Untitled, Mixed Media

“Holy… what the hell?”

“Haha, wha?”

“This is super weird.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“Whoa, it’s like… you can see the pores of his skin…. Look at that! Crazy.”

Shaun snaps a picture of the glossy eye, the corner of the mouth, the ear and hair of the sideburns. Good, close crops—so they won’t be able to tell what it is at first.

“How did he make this? What’s it made out of?”

“Uh…” He heads over to the title card on the wall. “Just says ‘mixed media.’”

“Crazy. How do you think they got this in here? You think it was, like, a balloon or something?”

“Might be just a skin… I mean, no pun intended, heh… that they put over a frame, you know. It’s probably hollow inside.”

They both circle the room at a pace that matches their interest. Looks like it’s worth about twenty seconds. Shaun would have spent a good forty-five, but Ry was clearly ready to move on, and he didn’t want to hold him up.

They each took pics of each other as they ambulated—pretty cool to juxtapose the scale of the thing, the detail. Probably going to be the best shots from this place—this, and that one of Ry doing that goofy pose to mimic this wacky painting of a woman all contorted and twisted, her eyes too far apart.

Mae, wandering in on her lunch break, tempered her own surprise after rounding the corner. Read the label first, she’s learned. Might give you more context.

Ugh. What’s with all these “Untitleds”? They don’t bother to give the viewer any clues to their confounding puzzles they put in these places. I’m either supposed to just appreciate it for what it is—‘titles are external to the work,’ or ‘a crutch’, or some idea like that—or they expect us to surmise the concept. Or, worse yet, they don’t care if I understand it, and laugh at our imbecility. At least give us something…

But the raw craft of it crowds out the analysis. She wouldn’t dare touch it, but she can tell what it’d feel like—the skin of the cheek would feel soft, and would give way with the slightest touch, the way Jung’s did just after dawn this morning, sighing a contented breath as he peeked at her beneath a drowsy eyelid.

It’s grotesque, though, isn’t it, at this scale? Bodies are weird and gross enough as it is. Every time they go to the beach—a couple times a year, maybe, when they manage to plan ahead enough to make it happen—it occupies an uncomfortable percentage of her thoughts: hardly any of us are nice to look at.

It happens at the bus station too—for all the romantic, swoony notions we have of physical attraction to each other, it really is more of a state of mind than an objective quality. Really, we humans are strange fleshy creatures, oddly naked compared to other land-animals. Jung’s got those weird patches of hair on his back that she has to try not to think about when they’re… together. But when desire kicks in, it takes over—the grotesque becomes irrelevant, even erotic for god’s sake. And when it’s gone, we’re back to being awkward, heavy skeletons wrapped in meat and peppered with fur.

God, you can see his pimples. Who does this? Who spends as much time as this guy (is it a guy? I should check) working so many hours, so many days, working as hard as it must have been to make this mammoth thing? Is it bravery? Lunacy? Obsession? Self-absorption? Maybe it’s brilliance. Hard to say because he’s given me so little to go on.

Mae leaves. The thing makes her uncomfortable. This isn’t what I came here to see.

“Oh, I got it in this little shop in Vienna. Nothing special, really. I just liked it.” Susan touches her scarf, rubbing the soft fabric in her hand.

“Such a great color. When were you in Vienna?”

“Thanks! Oh, it was a couple years ago. I went there with Ronnie for a short visit. We didn’t get to see much, really.” She was a little self-conscious of her outfit. She was hoping it came off as sophisticated but not over-thought. Ivan’s glasses looked normal enough, but you could tell they were expensive. Same for his jeans. His compliment was flattering, even if it was superficial and possibly a little ingenuine. But the off-handedness of it made her feel just a little more inside the circle of trust, and she wanted to ride the wave of confidence it gave her.

“Did you see the Schiele’s at the Leopold?” Ivan glanced at her, a hint of rapture on his face.

“I did, I did! We managed to sneak that one in. It’s rather… visceral to see all of those in one place.”

“Mmm.” Ivan raised his eyebrows as he smirked, then folded his hands behind his back as he walked along the wall of the gallery.

Really, she didn’t care for Schiele’s work. Too raw, too obviously ugly. Her appreciation for them was more measured, academic. The fact they’re venerated and on display says more about us, now, than it does about him, then. That’s a defensible position, right? She was gathering her talking points, but hoped he wouldn’t stay on the subject.

“Speaking of visceral…” Ivan was walking slowly in what little space was left around the margins of the room, looking up, down, leaning in, crouching, tilting his head back to look through his glasses at a better angle.

“What do you make of his expression?”

Susan took a breath to respond but realized he was speaking to Tim (was it Tim? Tom?), who at the moment was obscured by a giant ear.

