Hiding/showing

Had an interesting encounter this morning.

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While outside with my coffee photographing new work for the show at Solo bar. Rolled out of bed 10 minutes ago. Cigarette in my pocket to smoke before going back up inside.

An older gentleman walks past, then backtracks to have some words. Short, kind, eyes locked on mine. Offers some advice. Takes a few minutes trying to remind me of a certain painting, which I eventually deciphered as “the Scream” by Munsch. “The Shout? It’s famous. It’s like this” – he holds a pantomime speakerphone up to his… ear, opening his mouth wide and staring at me, waiting to get the connection. It looks nothing like the painting. There are two kinds of art. He says. Art like that, and then art like mine. “That dark, tortured art. Then yours. Yours is the art of flowers” he says. I accept the compliment. Then he goes on:

“I live in the world of light. Do you?”

I nod, I guess, agreeing that my work is of a different flavor than, well, the “Scream.”

“I try” I say.

“You. You try. I live.” He replies, slowly. Meaningfully. Repetitively. “That’s the difference. I live fully in the light. May I?” He kneels down with me – until now I’ve been squatting on the sidewalk, shuffling through the large watercolor sheets, and he bends down to spread out my artwork. Not very carefully, I notice – but I relax and let him look.

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“Japanese,” he says, nodding. “This is nice, the hands, the drawing…” but his finger goes up to the shock of black hair hiding an otherwise naked and splayed out figure – “Why are you hiding? What are you hiding from?” He spreads out the other pieces I have – five in all. “In all these pictures you’re looking away. Why aren’t you facing the light?”

I cringe. “I hide the face for many reasons” I say. I wasn’t expecting an art critique so shortly after dragging myself out of bed. I start spitting out a short list, automatic, robotic:

“A lot of my work is like this. I’m interested in nakedness, and tattoos, and revealing and covering what we choose. By leaving out the face I add some anonymity – and the less you show, the more likely you are going to connect to the figure. It could be someone you know. I think we decide really quickly what we love and what we don’t by getting caught up in the details. Without a face the piece is more approachable, and there’s an invitation to help be a part of this story. I think it is entirely up to us to show what we want – I think it’s really interesting that you feel personally cheated … Blah, blah blah… art school jargon is still spilling out of my mouth when I’m interrupted.

“Slow down.” I now realized he had old ears – “Slow down, give me a chance to get a taste of your ideas.” I got excited there for a moment, listening to myself talk and actually, just talking to myself – and forgot he was even listening. Or maybe, surprised that he was trying. This guy is big into eye contact and pointing and speaking slowly, so that his wisdom can fully penetrate my young, eager ears.

“I was a waiter for 30 years.” He says, meaningfully.

“A what?” I heard writer, or reader, or, I dunno.

“A waiter.” He enunciates. I agree, that’s a great profession. A very important and rewarding job. One that I actually really loved. I was one for seven. So?

“So I know people. And you’re hiding something. What are you hiding from? I live in the light.” Here he opens his arms wide in a gentle shrug, gesturing towards all of the glory of the surrounding shrubbery. “I’m a spiritual man. I live for family, for God, for light. Why are you hiding from that? Why don’t you show yourself? Why not open yourself up?”

I’m being patient, but I’m kind of ruffled, despite myself. I feel like he thinks I owe him something.

“This is you.” He points at the art, then at me. “This. Is. Where. You. Are.” Slow, full of intention, and I nod slowly, impatient. My feet are right here. Can’t you see that I’m right here? I blurt:

“You know, I could make something that is pretty, idealistic, just like a fairytale” – I also gesture to the square hedges – and here I reveal my jaded, dead soul – “but I’m not interested in that.” I pause. Trying to match his slow pace. “I’m interested in tension. In imperfections, in reality.” I’m imagining his idea of art being full of rainbows and Caucasian children dancing in an open field of flowers. With birds. Yeah. And butterflies. And sunbeams. That’s not fair to him. And that could be an awesome painting. Wow. What is wrong with me?

I’m irritated. I’m about to lose my cool. I’m ready for that cigarette and for going back up to the studio to get some work done. Why would he say these things to me unless he thought I were an anti-family, anti-light, cowardly heathen? Why am I suddenly so defensive? It’s okay, I can win this with logical, Buddhist non-dualistic theory! Instead, this comes out of my mouth:

“By saying that, I feel like you’re implying that I don’t, and that I’m not. I don’t need to hear this from you.” Now I’m feeling I should have politely excused myself a while back. I start to gather my things, but it’s clear he’s not ready to leave. He doesn’t seem to care that he’s making me uncomfortable.

