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We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon.
A few weeks earlier, the owners had repainted the diner walls from a grease-splattered beige to a thicky pastel blue and had spray-painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup. It ruined the place somewhat, but the food was cheap, it was never crowded, and they always had a place for us.
I shared a breakfast special and a grilled cheese with Margaux. Jon asked for our fries. I don't remember what we started off talking about, or who was the funniest that day. I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I had looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn't enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn't attracted to. Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home.
These are a few of the sordid fruits that led to the Ugly Painting Competition.
* * *
When Sholem was a teenager, he had dreamed of being a theater actor, but his parents didn't want him to go to theater school. They didn't think it was practical, and encouraged him to go to art school instead. So he went, and his first year there, up late one night painting, as the sun began rising with the morning, a sudden and strong feeling came up inside him that said, I must be an artist. I must paint for the rest of my life. I will not settle for anything else. No other future is acceptable to me.
It was an epiphany and a decision both, from which there would be no turning back—the first and most serious vow of his life. So this past spring, he completed his M.F.A. thesis and graduated.
* * *
Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don't remember, but once I got enthusiastic, suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly I envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting—pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. What would my painting look like? How would I proceed? I thought it would be a simple, interesting thing to do. I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing—and my life, and my self—into an object of beauty. It was exhausting and all that I knew.
Margaux agreed to the competition right away, but Sholem was reluctant. He didn't see the point. The premise turned him off so much—that one should intentionally make something ugly. Why? But I egged him on, pleading, and finally he gave in.
As soon as Sholem returned home after brunch, he set about making his entry—so he wouldn't have to think about it anymore, he explained to me later, or have looming before him the prospect of having to make something ugly.
He went straight into his studio, having already decided what he would do. He imagined it would be like this intellectual exercise that he could sort of approach in a cold fashion. He would just do everything he hated when his students did it. He started the composition smack-dab in the middle of a piece of paper, since paper is uglier than canvas. Then he painted a weird, cartoonish man in profile with fried-egg eyes, and he outlined things instead of shading them, delineating each individual eyelash. Instead of making a nostril, he sort of drew a hole. In the background he painted fluffy white clouds over orange triangular mountains. He made the background a gross pinkish-brownish gray, using mineral sediment dug up from the bottom of the jar in which he washed his brushes. For skin tone he just mixed red and white, and for the shadows he used blue. Though he thought in the end there would be some salvageable qualities to the painting, it just kept getting more and more disgusting until finally he began to feel so awful that he finished it off quickly. Dipping a thick brush in black paint, he wrote at the bottom, really carelessly, The sun will come out tomorrow. Then he stepped back and looked at the result, and found it so revolting that he had to get it out of his studio, and left it on the kitchen table to dry.
Sholem went out to get some groceries for dinner, but the entire time he was gone he felt nauseous. Returning home and setting the bags on the counter, he saw the painting lying there and thought, I cannot see that thing every time I walk into the kitchen. So he took it to the basement and left it near the washer and dryer.
From there, the day just got worse. Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged in despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone into the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying that nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. It's like you work so hard to train a dog to be good! he called through the door. And the dog is your hand! Then one day you're forced to beat all the goodness out of that dog in order to make it cruel. That day was today!
Then Sholem plodded into the living room and sent an email to the group of us, saying, This project fills me with shame and self-loathing. I just did my ugly painting, and I feel like I raped myself. How's yours, Margaux?
Margaux, the better artist, wrote back: i spent all day on my bed island reading the new york times.
* * *
Fifteen years ago, there lived a painter in our town named Eli Langer. When he was twenty-six, an artist-run center presented his first show. The paintings were gorgeous and troubled, very masterful, all done in rich browns and reds. They were moody and shadowy with old men, girls, and plush chairs, windows, and naked laps. A sadness clouded the few faces, which were obscured by darkness and lit only by faint moonlight. The canvases were very large, and they seemed like the work of someone with great assurance and freedom.
After the show had been up for only a week, it was shut down by the police. People claimed that the pictures were child pornography. The canvases were confiscated, and they were sentenced to be destroyed by the court.
The story was reported in newspapers all across the country, and the trial played on TV for an entire year. Prominent artists and intellectuals became involved and spoke publicly and wrote editorials about artistic freedom. In the end, the judge ruled in Eli's favor, partly; the paintings were returned to him, but on the condition that no one ever see them again. He left them in a corner of his mother's attic, where they remain, covered in soot and mold, today.
After the trial was done, Eli felt exhausted and shaken. Now when he stepped before a canvas, brush in hand, he found that the spirit lay dead in him. He left Toronto for L.A., where he thought he might be able to feel more free, but the images still did not come as they had before.
