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Italian Palimpsest

She said: Making art is like copulation First it’s a tease and a rush of ideas you collage together with pencil paint blood Whatever like foreplay It titillates your visceral greed You’re tense You’re horny You’re scared to open up that vulnerable pink ego but you want it so bad that you blow off the risks and when the concept comes your brain is hostage to spasms of atavistic pleasure You work it You work it until that one ecstatic seizure Then you back off and look at it and think That’s it That’s it Then more ideas start breeding You take the dog for a walk try to clear your mind But then you see a tree in the park it’s all sinuous and gnarled and it casts shadowy lines on the ground that look like a message written in some arcane calligraphy That gives you an idea You cut the walk short sorry pooch so you can rush back to the studio and work until whenever so you won’t lose it Next day you’re at it again You jump into your clothes that have been parked in the corner of the studio for the last You can’t remember but it doesn’t matter because it’s just you and the dog Then the whole art fucking starts all over again So you work faster and faster because you’re afraid you’ll die before you finish

He said: All right. All right. I get it. Stop.

She said: I can’t.


She couldn’t wait to get back to her studio where she could put some order in her life. Men always messed things up. This guy, Carl, was some Euro-trash friend of a friend of Luke’s. His claim to fame? He worked for Franz West in Vienna building a giant pink plastic intestine installation. He turned up at the loft party looking very black leather, not Brooklyn eclectic grunge. There he was, standing confidently aloof in the midst of the churning crowd. His movie star looks spotlighted him as if he had his own private marquis over his head that said in dazzling lights, I AM WHAT YOU WANT. She was like a helpless particle of metal filing pulled into the orbit of his suave magnetism. They spent the night together.

Now, sitting on the patio of the café, in the glare of the morning sun, and with the reality check of a cup of high test espresso, she could see the studied use of his handsome face and muscular body, the tantalizing tattoo barely visible on the inside of his arm as he does crunches with his coffee cup up and down. It is a manipulative attack on her libido. She’d been finessed.

He doesn’t talk. He preaches. His sonorous accent belies the strict Teutonic arrogance of his egocentric manifesto sublimating the artist to some bogus intellectual construct, disdaining the hedonistic emotionalism of the American Art Scene. “. . . orthodoxies. . . constructs. . .principles…”

Damn! She erupts into the riff on the down and dirty of her artistic universe. When she stops, she realizes that she probably confirms his notion that American artists are tornados of personal angst.


Time is up for this poseur. Ars longa Vita brevis She’s had quite enough experience already with the needy and the devious trying to hijack her life. She makes an excuse: she has to get back to her place; there’s a project deadline. . . (It’s not a lie.) She knows he doesn’t care.


Her place is an open attic in a dilapidated house in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The cluttered living space – bed, table, sink, stove, fridge, clothes rack – is jammed together at one end of the room. Stapled to every available inch of wall space is her twenty-four-year-old cache of cherished detritus. It’s an assemblage of scribbled telephone numbers, gallery announcements, sketches, paintings, a wire portrait with a sequined birthday tiara on top, her collection of Barbie Doll clothes, a photo of her mother in her wedding gown, a valentine from her father drawn on birch bark paper, her brother’s saxophone, a Wallace and Gromit key chain, and a calendar with the Trevi fountain featured for June. Her collection of beach stones makes a dangerous Zen garden of the bare wooden floor.

By contrast, the ten square feet of studio space at the other end is a pristine island amid the clutter. Her store of art supplies, ranging from power tools to delicate Asian papers, is systematically stored and labeled. The table is clear, waiting for her to step into her spot of heaven underneath the skylight.


From the door she can see the phone messages flashing red:

1“Honey, (It was her mother. There was an audible drag on a cigarette.) I’m frantic. . . (The tinkling of ice and scotch chimed against a glass.) I haven’t been able to reach Brandon for days. (When their parents divorced, her brother dropped a lot of acid, then dropped out of school, then dropped out.) I’ve called his pager ten times. I’m terrified. . . (another drag) that he might be sick again…(more booze) Have you heard from him? Call me right back. Love you.”