“Well, there are so many ways to look at it—is it the artist? A friend? A stranger? A model? Or a fabrication of the artist’s imagination?” Was Tim posturing, too? Making sure he sounded intelligent and worth spending the afternoon with?

“Which answer do you prefer?”

“Do I get to choose?” He stepped around to get a better look at the face, tilting his head.

“Choose one, choose them all! It’s your experience after all, Tim.” Ivan had a warm, casual smile. Susan wasn’t sure how they knew each other, or for how long, or what the nature of their relationship was. A friend, was all Ivan had said.

“Oh, I suppose it doesn’t matter.” He took a step back. “Look how you can tell he needs a bit of Burt’s Bees….” Susan and Ivan both chuckled. “He certainly seems pensive, reflective. It’s not quite a neutral expression, not like a model just trying to sit still for the artist, or a simple 3D scan of a head that was then printed this way. He’s definitely captured some real humanity here.”

The three of them were now gathered in front of the nose, Susan a good arms-length further away from Tim than Ivan was.

Susan wasn’t sure she saw anything special in the expression. Really, he reminded her a bit of a guy who is often at the café—never in line at the same time, but ordering after she’s sat down, or sipping with his laptop open and glowing on the tiny table. Once or twice she wondered what he was always doing. He was working on something—he was often gazing out at nothing, lost in his own thoughts, figuring something out in the space of his mind, before snapping back to the present. It’s almost the same expression, but…. This is the first time she’s ever thought of that man, outside of the café. Unremarkable, really. I guess as unremarkable as the rest of us.

“He seems so sad, so earnest.” Back in college, Ivan was the outspoken, confident one—always with an opinion, but never stubborn about it. He seemed to crave interesting conversation above anything else. He would debate you on just about anything, taking a contrarian stance just to prod things along. It was very difficult to really surmise what he actually believed unless you went to great lengths to corner him and make him admit it. The professors loved him. Everyone else was a little intimidated. “Really, I do hope it’s not a self-portrait. That’d be so… it’d seem a little indulgent, wouldn’t it—putting a giant version of your own head in here? It’s much more compelling if it’s someone else, someone intentional, someone relevant. Someone with a story.” Ivan puzzled. “Could it be someone we should know? He seems a bit familiar….”

“Honestly, I feel like he’s just really disappointed in me,” Tim offered with a half-grin, and clearly half-joking, adding at the end of his breath, “Makes me feel rather small.”

“This is just realism, isn’t it,” Tim stated, continuing the debate he was having with himself. “Just celebrating the magic of being tricked into thinking it’s real—just a modern trompe l’oeil, like an overpriced Vegas ‘illusionist.’”

“Hah! Well, Ivan, you sure made up your mind in a hurry,” Susan jested, and they both laughed. She always had to muster some courage to challenge him, but the intervening years has apparently made that easier. More courage, or less patience. Or maybe they’re the same thing.

“Sue, there’s no statement here, no relevance to the audience other than ‘look at what I can do’, or worse, ‘look at what I did’. I want art to advance the human discussion in some way—I want the artists to have something to say, a point of view. I’m not convinced this guy—what’s his name? is he from L.A. or something?—I’m not convinced he’s giving us anything new.”

“But you agree that it’s… what did you say… visceral?

“Your word, actually.”

“You don’t see any value in that? Sorry, I’m going to take a… seat over here, there’s something in my…” Susan sat down on the narrow bench against the wall and fished around in the side of her shoe to figure out what was pinching her foot. “You had a reaction, yes?” She didn’t find anything, but it seemed to feel better now.

“A reaction, sure. But shock alone is thin, brittle.”

He’s not wrong, but… Susan wasn’t terribly interested in rehashing a grad-school idea-spar. She found something raw and moving about it, and hoped to get a minute to take it in, feel how it made her feel.

It was certainly unsettling—she felt embarrassed for him, the owner of this head, whoever it was, real or imagined. All these flaws and details exaggerated and on display for anyone of the street to come see. But the sheer size of it—the hair on top nearly brushing the ceiling of the gallery, probably twelve feet up—made her feel something else. It reminded her of that dream she vaguely remembers from her childhood—she’s a tiny spec in a dizzyingly enormous white room, with some large creature (was it an elephant? she was never sure), thousands, maybe millions of times her size. Not frightening, exactly, but troubling, disorienting, sublime.

Or is it compassion? There was something in his eyes that made her want to stay with him, comfort him.

It’s like he’s solving a puzzle he knows he can’t solve.

“I don’t know,” Tim offered. “Maybe we’re reading too much in to it. Maybe it’s just a giant head.”

“What do you make of this?”


“You’re here all day, spending a lot of time with this guy. What do you think of it?”

