by Ken Paxton
The artist forms his mirror with the hope that something or someone will leave a reflection in it.
(from “Unapologetic Visibility”, translated
by Artur Rosman in IMAGE, vol. 59)
My wife lowered the phone from her ear, “Adam is asking if you want to play racquet ball while us wives go to the baby shower.” My scrunched up brow, squinted stare out the window and baritone “hmmm…” told her all she needed to know. “Sorry, tell him my husband is tied up. Looks like he has some base touching to do.” ‘Base touching’ is her cute turn of phrase for my habit of occasionally disappearing from most human interaction for a day. Adam of the varsity tennis team would have to find somebody else to humiliate.
Time is odd, if not irritating. Regular activities such as turning a calendar properly acknowledge our need to authenticate time’s incessant quality. Tenses become important: we were younger and naïve, we are older and experienced, we will be elderly and …; the ellipsis frightens us some. If we’re honest, occasionally we need time to stand still a bit. Touching base is telling time ‘enough already’. It’s taking a break from a sidereal existence to assert our primordial rights and reclaim an ounce of Eden, pretending we can ignore time’s big penalty clock in the sky, fracturing its helical hourglass of faulty DNA and leaving our footprints in its golden sand.
Humans have employed a wide variety of ways to touch base: cave painting, golf, quilting, calligraphy, base jumping, sharing legends and myths around the campfire. For me it can mean escaping with a fishing rod as an excuse to go river-rock hopping after a three hour drive into the mountains. There rivers splash out of the Sierra snow melt over and around truck-sized granite boulders – jumbled across steep ravine bottoms by glaciers eons ago – defying one to leap from stone to stone without breaking one’s neck, but only in late summer when the water is low and the boulders dry. Or touching base can mean paying an exorbitant entrance fee to wander among elusive collections of art. So I left the peace and quiet of our bedroom community and headed to a big city fine art museum showcasing a new exhibit of Suburban Art. Its permanent collection of European art from medieval to contemporary, included an extensive set of sculpture editions by Rodin, a Van Gogh, a Dalí and other renowned works of various styles.
The museum was surrounded by coastal pines and perched on a broad headland where the city’s jumble gave way to parks and a golf course overlooking the ocean. I parked at the edge of this height, where the trees were lofty but not nearly dense enough to block the icy gusts howling down from the north. It was a sunny day in January and cold as a dungeon. People going and coming scampered as best they could to get into their car or the museum and find relief from the blustery chill.
Except for its size, the building was not impressive. From the front you approached an open courtyard preceded by a colonnaded portico with a wing on each side and a large lumpy Thinker in mid-court. The wings and the main building at the rear of the court were very rectangular and built of plain greystone about the color of concrete. Why not use concrete and save all that money, or buy stone more ascetically interesting like marble or pink granite? I was beginning to think this might be less than enlightening, but then part of my process for touching base is to turn off my unrelenting sense of pragmatism. I closed my eyes, slowly exhaled and resolved to be unresolved.
Strolling through the galleries was pleasant enough. Their high ceilings and hardwood floors reverberated every step and squeak, and provided a sonic quality of vast space. My meanderings through collections of art are not an attempt to absorb every work in its minutiae. I guess I look for what personal encounter ensues, just me and this actual canvas, the one the artist touched with his brush, her colors, not its picture in a book, not its critical accolades cultural and ascetic. It’s not a survey of meaningful relics. Each piece has an obverse sense, a visceral portion of someone’s contemplative curiosity, which I hope to discover at least once in awhile.
An elderly fellow in the Renaissance hall wearing slacks and a sweater, holding his scarf, coat and hat in one arm, gazed through thick glasses inhabited by their own quarter-sized irises which suddenly appeared or disappeared depending on whether he looked in my direction. He exclaimed in a rumbling whisper of what I took to be Nederlands his obvious rapture for one painting. In a tender tone he called his wife over to share it with him and from the few phrases my Dutch wife has taught me I caught something akin to “my sweet darling”. Her smiling reply was as enthusiastic as could be, given she was completely unimpressed. You don’t need to understand the words to catch the inflection. That’s why I go alone.
This day it seemed I brought too much of a harried life with me. From subject to subject I was appreciative but not empathetic. The skill of shaping an arthritic knuckle in marble or portraying a vast mountainside forest with a few wispy strokes, and flecks of colors I would miss in their real life setting, was impressive but not stirring. Eventually I entered the Suburban Art exhibit and doubted my original intentions. What was I thinking? Why do I go to the mountains if not to escape the drudgery of tract housing and automobiles, things that demand my attention rather than invite it? Still I pressed on, willing to see what gems had been mined from the stratified banality of suburbia.
