|dan (67) myron (1) rich (61) shiloh (4) :: Contact|
Wed, 31 Oct 2007
A Halloween Story
SoHo had long been a haven for artists of all kinds, a magnet for those who chose to follow the voices of their inner muses, and who preferred their own company to trying to fit in to the rest of the world. Inexpensive lofts in old industrial buildings had been colonized and homesteaded over the years into a warren of apartments, studio spaces, and galleries. It was in insular, self-contained neighborhood, where everyone was part of the same community and tended to know everyone else, yet it was also remarkably fluid, with a continuous flux of people moving in and moving out, making it virtually impossible to keep track of who came and who went. Someone you had known for years would one day simply not be there any more, with no explanation, no warning, no forwarding address; people would speculate about what happened, as they staked out the now-abandoned loft, hoping to be the first to grease the palm of the landlord with a C-note in order to move up to the larger, newly-available space.
It was truly a home for all kinds of artists. Actors and actresses; stand up comics and mimes; musicians of all genres from classical to techno to jazz; painters, sculptors, and collagists; video, electronic, and computer artists; and a mishmash of other types including poets, graphic artists (“Don't call them 'comics'!”), and assorted hangers-on, with all the necessary service workers and infrastructure needed to make a nominally functioning community. It was a maelstrom within the larger whirlpool of the city, a fractal subimage containing in miniature all the larger patterns of the whole.
Nigel Armstrong sat in at a table in cafe, sipping his cappuccino and nibbling at a brioche as he thumbed through the pages of the SoHo Standard, one of the half-dozen or so “community papers” that cannibalized each other for advertisers and readers. He had only arrived in the neighborhood a few weeks ago, and still relied on these handy tabloids as an invaluable resource in learning the “lay of the land”. Even with all the commotion and social whirlwind, Armstrong had at least so far learned that there was indeed a series of strata to this bohemian society – like most societies, with the great unwashed masses making up the vast majority, and a small elite which set the tone and established the rules. And the easiest way to move up, he decided, was to see and be seen by the members of that elite, which meant moving in their circles, which meant finding out where and when they would be out and about. And that meant identifying which galleries were putting on the hottest exhibitions, which is where, Armstrong had quickly realized, the movers and shakers would be found.
Which was why the weekly “Exhibitions This Week” listings in the Standard were invaluable maps for a prospecting social climber like Nigel Armstrong. Neatly laid out by place and date were the listings of who was showing what, and to Armstrong, these were as good as a Trip-Tik map with all the atristic aristocracy waypoints already highlighted. In fact, there was a new exhibit opening later that evening:The Millennium Gallery, 7 PM: Gods and Godesses, An Exhibit by Charles Landers, sculptor. Landers will be displaying the initial works in an ongoing series of sculptures representing classical Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.
This was clearly something worth looking into, Armstrong thought. The Millennium was the hottest gallery around, and anyone who was anyone was sure to be there. He didn't care much for sculpture himself, but his acting skills were quite good, and he felt confident he could passably feign interest in it for the three hours or so that it would take to mingle with the glitterati. “Sincerity,” he reminded himself. “If you can fake that, you've got it made.” He smiled as he folded the paper, put the last bits of brioche into his mouth, tucked a ten dollar bill under the side of the saucer, and stood up. He was new in town, he thought, but he was going places. He would not be among the proletariat for long.
“...and I don't know what he was thinking with all this,” Marcela nodded to her companion as she strolled through the Millennium Gallery. “I mean, really, ancient gods and goddesses? It's so clichéd. The Greeks and Romans did it thousands of years ago. And so much better -- I mean, marble is so much more --”. She paused, searching for the right word. “-- appropriate -- than these bronzes, wouldn't you say?”