Charles was used to this question—he’d get it or something like it several times a week—though he disliked having to speak with the visitors. They have guidelines. Can’t say anything negative about the collection; avoid saying “I don’t know”; things like that. Charles had a couple token things he could comment on in each of the rooms in his rotation, mostly picked up from the tours the security staff goes on with the curators. In this case he had this:

Ahem, well, it’s a self-portrait of the artist. Took him a couple of years to complete it. I guess he wanted to avoid touching up any blemishes, or… idealizing it in any way. So it’s based on a single high-resolution scan of his head.”

“Oh so is it, like, printed, then?”

Charles shook his head slowly, knowing this fact often impresses folks: “No, he did it by hand. Made mostly out of plastic and resin of various types.” Oh yeah, and there’s this: “There’s over 95,000 individual hairs on there, all placed by hand.”


That’s usually the response. Wow, or you’re kidding, or an amazed hmm!

“Did he have any assistants, or anything like that, or…?”

“Uh, I believe he did have some help, yeah, but all by hand—that I do know.”

“Huh. Thanks.”

Charles gave a smile and a nod, and stepped back to the wall.

He’d had this rotation long enough to make up his mind about it: really interesting at first, real impressive. The guy clearly had a lotta patience and perseverance. And hell, if a place like this is going to pay you to do what you enjoy doin’, that’s all you can really ask for, right. But anything after you’ve seen it a couple dozen times (a half hour each time) loses its mystique. He felt about the same for this sculpture as he did about his dining table. Nothing bad to say about it, really—it’s just something that’s there.

You certainly learn a thing or two about people, watching them all seeing the same things for the first time, all day long. Not so different than we like to think we are. Bright colors will make people exclaim; big things will make them stop and marvel; simple things will regularly draw an admiring stare; unusual stuff will make them either snicker, consider (for a little while), or willfully ignore; and everyone loves stuff they recognize, especially names. Rare that anyone ever really takes any time with any one thing. Folks are just hoping to see something interesting. That’s why they come in here. And really, it’s nice to be in here, watching this… procession of wonder and curiosity, day in, day out. Way better than that goddamn sign shop.

“Whaddya say, hon, wanna put that in our living room?” the man teased his wife.

She snorted and kept walking, consulting her map. “Are the impressionists on the next floor?”

“It’d go so well with the hand and foot we have in the study! Complete the set!”

“Do you know much about his work?”

“Some—I’ve seen a few of his pieces, went to a curator’s talk where she talked a bit about him. I think he grew up in… Kosovo? Eastern Europe somewhere. Lots of strife and oppression, conflict. He fled to the States back in the mid-90s. A lot of his work deals with, like, raw humanity—like, what does it mean to be a person when your identity keeps shifting? Something like that.”

“Oh, I see.”

“So, you know, this big head seems like a kind of… assertion of the self.”

“Hm, yeah, I could see that. Interesting.”

“Yeah. Also, I think his wife died—can’t remember if it was part of the conflict, or an illness?”

“He does seem so sad, like he’s lost something. I wondered. Poor guy.”

“Yeah… sad story.”

“Should we keep going?”

“Sure. How much time do you have?”

“Another twenty minutes or so, then I’ve gotta meet up with Lexi.”


“Hey, come on up. 3rd floor, 37. You’ll have to wind around a bit to find it.”

I should tidy up a bit. Let’s see, anything on the floor that would ruin her shoes? Op, should probably move that… Let’s see, if she’s interested in helping… could probably have her do some hairs. Should be simple enough. God, sometimes… you get these glimpses of yourself and realize just how weird you are. Maybe my friend wants to put hairs on a giant replica of my own head.

That must be her.

“You’re almost there! Getting warmer…!”

“Oh, stop it. I know how to count for Christ’s sake.”

Ooh, I like her coat.

“Great coat! Is that new?”

“Actually, just borrowing it from my roommate. Couldn’t find mine. But thanks! How are you?”

Are we hug friends? We are.

“Good, good! You? Thanks for coming all this way.”

“Of course! I’m dying to see what you’re up to.”

“Oh, well, you know. Just plodding along on some crazy idea I had. Not sure it’s all that great, but… can’t turn back now! Already spent the advance. Come on in, it’s right over here.”

Ugh, I hate this moment every time. You think you’d get used to it, but you don’t.

“Hah, I’m sure it’s great. Are you still living in that place up the hill?”

“No, I splurged on a little upgrade, actually—a place closer to the water, little bigger. Over on 7th.” I’m self-conscious about it, really. I’m not sure I deserve to spend that kind of money.

“Nice, nice, some good restaurants over there…” Gasp. “Oh my god!”

