The Black Paper Battle
Gus Romero IV VS Seven Vegas
Steven Lee Matz
Yellow is my least favorite color, so syrupy, so needy, and yet the tiles of my bathroom shower are a pale vintage yellow which is oddly comforting. It's fitting, at least on this night, that I should find solace in a color I generally avoid, because something is telling me it's time for a paradigm shift. So I sit, Indian style, in the tiny yellow shower, thinking about the desires which drive me as an artist, as a man, and I wonder... can I ever change what motivates me?
A hot shower is the best hypnotist. The enchanting chorus of a few thousand drops of water helps me trace back the lineage of my folly. There he is, that cute little bastard, that quiet boy I was. In a new school, with no friends, fourth grade can be pretty daunting, but with a green crayon, anything is possible. The Frankenstein Monster on my desk was coming along nicely. I was already signing my last name with big boxy letters when I realized there was a ring of classmates 'round my desk. I didn't know any of their names yet, but as I looked down at Franky, it was as if his heavily lidded eyes sparkled and winked. "Yeah kid," he grumbled, "you see what this means, right?" I nodded to myself, thinking I didn't have to worry about being quiet, or shy. All I had to do was draw, and friends would come my way. How could I have known what a dangerous thought that was? Fourth grade! All you know at that age is that loneliness sucks, and BEING alone can be scary. But, in the land of POPularity, kids have the comfort of numbers, are embraced, even revered, and that place among the denizens could be mine for the price of a drawing.
Later that night, while thumbing through an Archie comic, I thought, Jughead Jones is probably a closet artist. If he just admitted it, his crown would magically transform into a charming artsy thing instead of a dorky weird thing. He could be lazy and voracious simultaneously. Maybe ketchup could be a part of it somehow. And, that was the start of it all for me. Imagining how different Jughead's life could be was me, reinventing me. Somewhere deep down inside, I knew it was too good to be true. It had to be a set up, but I just didn't have enough life experience to pinpoint how these kinds of dreams would spiral out of control.
With a slurp, and that telltale vortex of water, I reposition myself in the yellow shower. My butt had sealed the drain, and water levels risen to alarming heights. California, I'm sorry, but the drought is over. I sigh. Here comes the montage of young life back projected onto my closed eyelids. I watch the flickering till we land in the early 2000's. I'm 28, and this Italian bombshell says she loves me too. 29, and we're drunk and fighting all the time. 30, and she's saying, "you still have your art," as she walks away. That's the rub. I've heard it so many times. You still have your art. Small consolation to still have myself. For a second there, I snap out of this train of thought, and immediately begin tracing the grout between the yellow tiles of the shower like I'm Jack Torrence searching the labyrinth for old Danny Boy. That little runt needs to take his medicine. Do ya hear that ya little pup?
Still, if she hadn't left me...
30, and she says, "you still have your art."
I wonder if she ever stopped to think, later in life, what power she wielded by plucking the strands of those five threadbare words out of the ether. She was right after all, I did still have my art, though at that stage in the game I had no idea what to do with it. This same woman, who I loved immensely despite our inability to get along, had given me a Juxtapoz magazine a few months prior to our winter break up. Having spent my entire life in a small rural town, the discovery of this thing called Pop Surrealism was like a revelation to me. I poured over every page, even the ads. I couldn't believe it. There was a sort of movement for my age, and it was comprised of everything I loved. Something stirred in me, and I thought, what if the only difference between me and these artists is time? Hours. Thousands upon thousands of hours. That is where my inner Jughead slumped down a little, cowering at the thought of the uphill climb. But, what did I have to lose? Nothing. I had nothing and would remain nothing if I didn't try to be something. That was why she left me after all, wasn't it? Because I lacked ambition. I think the bickering was only a symptom of being let down. That's when I discovered that love depends on a lot of things, but a pivotal element is mutual admiration.