“I’m not an artist” he starts. “It’s clear that you have skill. But the hiding – it makes me curious.” Okay. Fine. “Curiosity is good.” I say. “Curiosity.”

He reaches out his hand, and I go in for a handshake, because I’m a lady, but he’s going for the fist bump. Then he attempts a cool handshake with me. I give up.

He repeats his name, points out his apartment building, and then, like I need it, says “I love ya!” – nudging me on the shoulder. He finally leaves. I’m still cooling down. I gather my things, shakily set stuff by the outside door, and am confused. Once I’m sure he’s gone, I light my cigarette and after a few breaths whisper, “thank you.”

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“Thank you,” because in those moments following I realized I was really upset. Something about this encounter poked me in an uncomfortable way and stirred up a lot of anger.

I get offended because I feel patronized.

I have a fierce ownership over the meanings in my art, and am still surprised and dismayed when I feel they’ve been interpreted so differently than I intended.

And then, sickeningly, I’m grateful. Though not how he intended, I see this man as a teacher. Which I hate! I waited and listened to him politely for a deal longer than what I’ve recorded, and what for? To keep him comfortable. What the fuck.

I consider myself a diehard feminist. And through my drawings of women I’m able to step back as a bystander and observe how viewers interact with, granted, a representation of a woman. People will say things about art that they wouldn’t face to face with a person, and sometimes their concerns, frankly – concern me. I hear, “vulnerable” “fragile” “hiding” and get all defensive, perhaps because I feel like those descriptors are seen in a negative light. Who’s to say what’s to be shown, and to be covered?

I don’t always have time to explain that I was raised religiously, that I have bodily shame and guilt that comes from a conservative upbringing, but also have an amazing Mama who always encourages looking inside for the truth, in trusting your gut, and in seeing beauty in yourself. I draw self portraits, and used to disguise them better, but am starting to realize, who cares? I feel like these are the most revealing parts of myself. So I get defensive when criticism is unexpected and not what I’d like. It’s entirely of my volition that I put these out into the world. It’s an offering to the insanely massive dumping ground of art and self-expression that we’re all dropping bits into. My simplest answer to the question of “why?” is: I just want to make something pretty. I know it sounds trite. But I’m leaving space for you to make that up for yourself.

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7 thoughts on “Hiding/showing

  1. Wow. This was quite the post to find in my email today. As a writer, we struggle with this same thing—how our art is received, how it’s interpreted, where our relationship with our art ends when we put it out into the world for others to view and interpret. I found myself growing frustrated with this guy right along with you, assuming he knows where you’re coming from or how you feel from his own view and interpretation of your art. (I also really hate the talking-slow-so-you-will-absorb-my-limitless-wisdom-youngin! It has happened to me many a time outside a reading.) And your reaction!

    Anyway. As a long-time fan of your work, this was a really fascinating insight. Thanks.

  2. Kiersi, thank you so much for your thoughtful note. I’m so glad I’m not alone in this frustration. I can imagine it being surprising having writing – of all things, right? – misunderstood. That weird fuzzy area where intention and interpretation crossover is really interesting. And always a surprise. But anyway – thank you for helping me not feel crazy!

  3. I don’t know art, but I know nonsense. And the idea that an image of someone not showing her face is somehow not as “open” or that she’s “hiding” or “not facing the light,” seems like an awfully simplistic view of things.

    Turning away from something can also be a turn to the light as well. It can represent comfort and safety as easily as shame or embarrassment. You don’t turn your back on the vicious dog or the weirdo in the elevator. That doesn’t mean you’re shining your light on them.

    You are a virtuoso of what you conceal and what you reveal, and it’s part of what I love about your work. And you should be proud of it because it’s a mastery of an artistic tool as much as having a mastery of a pencil or that stick thingy you use to blend a pencil (See previously: “I don’t know art.”)

    Everything I value most — mystery, anticipation, seduction, magic, humor — is about the balance of what is said and not said, shown and not shown. That is all I find interesting, and I think your work is amazing. So don’t let some street-goofball make you second guess yourself.

  4. Thank you for this…I constantly struggle with what work to share because of wondering how it will be interpreted and received by others. Reading this I wonder if I defend myself from trying to explain or justify by actually not even making some images…! Terrible!

    I also do this over-polite thing (but then I am English). What the fuck indeed…:)

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