“Hmm,” Armstrong replied, noncommittally. Marcela was a useful bit of ornamentation, handy on occasions like this, but she knew even less about art than he did; unfortunately, she was not entirely shy about giving her opinions, regardless of their level of sophistication. “Well, I don't know. Landers is certainly well known for his smaller pieces. And these bronzes do have their redeeming qualities. I mean look at the level of care that must have gone into them. The proportions are so exact, so lifelike, all the parts fitting together perfectly.” They had come to the centerpiece of the exhibit, a life-sized bronze statue entitled Mercury. Captured in mid-stride, the statue indeed had an extraordinary level of detail for a bronze, a medium in which one would normally expect a certain degree of coarseness in the fine features. But this was different -- there were details of musculature and skeleton that almost seemed beyond what was normally possible in cast metal. What little Armstrong knew about making castings told him that it took an inordinately long time to engrave such fine details into the molds even on a small piece -- and backwards and in reverse relief as well! To accomplish this must have been the work of untold hours of time and effort. No, Armstrong did not think this work was clichéd, not at all. This was extraordinarily skilled work. It was obvious to him why the Millennium wanted to show Charles Landers' latest creations: he was clearly setting the standards for that particular branch of the art scene these days. And thus Armstrong was reassured that this was the very place he ought to be.
They continued their stroll around the periphery of the gallery, examining the pencil studies for the statue. Soon they came upon another small cluster of people traversing the gallery in the opposite direction. “It's wonderful,” Frederica von Stadt, the doyenne of the SoHo scene remarked to no one in particular. “You can watch the evolution of the piece from first concept to various ideas to the final reality. Remarkable!”
“You are very kind,” Charles Landers replied quietly. “The work is difficult, but your appreciation of the end result makes all the hours of effort worthwhile, my dear Frederica.”
“Oh, thank you, Charles. How you managed to work in all these fine details is certainly quite beyond me. I've never seen anything like it. In fact, you know,” she lowered her voice a bit so that only she and her companions could hear. “I daresay your Mercury bears a striking resemblance to Michael Curtis.” She giggled, as if this was a remarkably funny idea. “You remember Michael, don't you, Charles? That hack painter who was always coming in here, trying to get me to place one of his canvasses in one show or another?”
“Vaguely,” Landers answered. “Haven't seen much of him lately.”
“I believe he finally packed it in and went back home to Colorado,” another member of the group interjected. “He'd been talking about it for a while. Just needed one last sale to get the airfare home, but couldn't manage it. Said he was going to take a modeling job to raise the cash. Presume he did -- with that physique, he'd clearly gone into the wrong profession.”
“Robert! I do believe you miss him!” von Stadt giggled again. “You'd better stop saying things like that or you'll make Henry jealous!” The four of them now laughed.
All the while, Armstrong had been quietly steering himself and Marcela closer to the little group that had crossed their path. As the group moved on, he moved along with them, unobtrusively tagging along at the edge of the group as they continued around the gallery. He said nothing at first, but nodded agreement at all the appropriate times, smiling and laughing quietly with the rest of the group. After a while, the little knot of people began to split up, until only Landers, von Stadt, Marcela, and Armstrong were left. “Well, it's been lovely,” von Stadt declared, smiling broadly at Landers. “You've certainly topped yourself this time, Charles.” Then she turned and crossed the broad floor, passing close by the statue on her way towards the exit. She paused momentarily and gazed at it again from head to toe, her eyes lingering on the private parts as her head nodded downwards. “Remarkably like Michael,” she said quietly to herself as she glided through the door.
Now was his chance, Armstrong thought. “Humph,” he cleared his throat. “What are your plans for the series now, Mr. Landers?” Always good to ask the artist about their plans, Armstrong thought -- there was nothing they enjoyed talking about more than their next big thing.
“Well, I certainly don't have the time or inclination to do the entire pantheon. Mister...?” the question trailed off.
“Armstrong. Nigel Armstrong. And this is my friend, Marcela Sanchez. It's a great pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” he replied. “And yes, as I said, while the whole panoply of gods and goddesses would be quite beyond me, I certainly intend to continue. I was thinking perhaps Venus next. Do you model, Miss Sanchez? You certainly have the figure for it/”
“Oh, no,” Marcela said quietly, looking down and blushing.
“But you should consider it, if you will pardon my saying so. I can envision you as my Venus. The work is tedious -- and a bit tiring, which is somewhat remarkable considering that you essentially cannot move for extended periods once we find the proper pose. Naturally, I will pay you generously for your time and your other expenses. Would you consider it?”