2 “J, (It was her brother.) I’m at Sergio’s. (Sergio was her father’s first
lover, the one who broke up the marriage, the one who was mother after mother’s hospitalization.) Don’t tell Mom I’m here. She’s been stalking me. Serg said I could stay here for a while. He’s cooking a vat of Spaghetti Carbonara. He wants you to come over and share it with us. He thinks you’re going anorexic on us. Bring the saxophone. I know somebody who’ll give me $50 for it. You’re the best.”

3 “Jenny, (It was Luke. He moved out five months before – “a problem about passion versus love.”) We need to talk. Heidi (the new woman) is allergic to dogs. Can you take Pooch? Please get back to me.” (She did miss Pooch. Dogs were non-judgmental lovers.)


She unplugs the phone. Life is short and Art is long. Her rumpled, paint spattered jeans and T-shirt are parked in a corner. She puts them on and steps across the invisible frontier into her studio world, her world free of betrayal and failure, a world where she can find salvation. As soon as she lays her hands on the pencils, papers, and paints, she is centered and calm. This is her prayer.

This series of work is called Italian Palimpsest: translucent layers of paint, collage, and text from her travel diary. A month in Italy is the cure for Luke. Rome is her new passion. Gorging on the sensory overload of the centuries of art and architecture, she is a wanton tourist junky. Every day she visits the Pantheon, the temple to man’s virtuosity, godhead of her religion. She imagines herself there alone in the rotunda, naked in the muted light, prostrate on the marble floor, pressing down against the veined marble, arms and legs open to ecstasy. Jennifer as St. Theresa

Painting is the only antidote she has for being back in Brooklyn. She has a vision of this new piece, the Pantheon, the Carrara circle and square grid of the floor, the bronzed light streaming through the oculus of the dome, the cursive letters of a poem, conrapposto to the classical geometry.

Watercolor reveals the integrity of a painter. The gesture of each brush stroke of pigment, bravura or minimal, impregnates the paper, leaving a permanent stain, a ghostly history of success or failure through all the subsequent washes of color. Palimpsest Layer upon layer of life, her life. A life is spent trying to create structure and meaning, trying to create a composition that eliminates the risks. A lapse in judgment or concentration or just bad luck, could push things out of control.

To begin, she drafts countless small-scale sketches. Little echoes of conversation intrude. First, it’s a tease and a rush of ideas. What sounded like complete bullshit when she first said it starts to make sense. She scribbles down the words on various scraps of sketches and tosses them on the linoleum. You work it. You work it. She experiments with painting techniques, to capture the textures -- a crumpled paper towel blots in the fissures of the marble -- and the colors -- yellow ochre, burnt sienna, phthalo blue. You’re horny. You’re scared. On creamy, virgin watercolor paper, the final composition is drafted with meticulous gossamer lines. She slips into the painting zone, hypnotized. When the concept comes, your brain is hostage to spasms of atavistic pleasure. Last, she waves her hair drier like a magic wand over the wet painting, inhales deeply and exhales with a hum that steadies her hand. She writes over it in fluid, sinuous letters:

Each meager soul
Touring the rotunda
Absorbs the resounding
Oohhnnnn of the Centuries

Oohhnnnn? . . . “SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!”
. . . After a while she decides to start over.


She doesn’t know what time it is when she finally plugs in the phone. It’s dark. She starts answering her phone messages. While she’s talking to Luke, making arrangements to get Pooch, with her toes she starts messing around with the scraps of her sketches that are strewn around the floor. It’s a game she can’t resist. There are endless variations, fitting torn edges, colors and messages into a composition. She has an idea. . .

You back off and look at it and think that’s it, that’s it. Then more ideas start breeding…so it starts all over again.

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