“O…obviously it’s not finished, so it looks rather gruesome right now…”

“I mean, it’s hideous. Really, really surreal. But yeah, it’s you. And it’s incredible.” Of course, she’s being kind. She wouldn’t be so praising if she didn’t know me, wasn’t standing in my studio at her insistence. It’s why you can’t trust friends for feedback—they’re never objective. But it is nice to hear it—so nice that it makes me wonder why I care about the opinions of strangers at all. Less than strangers—passersby. Maybe how my friends feel is the only thing I should care about. Maybe I should make things for them instead. “How long have you been working on this?”

“Let’s see about… I started about March, so… eight months? Something like that.”

“Heavens to Betsy, look at that iris… It’s beautiful.” That warm honey of approval and appreciation fills my chest.

But it’s so complicated to make things for people you know—people who know you. There’s so much around it. It’s too naked, too risky, too loaded. It’s easy—well, easier—to dismiss the malaise or simple-mindedness of the outside people, these ‘viewers’. They become statistics, the crowd. Face it—even approval coming from these people feels hollow. But your friends—there’s simply too much at stake. Why do any of us hoist ourselves up on a stage like this?

Does that mean my iris is beautiful?

“So, tell me about it. What made you decide to put your big mug in a gallery?”

“Aw, geez… the ‘artist’s statement’…” I assumed my most pompous posture. “I wanted to explore the tensions between the individual and the collective… the collective unconscious—that’s better. What is ‘self’ in this post-industrial, post-modern, post-punk milieu…”

“Yeah, yeah, very nice. You’ve been practicing.”

“‘Tensions between’ is the key phrase. Always ‘exploring the tensions between.’ I hate that stuff. It always takes me ages to write something, and it always comes out as drivel.”

“I mean it, though. Tell me about what this means to you.”

“Oh, but it’s all about what it means to you, right, fair ‘viewer’?”

“Is that what I am, then, a ‘viewer’? Talk to me as a person here in this room with me, not as a pretentious ar-teest.

She wasn’t offended. This is one of the things I adored about her—she was aggressively friendly. Disarming.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain, really.”

She was looking inside my left ear, gingerly feeling the texture and softness of the lobe. It took me weeks to find the right mix of rubber and resin. She let the silence urge me to fill it.

So many things came to mind—that I wanted to make something that felt magical, surprising, because everyone’s learned how to explain everything, and I feel like we’re losing our access to wonder; that through ultra-realism I can avoid the context of history and trends, and the interpretation and categorization of style, perhaps make something truly timeless; that I wanted to underscore and exaggerate my humanity—my humanity—and therefore confront our humanity; that I wanted to assert my personhood, whatever that is. But these words all came later. They are not the ‘why’—as if the ‘why’ we do anything is some simple story to tell, some cause to an affect, an answer to a riddle, an ordering of chaos.

“I feel lost.”

She’d picked up a piece of my lower lip from the workbench, feeling it with her thumbs.

“I think we all feel lost, right? It’s really… There was a day, probably around this time last year, where this is what I wanted to place in the world. I wanted to fill a room with my head—not just my head, but with…. This is what I wanted to say, and this is how I wanted to say it.”

“Are they serious? Do you think we can really do that, or is this just part of the art? Excuse me, sir—can we really…?”

Charles nodded. “Have at it. You can be the first. The artist just asks that you not take anything from the work with you.”

He heaved the sledgehammer from the floor, and Angela picked up the Sharpie.

Angie wuz here—right across his upper lip. Just like putting eyeliner on Chase for that drag party. Intimate—almost uncomfortably so.

Chase felt the weight of the hammer in his hands, looking for a good place to strike. But, god, it was too weird. Images of hate and oppression flew through his mind—he was raised from infancy knowing the sludge people can become. But, he also loved the adrenaline and catharsis of violence. Real violence of course is abhorrent. But virtual violence is different. What’s the harm, really? It’s part of the art. We’re supposed to. How often do you get to be a pioneer like this—the first to leave your mark?

He mustered his strength and whacked a modest dent in the side of its skull. The scalp remained unbroken, but there was a hint of a strange light where he’d struck, shining beneath the hair and skin. Chase quietly put the hammer back against the wall. He wasn’t sure which of his emotions was strongest, most important.

It took a minute for their eyes to adjust to the red-orange light filling the room, the color of a campfire, but steady, soft, unflinching. Stepping carefully over the fragments of black-marked skin that riddled the floor—one shining eye staring up at the ceiling, another shattered like a dropped plate—they walked inward. In the center of the carnage, the light was brighter, warmer, thicker—it seemed to fill their lungs, their bellies, their muscles. Their faces became hazy, simple. They held hands, embraced, smiled.