“I have no experience as a model. I would be embarassed,” Marcela answered, still looking down.
“Understandable, but in fact your lack of experience is not really an issue. There's no real skill involved in learning to strike a pose. And I give my models complete anonymity and privacy. No photographs, no contracts if you don't want one, no names on any of my pencil studies, nothing in the gallery catalog if you don't want it. Please reconsider.”
“What do you think, Nigel?” Marcela asked.
Armstrong could not believe the fantastic turn the conversation had taken. Just by asking a simple question, he had managed to get an “in” with the hottest artist in SoHo. All he had to do was to make sure that Marcela didn't blow it for him with her shyness or prudishness.
“I think it would be a great experience for you,” he replied. “You're not terribly busy right now, anyway, so why not? And I'm sure I can come with you if that would make you feel more comfortable. Couldn't I, Mr. Landers?”
“Of course. And call me Charles, both of you. Look, I've been working hard to get this exhibit ready, but give me your phone numbers and I will be in touch with you in a week or so. Don't want to let the creative juices dry up now, right?”
Marcela nodded, smiling now, as Armstrong shook Landers' hand and gave him their numbers. It would not be long now, he thought, before the Frederica von Stadt's of the world made sure he was part of the group, and not just a hanger-on who happened to drift by, as anonymous as a fly.
Armstrong sat with Marcela as the taxi bumped and jerked its way through the crosstown traffic to the address Landers had given them. Even by SoHo standards, Landers' studio was in a rather remote section of town, in what had once been a meat packing plant. Armstrong was amazed to see elevated railroad tracks going right up to large steel doors on the second story of the building. There was a large loading dock in front, but it had been long shuttered up, and there was no obvious entrance.
“Around the corner,” Marcela reminded him, as the taxi stopped to let them out. They stepped out onto the cobblestone street and onto the sidewalk. Just as Landers had mentioned, there was a rather decrepit looking metal doorway, which looked like it was firmly rusted in place. In fact, the whole building looked distinctly abandoned and unlived-in. Armstrong knocked, the banging echoing down the street. There was no traffic, and no pedestrians in the area; the only things that moved when he knocked on the door were several pigeons startled into flight by the noise. After a moment, they heard muffled noises from inside, and with a tremendous creak, the door opened from the inside -- no outside handle, Armstrong noticed. Charles Landers stood in the doorway. “Come in, please, come in. Thank you so much for agreeing to pose for me, my dear. Did you manage to find the place all right? Not every cabbie knows his way around this part of town.”
“No problems at all,” Marcela said, as the door loudly creaked shut behind them.
“Good, good. Well, please come this way. My studio and workshops are on the second floor.”
They followed Landers up, not on a stairway, but on a broad, gently sloping ramp. “Yes, I know, it is a strange looking place. It used to be a meat packing plant, as I think I mentioned to you when I called. Quite industrial inside, but very sturdily built, with large open spaces, and safe enough for all my equipment and tools.” Although there were no windows, the floors were brightly lit, and, as Landers had said, there were all kinds of equipment everywhere. Enormous tanks full of chemical solutions, more than eight feet deep, were gathered in one corner of the floor, with large banks of electrical equipment, gages, wires, and electrodes hanging down into the tanks. Also here were plater casts of various small statues, bags of sand, and pieces of metal in various shapes, some recognizable, some random-looking lumps. The next corner, furthest away, held what looked like a brick furnace with a heavy metal door. (“My little refractory,” Landers called it. “It's where I melt my copper and tin to make my bronze.”) The next far corner was covered with a white dropcloth, which ran across the floor and which was nailed up onto the walls; nearby was an easel holding a sketchpad. A small table with wooden stools, a cot, and a refrigerator filled the rest of that area. And the near corner was a kind of storage area, chock-a-block with all sorts of tools and equipment.