Crushed with a new insecurity and inhibition, he applied to his now-tiny canvases only hesitant whites, or whites muddled with pink, or a bit of yellow, or the most apologetic blue—so that even if you stepped really close to the paintings, you could barely make out a thing. For the few solo shows he managed to complete in the years following the trial, he created only deeply abstract work, not anything even remotely figurative.
Several times a year, Eli would return to Toronto for a week or so, and would go to art parties and talk about painters and the importance of painting, and would speak confidently about brushstroke and color and line, and would do coke and be sensitive and brutish. On his forearms were tattooed twelve-point letters—the initials of local women artists he had loved, none of whom would speak to him anymore. The male painters embraced him like he was a prodigal son, and word always got around: Have you seen Eli Langer? Eli's back in town!
Late last winter, Margaux talked with him for the first time. They sat on an iron bench behind a gallery after an opening, surrounded by snow, warmed by a fire burning in a can.
Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be. She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics—which seemed more straightforwardly useful, and which she thought she was probably well suited for, having something of the dictator inside, or something of the dictator's terrible certainty. Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn't trying to fix. And so it embarrassed her when people remarked on her distinctive brushstrokes, or when people called her work beautiful, a word she claimed not to understand.
Then that night, around a fire burning in a can, she and Eli spent several hours talking about color and brushstroke and line. They went on to email for several months, and she was briefly converted into the sort of painter he was—a painter who respected painting in itself. But after two months, her art crush dematerialized.
"He's just another man who wants to teach me something," she said.
* * *
Misha and I had planned to take a walk that afternoon, so I went to the apartment he and Margaux shared. When I arrived, he was in his study, at his computer, worrying over his life by checking his email.
We left together and walked north through the neighborhood. It was one of the few genuinely hot days we'd had that summer. As the sky went dark with dusk, I asked him whether Margaux had begun her ugly painting yet. He said he thought not. I said I was really eager to see the results.
Misha said, "It'll be really good for Sholem. He's so afraid of anything hippie."
"Is making an ugly painting hippie?" I asked him.
"It kind of is," he said. "There's, like, experimentation to no clearly valuable end. It's certainly more hippie than making a painting that you know is going to be good."
"Why should Sholem make a painting that he doesn't know is going to be good?"
"I don't know," he said. "But I do think Sholem has a fear of being bad, or of doing the wrong thing. He seems really afraid to take a wrong step at any moment, in any direction. And if what you're afraid of is to take a wrong step at any moment in any direction, that can be limiting. It's good for an artist to try things. It's good for an artist to be ridiculous. Sholem should be a hippie, because with him there's always a tremendous amount of caution."
"What's wrong with caution?"
"Well, there's a misunderstanding, isn't there? Isn't that what was happening over brunch? Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever image he has in his mind. But that's not freedom! That's control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing."
I said nothing, feeling tense. I wanted to defend Sholem, but I wasn't sure how.
"It's like with improv," Misha said. "True improv is about surprising yourself—but most people won't improvise truthfully. They're afraid. What they do is pull from their bag of tricks. They take what they already know how to do and apply it to the present situation. But that's cheating! And cheating's bad for an artist. It's bad in life—but it's really bad in art."
We had circled ten blocks and the sun had gone down as we were talking. The houses and trees were now painted a dark, dusky blue. Misha said he had a phone meeting, so we started back toward his apartment. His work life was strange and I didn't quite understand it, but neither did he, and it sometimes perplexed and saddened him. There seemed to be no structure or cohesion to it at all. He did only the things he was good at, and the things that gave him pleasure. Sometimes he taught improv classes to nonactors, sometimes he tried to keep nightclubs out of the Portuguese neighborhood where we lived, sometimes he hosted shows. There was no name you could give to it all. In the short biography he had submitted to Harvard—for what would become a dense, leather-bound volume for distribution at his fifteen-year college reunion—his classmates wrote lengthy entries about their worldly success, their children, and their spouses. Misha's entry had simply stated:
Does anyone else feel really weird about having gone to Harvard, given the life they're living now? I live in a two-bedroom apartment above a bikini store in Toronto with my girlfriend, Margaux.
"Good night," I said.
* * *
Several years ago, when I was engaged to be married but afraid to go through with it—afraid that I would end up divorced like my parents, and not wanting to make a big mistake—I had gone to Misha with my concerns. We were drinking at a party and left to take a walk through the night, our feet brushing gently through the lightly fallen snow.
As we walked, I told Misha my fears. Then, after listening for a long while, he finally said, "The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes."
So I took what he said to heart and got married. Three years later I was divorced.
Copyright © 2012 by Sheila Heti