Missed Connection: Phone About to Ring
A story about a small exhibition.
I’ve been having this dream I’m in an art gallery, at an opening. I’ve arrived late: someone was waiting for me there but they’ve already gone home. It seems like everyone has gone home, in fact. I’m a little unsure if the place is still open, but the lights are still on, and the door (glass, weightless) is unlocked, so I figure it must be. There are still a few folding tables set up inside, draped in dark purple with some mostly-empty charcuterie trays and cups of wine on them. The lights are turned up very bright, but, being a dream, they don’t really feel bright.
The person who was waiting for me had insisted I come to this opening. I have the sense that they had gone as far as to call in a personal debt to get me to agree to come, although I’m not sure what this person had done for me that I would owe them for. In any case, it wasn’t my idea. I don’t even know the name of the artist. I look around and don’t see it written anywhere, which is strange (I do know, somehow, that it’s a solo show).
The gallery in my dream has two levels: a squarish main floor with a row of high, arched window alcoves evenly spaced along one wall, and an upper balcony area ringing the other three, accessible from a steep wooden staircase in the far corner. The walls are all white, in typical gallery fashion, but the safety railing running along the balcony is, for some reason, painted a heavy, opaque gray.
It’s a small exhibition. The space isn’t very big to begin with, but the emptiness is still noticeable. There are only three paintings in the main area, and another two that I can see up on the balcony, half-hidden. The three on the ground floor are all hung on the north wall, between the window alcoves. There are no wall labels, so I can’t say how recent they are. The paintings are not photorealistic, but they’re convincing enough – large, expressive brushstrokes over layers of subtle, controlled color washes, more precise and more detailed than they first appear. I get the impression the artist is very sure what she’s doing, that she knows, each time, exactly what the final product will be before she ever sets brush to canvas.
The paintings are all the same size, all in simple wooden frames, and all have the same basic subject: a blond woman wearing a black sweater and bright red lipstick in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. Not the same car, or the same accident, but always the same woman. In one painting she’s slumped over the wheel, neck twisted unnaturally, eyes vacantly staring at me, a dribble of blood leaking from her slack mouth. In the next, her body is turned away, one arm tangled up in a disengaged seat belt and bent queasily backwards, her head half-buried in the windshield, wreathed in jellied safety glass. In the third she’s in the passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat, eyes closed, skin gray, a huge, gore-streaked laceration running down the side of her neck and onto her chest, one breast exposed beneath her torn sweater. The gallery is still very quiet.
I climb the stairs to the upper area. The steps creak mutely. I realize I was wrong about how many paintings were up here: along with the two I could partially see from below, there’s also a third, smaller canvas. It’s been hung in a corner, very low on the wall, which is why I couldn’t see it before. The first two are like the ones on the ground floor – same subject, same style. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them. The third, however, is different. It’s an abstract painting, all heavy impasto strokes of gray layered on top of one another. It looks kind of like billowing smoke. I have to get down on my hands and knees to study it properly. Looking at it, I have the sense that there’s someone behind me, watching me. I don’t get up, though. I don’t turn away. I hear a phone ringing. Someone must have left it on one of the tables, I think. Then I wake up.
The thing that always gets me about this dream, recalling it, is how strong the painter’s grasp of anatomy was. If you could see these paintings, you would find it easy to believe the woman in them is not just a flat image, but has bones, muscles, organs beneath her flesh – that if I were to reach out my hand and touch the surface of the canvas, it would fall through it, and slip easily into one of her leaking wounds, and come back sticky, and dark, and wet. Somehow, though, when I’m really there, all alone in the gallery with her broken body in front of me, I never have the nerve. Why do you think that is? It’s starting to really bother me.
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