Landers motioned to the cot in the far corner. “Please leave your coats and things on there,” he said, “and make yourselves comfortable. It's will probably be a long day, and I always like to begin a session with a little refreshment. Will you join me?” He walked over to the refrigerator and took out a plate of cheese and fruit, and a small carafe of red wine. He set the plate and carafe down on the table, found a a set of tumblers in a nearby cabinet, and motioned for Armstrong and Marcela to sit. He poured the wine into two of the glasses, taking water from a sink for himself.
“Won't you have some wine with us, Charles?” Armstrong asked, as he nibbled on the Boursin and apple slices on the plate.
“Oh, no, I cannot, not today. Alcohol has the unfortunate side effect of causing my hands to tremble, and that is certainly the last thing I need when I am trying to work.” Marcela nodded, understanding. And so the three of them sat at the small table, exchanging pleasantries, Landers sipping his water while the others had a second glass of wine. Then it was time to begin. Landers took his place at the easel, while motioning Marcela over to the center of the dropcloth. “Just some sketches to start with, my dear,” he said, taking pencil in hand and starting to make broad strokes on the rough paper.
Armstrong looked on, watching Landers work. Landers hadn't even asked Marcela to take her clothes off; for now, it looked like he was concentrating on poses and positions as Marcela followed his instructions to move this way and that. Remarkable how hot and stuffy it was in here, even though it was a cool autumn day outside, he thought to himself. He would really like to nod off for a few minutes; he was sure he would feel better afterwards if he did. Armstrong quietly slipped from the stool to the edge of the cot, sitting there for a few minutes. Then he gently laid himself down. Yes, just a quick nap, and he was sure he would feel much better.
Marcela had had her back to Armstrong for many minutes, and did not know he was asleep on the cot until she turned around herself to ask for a brief break from posing. Landers smiled. “Your friend obviously does not find the artistic process tremendously stimulating,” he said to her. Marcela was embarrassed at Armstrong's behavior, but she was also feeling kind of punchy herself. She walked back to the table, had another slice of cheese, and poured herself a half a glass of wine, which she downed in one swallow. “I just need a minute to get these cobwebs out of my head,” she told Landers, and as she rested her head on her elbows, she closed her eyes. For a place with no windows, Landers' studio had awfully bright lights, and Marcela knew that just a minute or two in the darkness, with her eyes shut, was just what she needed to feel better.
The follow-up show at the Millennium Gallery was a runaway success. Charles Landers had added to his Mercury sculpture with two more pieces: Venus and Adonis. Frederica von Stadt was enraptured. “What Michaelangelo had done in marble, Charles Landers now does in bronze,” she proclaimed. Everyone applauded, impressed by the tremendous detail and realism of these newest statues, the latest two just as remarkable as the first, and proof (if such were needed) that Landers was just as adept at representing the female form as the male. Robert edged over to Charles and whispered to him that he had received an impressive offer from a wealthy collector, who was seeking to buy the triptych on the spot for a staggering sum. Swallowing hard, Landers nodded agreement, and Robert went back to the business office of the gallery to complete the deal. He emerged about twenty minutes later with a check in hand. “You're no longer a struggling artist now, eh, Charles? What are you going to do now that you're a wealthy man.”
“I think I need a vacation. Someplace far way, for a good while,” he answered him, grinning broadly.
The exhibition continued for several more weeks, but Charles Landers apparently meant what he said, and left the country the next day on his “extended vacation”. Finally, the gallery closed the exhibit and prepared for the next; the staff were frankly happy to see the bronze statues go. The lone woman on the staff thought they were mildly pornographic in their extreme realism, whereas the men simply complained about the statues' weight, life size bronzes being by no means easy to move around or to take down to the loading dock for delivery.
When the three statues arrived at the collector's midtown penthouse overlooking Central Park, the movers huffed and puffed as they carried the statues one by one off the truck and into the building's freight elevator. As the doors closed and the cab started upwards with a jerk, Venus wobbled unsteadily on its feet, and, before anyone could grab her, it fell to the floor with a crash, breaking off the arm at the elbow.
No one said a word as they looked down at the broken bronze arm on the elevator floor. Inside it was a chalky-white bone, running up the inside of the hollow metal arm.