Saturday, August 8, 2015

The View from Here part 3 "A Simple Wall"

The View from Here part 3
A SimpleWall

The View from Here” will be posted as a series. This post may contain material dealing with sensitive topics, Rate it “R”. Please be advised.

A Simple Wall

Invisible. Not apparent. Words alone give it back to us.

I sit at a dark wood desk, mostly turned away, mixing color or working on a small piece. Polo shirt and aviator glasses. Hanging on the far wall is viewed the corner of a still life painting - a table cloth's droop supporting small stones displayed like gray h'ourderves. I hold a paint brush in one hand, but have turned to face Ed, who's popped in and said "Hey!",  and caught me smiling at him. He gave me this print. I'm at art school, in my painting studio.

This black and white picture is here because of who worked on the other side of that plywood wall, seen at that edge on the left. I turn on some make-believe X-Ray vision trying to regain him from this snapshot that wont relent, ever.  Any vague smudge would do, really, any dim silhouette.  In my make believe see-through vision he is there among his stacked paintings, head bowed, lost, like me, and not lost. Claudio.

I rarely used a camera then, and was, regretfully, fanatical about that, drawing and painting were superior. And this complete lack of Claudio's image is  why I needed a substitute - not a picture of a man, but of one side of his space. Its so meager. Thirty years later not a single photograph of him can be found online.That baffles me considering what he managed to do in his intense life.

Times left me just a thin plywood wall as a symbol of a friend. Its strange.

If you look closely at that bland wall, you'll maybe see the thin paint marks left from the outer edges of the many paintings that were made, hung there on nails. Claudio's  features are like those ,... the eyebrows arching inquisitively, the almond eyes and fine, thick neck, are too sketchy, too unsure in my mind,  just the thinnest remnants. I'm peeling away the visual here, it's not easy.

Those little studios were buzzing with discussions and hushed intrigue, petitions and thesis rehashings, whispered gossip and loud disapprovals, tours and intensely focused analysis, all sorts of visitors would drop by, passing through that same space frozen there in Ed's picture.

One day L arry Rivers guest lectured and afterwards went to each of our studios to critique, or as we said, "crit" with us. Exactly here too, he grabbed my ass, but, only after he said nice and inspiring things about my black and white drawings in which he had a sensation of color, and explained by "color, he meant the quality of light. Larry wasn't my type. I didn't return his gropes. I digress, but this wall speaks.

Claudio made a big impression on me from the start. I was infatuated with his sweetness, sophistication and unerring eye for what matters in art, and his slightly goofy ways too. Claudio had a crew cut, when nearly all young men sported longer hair, and wore conservative clothing and seemed to me from a different world, Claudio was from South America. Maybe a beat behind and a beat ahead at once. That could have been because English wasn't his native language, its difficult to say really. His warm brown eyes penetrated you. He used these to discern, subtle values of all types of light, and translated the viewed world into his unique, created world - alive even now as I write, in collections and Museums that embody the epitome of Art's reach. Claudio's work remains appreciated by very many.

One snowy November night, soon after we met, he invited me into his bed, and I viewed those eyes very closely, kissing them, half closed in pleasure, wet his silk crewcut with kisses and gathered his physicality in my arms. sinew and glisting licks. And he was my first.

I withdrew from him afterwards, learning he was wilder, and experimental with his sexuality in a way I didnt like. It was awkward for awhile, still being infatuated. No, in love. I told him so that fall.
 "Are you sure?" he asked with empathetic concern, after we had disentangled.
" I don't know." I responded, getting my cue.
"That's good." he patted me.

Claudio was socially outgoing and everywhere at once. I sulked awhile. But our friendship remained.

He was intense while he worked. My night blindness fascinated him - he prodded me while I narrated and reported back details from my malfunctioning vision while we walked around. Claudio asked me again, and again, dim block after dim block..."What do you see you see the cars in the parkig lot?" Many of his canvases are of night.

He liked my work, as I did his, the only student in our class who worked representationally. I recall the class bursting into laughter when, at one critique, he nonchalantly brought in a painting of his own belly and penis, and he laughed when an instructor commented how phallic some of his shapes were. “Well, I like that shape! " He did indeed. If the talk got too philosophical, he'd drift.

He was sophisticated way beyond his years, and once had a boyfriend in France. He shook his head recalling how they were thrown out of a fancy restaurant in Paris, “Your not welcome, at our establishment" they were told by the maitre d' - two men were not permitted to dine together. Claudio s face was hurt and serious and insistent when I expressed doubt. In Paris?

  Behind a seemingly genteel and refined veneer, there could be a hostility directed at intimacy among people of the same sex. Under that gentle mask it lurked, just as cruel as any stereotyped macho, tire- iron swinging homophobic maniac's. I'd encounter this genteel version of homophobia later in life, but Claudio's painful story prepared me.

Fresh with the exhilaration of moving to New York and the expanse of art before us. Claudio took me to see a photography exhibit of Arthur Tress, that had many homoerotic tableaux recorded interestingly at the West Village piers, and he showed me the place, sagging and abandoned, peeling aqua paint scrawled with the graffaiti of Haring and countless others. alive with crowds of guys darting under a pried open gate looking for pleasure among the rooms and crumbling hallways, rooftops and platforms.