I wanted her to admire me. Of course, I wallowed in misery for a good month or two, but at the end of my mourning period was a fairy tale I'd been nursing. What if our hero could win back the maiden by making a better life for himself? I played out a million scenarios in my mind. All of the practical ones would take too long to develop, and there'd be no hope of lassoing her back into my life. Even the craziest idea seemed a better gamble, besides, as an artist, I already had foundation. Maybe her last words for me were more than just a cliche. Maybe it was the universe, telling me this my boy, this art is all you got. So, I put my nose to the grindstone, all the while dreaming of my own personal Sophia Loren. I couldn't give her up without a fight. She had to know, at least I tried. I didn't just surrender. And, within a matter of months I landed my first group show at a gallery called BGH at the Bergamott Station in Santa Monica. I thought I'd made it big time. I fantasized about my Italian bombshell walking into the gallery just as some rich collector absolutely had to have my portrait of her. This fantasy played out ad nauseum, but it got me through the jitters.
I snap to in the yellow shower again, but only because I could have sworn I just heard Sir Alec Guinness saying something about a damned fool idealistic crusade. Wrong genre, Alec. I never wanted to save the universe, just my relationship. But, I know what you mean. My fingers are beginning to prune. There's that labyrinth again. Somewhere in that swollen spiral is a microscopic axe dragging through a soapy snowfall. I am that filthy little pup, and that haunted maniac too. I don't know which is worse. Although my bombshell did attend that show, and was very proud of me, nothing came of it. Not even a stepping stone. And so, upon returning to my rural home town, I had only the sense that I'd seen my first glimpse of a life I had no idea how to perpetuate. I was back in the land of dairy farms, wineries, and for me, utter hopelessness.
Sensing another pending montage, I close my eyes and let the hot water do its trick. 30 years old, weeping in bed like a baying wolf. 30 years old, and literally losing my mind. Hearing things, seeing things, terrified that I might not make it back from this terrible depression. I couldn't tell anyone I was tumbling down the rabbit hole, not even myself. But, there, in the abyss, was a vision. It was the most terrifying thing I'd ever endured, but at the end of it, I knew what I had to paint. My whole life I'd been avoiding this instinct because I was more Jughead than Clinton. Well, Clinton was about to disappear if I didn't give him my all, and do away with every last crumb of laziness. I'd seen something in my madness. A woman, a gigantic steel woman. She was part of a dream, and afterward I knew I was born to turn people into monuments like her. I wanted more of these great Sphinx like beings to survey the epochs of man, and house the collective voices of all who passed beneath their shadows.
I built a portfolio in no time, invigorated by desperation.
It was only a matter of months before I landed a job in Long Beach California as a graphic artist, and was finally in a position to get involved in this movement called Pop Surrealism. Quickly I joined the Cannibal Flower art troop, and we boot-camped our asses through two to three shows per month, not to mention all the shows I landed of my own merit. There was no time for sorrow or regret or furniture studded rabbit holes. And, even though I still longed to earn the admiration of my lost love, I was finally gaining ground, putting some distance between myself and that absurd fantasy that I would win her back.
Or, was I....
Four years and as many girlfriends later, and it wouldn't have taken much prodding for me to admit I was still in love with the one who got away. I'd gone through a blue period, transitioned into plum, and yet the bruise was still alive. Full circle now, I find myself back in the yellow shower, watching the water swirl 'round the drain much the way I've been circling the inevitable. There's a reason I'm on this sentimental journey, a reason why I've been wondering if a man can ever truly rid himself of the motivations he's embraced.
I once was a boy who wanted to be popular, then a man who wanted to be loved. Guess you could say that was always the dream. While some artists wanted fame or fortune, I was more concerned with fairy tales. Sounds benign, but trust me, it isn't. While in the deepest recesses of my mind I knew this wasn't healthy, I wasn't up to altering deep seeded motivations. That would require a whole new toolkit. Little did I know, just around the bend was a lady with the power to eclipse all rational thought, not that I ever possessed much to begin with. It was my fifth year away from home when I landed a job at the airport, assisting the elderly and disabled. When I first laid eyes on her my heart did a cartwheel like it was seeing a very sexy old friend. Strangest feeling. She was a gate agent, and I, a wheelchair runner. This brought us in contact on a regular basis, and though she had a boyfriend, I felt a touch of destiny each time I saw her. So, I put myself within her orbit, the quiet, bookish man, always somewhere she might notice. Hannibal Lecter may be the product of Thomas Harris' madness, but we cannot argue against his wisdom on how we begin to covet. It's kind of like fishing. Only you're the bait.