I stopped briefly at a Goodyear truck tire turned sandbox, complete with lemon-yellow bulldozers, front loaders and back hoes by Tonka and, along the road graded in the sand, a set of tract homes constructed from popsicle sticks. The toys reminded me of an oddly prescient moment as a young boy when I realized my doom was to become a household provider like my father and his buddies. All were good men doing good work as truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, and policemen; even so, the mantra of “forty years and out”, making a living versus living a life, pressed down on me like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “sixteen tons” …not my favorite memory “what do you get?” …given the decades “another day older” …yet to be endured “and deeper in debt” …before retirement, “St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store” …what retirement?
Next came a show within the show from a local sculptor of miniature buildings, the size of shoe boxes, and not at all childlike. One example was comprised of an old Phillips 66 gas station with a hand-cranked lubester sitting by a skinny red pump topped by a glass-cylinder, a store-front Methodist Episcopal House of Prayer, a corner store and deli; the assembly of these at a right angle to a series of three homes. What made these distinct were the real indoor lamps, some fluorescent, their light spilling from the doorways, the oil stains, glowing neon beer signs and other details such as loose roof tiles and open windows. Inside you could see hymnals on pew backs, dishes waiting to be washed and photos of people engaged in day to day activities. I expected a thumb sized Aunt Bea to come bustling to the doorway any moment wiping hands on her apron and calling me to dinner.
In the middle of the hall a crowd had gathered. I edged in when a spot opened up. A cylindrical sandstone column a foot and a half across stood four feet high and was engraved intaglio all around resembling an artifact from ancient Egypt. Enclosed for security in a glass case, it rotated on a pedestal so spot lights could reveal the shapes’ outlines by their shadows. The engravings were three god-like figures posed as if walking about the cylinder. They were dressed the same as Horus in his human form, only instead of a falcon head crowned with the sun, each had a television crowned by a satellite dish, a remote in their hand instead of an ankh and a long-necked beer bottle in the other instead of a goad. I wondered if many people noticed this axiomatic comment on suburban cultural attainment. On the capital a wig of black hair woven in cornrows was set on a model bust of a beautiful coffee-brown woman who could have been an Ethiopian queen. The cornrows were patterned like upscale sun-belt housing developments visible in aerial photos: acres of homes strung along curved streets lying between water ways, most with a swimming pool in the backyard. The wig version of this design revealed streets of gold between houses of carved mammoth ivory and carnelian the color of stucco and red clay tile woven into each black cornrow. The backyards were malachite inset with swimming pools of blue-crystal opal. The water ways were lapis lazuli. Autos, pickups and RVs of black onyx, emerald, alabaster and ruby the size of sunflower seeds were arrayed on driveways and streets. The wig was dazzling.
At the end of the room was a model of an Eichler home, an architectural style named for its designer and built mostly in sunny metropolitan California fifty years ago. To accept as art an architectural model for tract housing chaffed upon my first inclination, but it held my interest. Unlike other tangible art, I’ve walked inside an Eichler before. As they say there is an affiliation with California’s sense of space and openness in the designs which feature floor to ceiling windows that “bring the outside in”, revealing for example a garden or patio setting, and open beam interiors. The model was scaled at an inch to the foot. It sat on a medium dark oak Mission style dining table and was lit from above by an amber bronze and mica light fixture. This was mounted at the bottom of a ceiling fan, its slat blades rotating slowly. Given the obvious voyeuristic temptation to remove the roof and look inside, the model was cannily ensconced in a glass atrium, its curves reflecting the lights in counterpoint to the cubic motif of the Eichler. Here I must confess to being a bit of renegade. I’m sure the janitors have since discovered and removed the stick figure I smudged across the glass with my finger, but at the time it seemed suitably relevant and there was no one else nearby.
The next chamber featuring a selection of paintings was empty as I came in. It was cross shaped with transepts on opposing sides. A conventional and intimate painting, a kind of still life, was located within one of these. To draw nearer I walked around a centrally placed honey-oak square bench. The painting was a life-sized silhouette of a boy looking out a wood sash, double pane window; the kind where the bottom slides up to open. He stood in front of a dark wood desk set against the wall under the window. His shadowed back was to the viewer who looked out the window with him. All the light in the painting came through the window and the room around it was dark, but you could distinguish the desk front, its drawers down each side and its top on which the boy rested his hands. Warm sunshine from a clear spring day eased into the room, gently illuminated its interior, reflected off the desktop and cast a shadow of the coffee mug there holding pens and pencils. The ceiling, floor and side walls at the far edges of the canvas rendered redundant the pecan plein-air frame.