The senior students had the niceties of a private studio. We drew lots for the locations and by chance, or not, Claudio and I wound up next door. We'd talk together long into the night sipping bad coffee while we worked. We gossiped a lot and discussed men. From through that white wall, he related how his class had been drawing a nude model who got aroused in the middle of the session. and Claudio paused to get his breath... "The sunlight was, I dont know, just at this certain angle, so you could see a little moist drop sparkling at the tip - it glared like a diamond , it really just sparkled... and we were all giggling,...even you could see it Steven!"

I have a print of his, a view south out his studio's window there beyond that white wall. It depicts, of all things, the Twin towers -sketched in light gray near the bottom, with closer, darker buildings in the foreground. Our nearly identical view. With a small parallax. The little chimney on the nearby roof is gushing a white cloud of smoke or steam diagonally across the right tower far behind, cutting it in such an awful, prophetic, ironic way, enough to pause the contemporary viewer.

One of the last memories I have of him at Art school was near graduation, when we were presented with a portfolio of our classes' prints most of us had contributed to. We were in the office commenting about the works in the black binders, and he told me, as he flipped through them, one after the other, “Wait... I have to find one with a good example of your etching,” I was so flattered by that, and hold that remark close to me, like I touch his lithograph's edge now, the subtle bumps of the carefully ripped paper's cottony edge- 11 of 20-  

 That first summer I ran into Claudio by chance at a Gay Pride March, and , it must have been my first one I guess,  all of us surged over to an empty dumpster, and banged  its sides with our fists. I see him still,  his face ecstati,. pounding  the metal, his concussions blending with our crescendo of disobedience to discrimination, that took decades to finally extinguish.  We gathered there, pausing, all the throngs, to drum home our rage at being thrown out of restaurants, at injustice.

I  visited him at his Soho loft, back when artists used to live there. Clauidio was by then espoused, and I met his lover once, a softspoken businessman. I admired their eclectic art collection, and remarked about the Haring (or Scharf, I'm not sure) on the wall, and he laughed, saying he didn't like it either. His studio there was awesome, I sighed thinking about painting in my living room in the Bronx.

He came to visit me there, but seemed troubled, both clinging and distant. It  wasn't lke him and I remembered how he had felt returning from a family wedding saddened, telling me how his family glared with hatred at him. "Like they wanted to bomb me." His mood was the same that afternoon. he pulled his words out of a newer place, a slower, reflective place.

We hadn't seen each other for years. He encouraged me, laughing along with myself, at my insecurities, but told me little about himself. Nothing about those missing years. I'd get it, later,  the stellar rise, the vast accomplishments, he just smiled softly. It meant nothing. He was, that afternoon, entirely present, entirely devoid of careerism or bragging. I told Claudio that even when we were at school from the first, I'd always felt he'd be very successful and make it in the art world.  We smiled together.

His friendly  intamacy focused, he caressed my ear, we both stared deeply,  entranced, burning it all into our minds. He was a substantial man, I was very happy. Our faces drew near, his neck and dark hair. He slowly leaned close and tried to kiss me. But I didn't want that. Claudio was very sexual, but this time there was something not quite accurate. I remember being surprised and worried too, at Claudio's unexpected pass. It wasn't as simple as that- I felt it. Composing himself he sighed and coughed and fixed his collar, apologizing profusley, but it wasn't necessary, I hugged him tightly. Something was really bothering him. We kissed goodbye at my door- his sad face-  burning me into his scopee- as he did the forms of the world- with such intensity, you felt drained and lonely when his gaze left you. Thinking back, re-hashing it, I should have understood. 

Claudio fell away from my thoughts for awhile after Stacy's diagnosis with HIV, and her death, and soon after, I contracted Hepatitis from caring for her. More equally bad things happened and I struggled to keep my head afloat.  It was an exhausting period for me and my parents. The first Christmas without my sister was unspeakable.

We finally decided just to drive to a nearby Inn, to have Christmas dinner there, near the warmth of it's enormous fireplace. It was all we could handle, Christmas morning Mom made pancakes and cried with Dad. Sitting down later by the couch getting ready to go to dinner, I browsed a recent "Art in America" magazine, desperate to find some comfort in art, in humanity's aspirations.

I saw it in the obituaries. Among the art notables who died that month, was Claudio's death notice. There was collapse. I just stopped breathing. I didn't even know he'd been sick. "Oh Noooo Noooo " I yelled running into my sister's empty bedroom,, my hand squeezed against my mouth, stifling my screams of shock, lying under her Patti Smith poster, and wept, heaving in pain that mixed with, and added yet another stupefying level to mourning, both griefs merged into one ballooning monster. But Claudio's demise was camouflaged, Dad and Mom I'd never tell- not for years anyway-of my news that Christmas morning.

Claudio had asked our mutual friend, that I never be told of his illness then a death sentence. It was Claudio's last shared gesture - a gift, for me, of protection.

And all three of us struggling, to gaze stupidly at the little Holiday lights, and gingerbread castles in the window of the Inn.

Copyright © Steven Erra 2015 All rights reserved.

Some names and details may have been changed. 

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