And, though my career as an artist was definitely on the rise, the love affair between myself and an Angel would outshine everything I knew about desire. Before I knew it, I lost interest in painting. I didn't have time for anything save that delicious need to bask in love. No longer yearning to win the admiration of my hometown girl, I went through a litany of excuses: I'd proven enough to myself, hadn't I? I'd escaped the country life, immersed myself in the L.A. art scene. Hell, I'd even shown alongside the likes of Robert Williams. Okay, he only had one painting in the show, but still. I wasn't famous yet, but I had lived the romance of that life to the fullest. Now, I wanted a different kind of romance. I wanted an Angel who made my life seem aglow.
Maybe it would have stayed that way if I had remembered any of the lessons my hometown girl taught me about ambition, and mutual admiration. Silly man, I slipped on a John Lennon lyric, and fell flat on my face singing all you need is love. When Paul McCartney dies, I hope he slaps John for me, because I'm here to tell you, love is not enough. You need a lot more to make a relationship work. You need things any artist will tell you he or she is bereft of. Things like stability, for one. Not the mental kind, but the future building safety net kind, that brand of stability which staves off calamity and struggle. Suddenly, I recall one of the other things my bombshell said to me right before she said, "you still have your art."
She held up her left hand and made it abundantly clear there was no ring on that finger, thank you Beyoncé, and told me that this is what most sensible women want: a husband who can meet her halfway or better, a home, and eventually, a family. I had provided none of these things. All I've ever brought to the table was romance.
Romance... the word sits on my tongue like some bitter pill that reeks of eucalyptus, some invasive flavor, the kind that eventually finds its way out of your pores like low quality gin. Ugh. Why hadn't I remembered earlier? Why hadn't I immediately went to work on myself to be that kind of man? Instead, I dropped my career as an artist, trading a real dream for a fantasy, and in doing so, probably lost the one thing I really had going for me. Rapture is a funny thing. It's blinding. Or, maybe I'm just terribly flawed. I certainly am one of those incredibly present people; present to the point of excluding all thought towards the future.
It was 2012, and everybody was talking about that damned Mayan calendar, ancient prophecies of apocalypse and the return of the Annunaki. Ha. The only thing that ended that year was my relationship with an earthly Angel, but it might as well have been the end of the world to me. This was unlike any break up I had ever experienced, mainly because we worked together, and I would have to see her with my replacement for years to come. Were it not for my creative side, I may have crumbled to dust. I wrote through the next couple of years, screenplays mounting on my desk, five stacks high. I'd never finished a story before, and I was beginning to think this could be my ticket. But, talk about being a little fish in a big ass shark tank. Man, I was in over my head. After throwing money at bullshit schemes, and jumping through the hoops till my legs gave out, I finally accepted the old wisdom, it's not about what you know, it's about who you know. But, who does a small town boy actually know? Then it dawned on me. Artists. I know artists. And, so it was that a couple of years after losing my Angel, I picked up my brushes again. Bassackwards guy that I am, I donned the moniker of Pop Surrealist in the hopes of meeting the Who in Who you know.
Finishing the screen plays taught me I had no boundaries beyond those in my imagination, and I took on a challenge that made sense to me. I would try to emulate the techniques of concept art, while pursuing my own vision of a beautiful apocalypse. Three more years down the line, and I'm only now beginning to see the fruits of that decision. I've learned a lot. Enough to make Felix the Cat sneer jealously at my bag of tricks. And, there's an eternity of space left in that bag, all the techniques I have absolutely no idea about. But, what about the space within myself, the one occupied by unrequited love? Isn't that what has me pruning in the shower, lost in a maudlin funk? Because this night I learned something, and it's a game changer.