Clearly the artist wanted us to see what the boy saw through a side window in his home across adjoining backyards. This part of the house, this window, sat back a bit further from the street than the rear of the neighboring houses. Visible on the left they were framed progressively smaller, partly behind the boy who stood slightly left of center, and they stretched back toward the vanishing point. These were older nondescript one and two story single family homes. The backyards ended on the right at a similar distance from the back of each house, often bordered by trees and shrubs. These created an intermittent boundary to guide the perspective view. The area further right beyond the foliage was indistinct and hazy going up to the horizon. Triangulating to a sketchy collection of distant features above the boy’s head, this series of back yards formed the painting’s center. The net effect was a greensward of hues and textures variegated by the interplay of light and shadow, reminding me of Monet’s “Park at Monceau” back in the impressionist gallery. It was technically well executed but not artistically remarkable.
Echoing steps of a soft cadence indicated someone else had entered the hall. Now my involvement with this painting became self-conscious. I turned to move on and was mildly startled to find a boy, alone, sitting on the bench.
“Why are you leaving?” asked his husky quiet voice.
I paused. It was reasonable to suspect he felt at least as vulnerable as I did. I didn’t want him to think he had ruined my stay and not knowing what to say I asked, “Are you familiar with this painting?”
As he considered his answer, this solitary word became animate. It silenced the echoes of the gallery and seemed to define a new domain. One inconsequential word spoken to stall for time, a mere breath in conversation, became a core idea. It expanded the moment like a seaside Eichler’s picture window conjoins the familiarity of a living room with the wild expanse of the ocean.
The hall took on a chill as though the frigid wind outside drew off the heat from the entire building, transporting my imagination to old memories. It felt much the same as the overgrown part of our back lot in winter when I was young back home, out behind the garden. This was my personal retreat where I puttered around to escape the severity of a complicated family, dreary future and absent friends. Here in late season, when much of the snow was gone but the sky remained overcast, the ground was carpeted with wild rye flattened by the snow and old rotting leaves bleached of autumn’s colors. Their spidery veins held together ragged papery shreds of what had been soft tissue rich with chlorophyll from the lilacs and box elders that grew up together near a small irrigation ditch. The ditch ran straight between all the back lots on our street and those of the homes on the next street. In winter the water was shut off and it became a secretive path through our environs where I wandered resembling a defiant street urchin in a war torn city making his way through bombed neighborhoods, not wanting to believe this was really home and having no where else to go. The frozen ditch bed was like a cratered street, pocked with footsteps from the warmer muddy days, many covered with a fragile skin of ice plate and some with acicular ice crystals below the plate. I often stomped on the ice to hear it shatter and crunch. Choked with cattails as dry and crackly as old corn stalks, this little canal was tucked between low banks where the mud was piled when it was dredged every dozen years or so. The bank and bushy tangle on our side formed a wild hedge row, a boundary of the world called home.
“Did you see the apple?”
Turning back I studied the painting again and shook my head, “Hmm, no, is there an apple?”
“Try standing closer.”
Pulling my glasses from a pocket I looked back at the boy a moment. The gallery felt dusky as though a cloud passing over the building outside dimmed the lights inside… strange to me, but the boy in his striped shirt and cuffed jeans seemed more at ease. He slumped slightly on the bench focused on the painting and put his hands in the pockets of a worn brown corduroy coat with fake sheepskin collar and big buttons. His Converse clad feet crossed and rocked back and forth under the bench. He was nine or ten years old and genuinely engrossed. There was something fundamental to the boy’s demeanor, some conviction that lay at the root of his interest.
I stepped forward, slipped on my glasses and continued to examine the details, embarrassingly close. I could see now the desk was full of detail, wood grain, drawer handles and beveled edges that were not visible before, showing the wear and tear of many moves.
“But it’s spring time, why would there be an apple?”
“Maybe you’ll see.”
