. And she was no different.
Yes, she would take splendid over perfect any day.
She could almost hear Alex lecturing her: you just think too much. Stop analyzing and just be a part of what you see. It was good advice. Too bad it wasn’t going to happen. But one thing was sure: she should curl back up in her sheets and retrieve that extra hour of sleep. Focus on your breathing. Wait for the birds to start their trills.
Instead she kept staring at the little row of parading ducks increasingly visible as the sun came up. So innocent and crisp, those lines. Alex had shared a story about Tommy, how he could stick out his tongue and touch his nose with it. Had that skill inspired the ducks along the bottom of the abstract painting to stick out their long pale pink tongues at aesthetic pigeonholes like Abstract Expressionism and Representation? Pale pink. She stretched across the bed flexing her toes, thinking of the image of the little boy dressed in pink hauled upstairs over his father’s shoulder. Alex’s saga of escaping denial of self. She should tell Alex the story of her grandmother who ultimately became exactly what was expected of her. After Grandma Beulah’s funeral, that side of the family gathered in one corner of the old house together, drinking coffee out of the precious porcelain cups appropriated while Miss Tillie was dying, delicate cups which only came out for the grandest of occasions. “Poor Beulah,” a cousin said, “she really loved these teacups. Too bad she only got her hands on them just before she died.” Beulah’s older brother, an old man bent with grey gnarls instead of knuckles on the hand holding onto his walker, choked through his phlegm to remind them of the time Beulah had been given the task of taking care of the baby. The “baby” was standing among them, his silver hair forming a soft halo around his large bald spot, nodding his head as if he remembered it clearly. Everyone had to go harvest the peaches ripening early that year because of the unusual heat. Their mother left seven year old Beulah with the baby. When everyone returned for lunch, exhausted and sweat soaked, peach fuzz caked on sticky fingers, they found the baby wrapped in a blanket tied to a fence post in the shade of the mulberry tree. Beulah was nowhere to be seen. She’d left the baby and walked to school. She had a perfect attendance record and wasn’t about to break it on the final school day of the year. The baby was fine but her momma beat the tar out of Beulah when she came home wearing her perfect attendance ribbon. Her momma made her throw the ribbon into the pig slop. Let this be a lesson to you, missy: do as you’re told. Family always comes first.
Family never accepts who you are. Their job is to mold you. To instill values. Why should Alex’s father be any different? Or hers, for that matter.
Five days later Maggie found a package sandwiched between her screen and front door when she returned home from classes. Alex had mailed her a plaque consisting of an unfurled beer can with the plain aluminum side up, the edges embellished with smashed bottle caps tacked on with escutcheon pins, and almost in the middle a small engraved piece of thin bronze which said “First Prize for Misery” glued on with the adhesive squirting out. Writing this down, it doesn’t sound all that interesting. Some things have to be seen and this was one of those. It was all quite shiny with the crushed caps looking like flowers or bows or frozen mini explosions in metallic colors and the silvery aluminum almost as reflective as a carnival show mirror, making her nose look the size of Kansas. It was pretty and shiny and playful and menacing, all at the same time, like everything else in his new series of sculpture using discards to recreate the Seven Cardinal Sins. She had teased him that his work looked more and more like that of a lapsed Catholic than an Evangelical.
“When you study art history, you study religion but from a different vantage point,” he told her. “In fact, I know more about the Bible than my mother did, all because of those art history classes. You know, I hated crits and escaped into art history whenever I could. I would have taken four years of Romanesque studies if it had been available to me. I just love the wonderful rigidity and clunkiness of it. It’s so painfully earnest in its beliefs, so eloquent in its sullen shapes. Great art speaks across the centuries to expose the primary focus and flaws of its time. Like now. Art is all about money, the market, the prices at auction. Our monumental buildings are banks. Our royalty are CEOs and billionaires. The art world only pretends to be interested in big ideas to mask the crassness.”
When Maggie brought the plaque over to the gallery to show it off, Odessa snatched it up and took it straight over to a collector who owned a micro brewery. They got quite excited discussing a commission – a mural made of the brewery’s labels mixed with flattened beer cans and bottle caps of competitors. Money and its handmaiden greed indeed are the motivators. But then greed and corruption were as integral to Chaucer’s time as ours. All those cathedrals didn’t get built with faith alone. The Bamberger Reiter Alex was so fond of – someone was paid to carve it and someone else got a kickback.
Alex was pleased she liked the piece. “Would you mind,” he asked her, always the preface to his requests. This time it was a simple one: to write a short essay about his work. His artist statement was fine; he didn’t really need to provide viewers with another explanation. She thought it was his backhanded way of finding out what she really thought about them. Why is it that no one believed her when she said she liked something? Everyone thought she was holding back, and sometimes she was. Politeness was a hard vice to shake. “And please,” he added, “write it in your personal voice, not your academic one. I want it to actually be readable to a lay audience.”
She sat down at the computer and closed her eyes. What did she remember of the videos of the new pieces? The shininess of some, the rumpled quality of others, the intense detail of them all. The accretion, the sense they grew in the night when no one was looking. She compared his sculpture to the theory of emergence where the whole is different than the sum of its parts, the whole is more than the parts. She compared it to crowd sourcing where a different kind of intelligence emerged from so many voices fusing. She compared it to the molecules in water which are chaotic when warm in gaseous state but which align into precise geometric patterns when cool in a solid state. She wrote about the intrinsic behavior of trash, how it clustered together through wind and water to form its own narrative of waste and loss. She mentioned the trash left high in stripped down trees after the waters of Hurricane Katrina retreated, although she didn’t think it connected directly to his work. She ended with a quote from him that the subconscious mind was pure of sin. They had argued about that. She thought the subconscious mind was more flexible and subtle than the conscious but both delayed, despaired, declined, decayed. How could purity be connected to such a messy process? How can purity be connected to any human activity?
Return on Friday for the next chapters of Just Like Suicide.