Tonight, I found out my Angel is leaving the airport. She's landed a better job. She's going places. Most importantly, she's going places I won't be able to see. No more glimpses from afar. No more swooning despite myself. When I heard of her imminent departure, the strangest thing happened to me. I was standing in the vast space of terminal A, packed to the gills with passengers, when suddenly the entire place appeared vacant to me. It was as if every living body disappeared. All accept myself, searching the terminal for her. I realized I'd no longer catch a whiff of her perfume, never feel that stab of yearning, or that spark of fleeting pride in the woman she has always been. My day was usually constructed of such moments. True, she'd hurt me, but she was always forgiven. Always. That's when you know you really had something special, when you can set them free and love them all the same.
Knowing she'll be gone.... It was as if a voice I had suppressed was finally speaking up, saying, "You know all your self improvement was for nothing, right?" And, that's the ton of bricks. Nothing had changed. I was still using art to try to win back love. The boy with the green crayon was still depending on art to make everything right in his world.
I'm 44 now, turning off the hot shower, and listening to the last of the water as it funnels down the drain.
Habibi. That's what she called me. It means sweetheart.
Funny how a heart can be too sweet.
As I step foot out of the shower and begin to towel off, I know I've never loved myself enough to achieve what I have.
But, I loved them. My Bombshell who set me off, and my Angel who gave me respite.
I loved them so much I've come full circle, back to Bergamott Station, only now I'm in Chet Zar's Conjoined shows at Copronason Gallery. This gallery is partially owned by the man so instrumental in developing Juxtapoz, the magazine that changed my life. On my first Conjoined show I mustered the courage to stutter my abbreviated story to Mr. Greg Escalante. I likely failed gloriously to relate to him what a journey it was to reach the moment when I shook his hand. That night though, I kept thinking of my Bombshell. She's married now, with a child, and we will never have our happy ending, but I am so very glad that she has found hers. I texted her that night, just to let her know how far my love for her had taken me. She was very proud. What I didn't tell her is this: wanting her only pushed me half way there. It was my Angel who drove me on to this amazing life I barely dreamed possible.
And, now I know... our fairy tales gave my life meaning.
Our fairy tales continue to do so.
I don't care if it's lonely, absurd, unhealthy, pathological, or just downright sap. It's a dream. Until something more beautiful comes along, I'm lucky to have it. I'm lucky to have ever loved or been loved by women so brilliant they powered me to achieve the impossible. Any artist would be thankful for that kind of fuel. How do you think we make it through the thousands and thousands of hours?
"I will wait for you till the day I can forget you, or till the day you realize you cannot forget me."
A great specter is looming over the art world: the specter of Inter|Sekt. For far too long we have watched the artists of our generation turned into a disposable commodity, bought and sold by the galleries, stifled in their expression by the tastes of the art consultants who purchase pieces on behalf of financially minded clients who want a "solid investment".
They have been amalgamated into schools, said schools are a device of gallerists and art historians to divide and conquer the creatives and free thinkers.
For we live in a nation which thinks itself to be free yet is not, they expect the same of their artists.
Our culture has been raped and plundered by the upper echelon, picked apart and sold by the same greed mongers who claim to be it's patrons. The tool which has most effectively stunted the growth of modern American art in particular is the clever indoctrination of this idea of schools to not only the art student but anyone whom even reads a brief survey of the history of art sees that it is broken up into these categorized schools; the philosophies of these various sects creates conflict, division, and ultimately destruction of the morale and submission to the established order. Thus rendering the creative spirit confused and useless.
This helps curb the rebellious spirit of the average citizen outside of the art world in other spheres of society.
Art history is a lie and galleries are dens of thieves!
Inter|Sekt is not destroying the schools or the galleries, we are simply showing you they were never real, at least not in a world outside of that constructed by academics to sell text books to art students.
The reign of the gallerists and art consultants is over when you want it to be.
From the ashes of the indoctrinated schools of every form of art shall arise The New World Creative.
-Steven Lee Matz-
The inter|sekt manifesto