Glad no one else was present to notice me inspecting the painting as one who did not appreciate a respectful purview, I stepped forward and searched for the apple hoping it was red and not green. Thinking it must be very small and therefore far away I examined the area around the vanishing point. There was an old wood shed, its weathered, unpainted siding barely perceptible in the haze of distance. It may have been a half dozen houses away in a back lot. Mostly visible were its boards and roof, outlined by fine strokes in midnight blue and umber. Next to it I could make out tiny purplish squiggles like varicose veins on the smoky shadows, the branches of a small tree. Much of it was covered from view behind the boy’s head. There were hints of untended shrubbery and the bare suggestion of a wire mesh fence but I found no apple.
I tried the averted gaze astronomers use to move pinpoints of starlight off the retina’s fovea, which is insensitive to faint light, and reexamined the tree by the shed. A flicker of rouge caught my attention. Again I scanned around it, again it twinkled, just inside a few errant hairs of the boy’s cowlick. Now it was a crimson dot with coral accents dabbed in place with a single-stranded brush.
“There it is!” I whispered, an incandescent declaration, the room’s chill rapidly dissipating before this radiating hope.
“Keep looking,” a firm whisper in response.
The more I looked for it the more distinct it became. The cowlick faded and the boy’s silhouette softened and became translucent. Details hidden from view were now emerging and I no longer saw him at all. Instead there was a peculiarly familiar reflection of his face in the window, a look of solemn discovery in his eyes. Now I squinted in the sunlight from the luxuriant springtime foliage, a verdant river of light splashing over the sun dabs brightly quaking in the leafy shadows. A backyard three or four houses away I knew to be the one I mowed in summer for fifty cents a week. The elderly couple who lived there were as fixed to the neighborhood and as anonymous as our street’s pavement. Walking by their house, even on the other side of the street, you could smell the old man’s pipe, like autumn smoke, any time of year. The homes were built perhaps sixty years ago with asphalt shingle roofs and fiber cement siding. Coming from far to my right, when I looked through the greenery at the rear of the back yards, a broken line denoted the canal bank and faded into the vanishing point. When I traced it to the center it disappeared behind the old shed that stored firewood. This shed I easily recognized as the one where I would hide in games of war with other neighbor boys. There to its left was the forgotten apple tree, and once more I beheld the red jewel.
Through the previous summer it grew, in the fellowship of its contemporaries, fed by sun and soil. There it blushed basking in the late summer warmth. In autumn tempests its ignored companions fell one by one to begin their long process of decay, yielding their seeds to the fecund earth. The leaves around it dried up and blew away while its stem held fast. On clear winter nights when the sky was filled with twinkling snowflakes from heaven, it was wrapped in velvet paisley frost. It refracted moon beams like an etched glass pome hung on a Christmas tree. Blizzards spackled it with snow. That winter it dangled like the port lamp of an ancient ship battered in a cold grey sea, refusing to give way before the storms. When Little League teams started up in early spring and young boys’ hands stung like fire at batting practice, the apple withstood the rainy gusts that whipped the budding branches all around it. Eventually the lengthening days brought calmer breezes. The new leaves burst forth and starry blossoms scented the air. Bees came and went, their little corn dog legs puffed up with pollen. The tenacity of that apple’s stem and twig and branch defied the natural progression of time, a life suspended between earth and eternity. The blaze of noon swirled with warmth and life about the apple, through the tree, along the backyards, right up to the window of my house. Real fruit remains not a thing of lasting visual beauty. By design it must molder into the ground and yield its re-emergent energy unto seeds and new shoots. Its perpetual beauty is in its regeneration. Yet this solitary holdout robbed not the earth, but granted a serendipitous grace.
I turned from the painting, “I see...,” the boy had left the bench and, crowding near, looked at me as one who expected an essential answer, “you,” I told the upturned face before me.
“You resemble the boy, see his face in the window?” Looking again at the painting I saw the opaque silhouette had resumed its place in the dark and silent home. The reflection was gone and the stretched canvas once more only offered that illusive ‘three dimensions in two’ appearance. My gaze held there and after a moment, I quietly asked, “How do you know this work?” There was no reply. Turning back to find the hopeful face of my new companion, I was not overly surprised to discover he was gone.
It didn’t occur to me to look for him elsewhere in the museum. My time there was complete. I strolled steadily to the museum’s exit, a lost wayfarer finally on his way home. Outside I leaned into the bracing sunlit wind and pressed toward my car. The harsh air burned in my chest but I took a lungful as though I’d been holding my breath for ages.
“You went to the farmer’s market?” asked my wife as I swung a bag of red apples onto the kitchen counter. “That’s not the usual souvenir from your base touching escapades.” I winked, grabbed an apple and crunched my way right through its sweet familiar flesh of assurance.