by Andrew J. West
It is spontaneous, uncontrollable, automatic. The paint wells up and vomits out like fire, a volcanic vision that has been churning and seething inside me, producing an alchemy of art that explodes with blind, uncontrollable power. Why scratch the surface of life when I can dig deep into my heart and tunnel through a wormhole across the universe into the core of tormented existence?
The brush moves frantically by itself across my ivorine canvas as though my jaundiced eyes are closed: there is no difference between dreams and reality. My wrists rotate automatically. They know how the unpainted picture will appear when complete, though my mind does not. This is an hallucination, a waking dream—a vision I see of myself—a self-portrait of an artist given palpable life by striking, vivid colours, gestural brushstrokes, immortalised in a moment of insanity, of both exquisite pleasure and excruciating pain.
In deep REM sleep, I dream of building impastos, a mountain of paint growing ever larger and higher. But, in frustration with the slow progress I’m making with the brushes, I toss them amongst the tubes of oil and tools on the bench of my Bangkok artist’s studio and pick up tubes at random, whichever comes to hand first, squeezing them empty one after the other and smearing it on myself until there is nothing, not a drop left to squeeze.
I dig out the cans of common house paint from under the bench and pour the coloured contents one after the other over my head slowly, letting it coagulate, building layer upon layer, coat upon coat, covering every inch of my body, only leaving little holes for my eyes and slit for my mouth. Am I a picture, a sculpture or a garishly painted clown? I’m turning myself into a work of art, a living, breathing artwork with my skin as the canvas, my body as the armature. But why stop here? Why stop at the surface when I can paint myself inside as well. I have to if I’m ever to transfigure myself into a luminous, inspiring, poetic work of art.
There is one last can open on the bench. As I try to bend over to pick it up, I find it nearly impossible to move. My feet are glued to the floor and my body covered in paint so thick it’s as if I’m encased in plaster after some petrifying trauma. But I must pickle myself with paint inside as well as out.
I summon all my physical strength, bending my wrist and the trunk of my body, and am just able to reach the handle. Slowly, I lift the can to my lips. Upending it, paint pours out across my face, covering me in a death mask that obliterates the outside world in a blanket of absolute darkness.
Am I a mummified monstrosity escaped from an extremity beyond mind and matter, from the grim nether regions on the far side of body and soul? I only want to become light, brighter than the brightest beam, shining amongst the triple stars. I’ve entombed myself not as part of an obscene pantomime, but to find a way to shine the brightest, which I shall when my soul leaves my body.
The precious paint has gone completely hard. I can’t move a muscle. I can’t feel anything at all, as though embalmed. I can’t hear a thing, with paint blocking my ears. Only a distant muffled noise enters my cavity, more through the floor and my feet than ears. It’s a dim sensation, like bathing in the bath of amniotic fluid in the womb of a sleeping mother, hearing her heartbeat and nothing else, a rhythmic drumming that is slowly smothered by the overwhelming oblivion. I’m lost in the divine darkness of this hermetically sealed coffin, a world of nothingness, where all my senses count for nothing, as though my body has died but my mind has lived on in the grave.
I’m seized with terror at the sense of suffocation. A thousand fears flood up from deep within the core of my unconscious and drown me in pool of piteous pain and intolerable madness. Ghastly demonic beings assault me with malicious spells, packs of hungry wolves tear the meat from my bones, a stampede of blind bison trample me under hoof, the Evil Eye stares malevolently, a pantheon of wrathful gods curse me, the God of Love forsakes me, giant snakes constrict around me, ferocious crocodiles rip me apart, a horde of murderous barbarians surround and cut me to pieces, a blood-thirsty patriot murders me in the name of a capitalist regime, flames of damnation shoot up from the foul pit of Hell and burn me for the unforgivable sins I was born to commit, I’m instantly incinerated by the nuclear holocaust of an insane Armageddon, a coven of infant-eating witches transform me into an ass for coitus, I’m tortured by a fanatical inquisitor who rams a white hot razor-edged sword up my rectum to gain a confession before burning me at the stake, I’m tortured by despots fighting for “freedom”, a cannibal ogress bites off my member, a heinous Catholic priest sodomises me as a child, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tear me limb from limb, zombies consume my flesh, puritanical hypocrites watch me starve to death on the street outside their condo, the Gorgon’s gaze turns me to stone… wraiths, dictators, ghostly foes, militarists, ghouls, presidents and phantoms of every kind of Terror incarnate assail me. But madness is nothing more than secret knowledge, and these symbols of evil can be defeated with other symbols. I concentrate upon the mystical mandala, focusing on the centre point of the spiraling wheel of spinning squares within circles; the five-pointed star of the Pythagorean pentagram enclosing another inside it, enclosing another inside it, enclosing another and another to infinity; the ten geometrical spheres of Sefirot’s secret garden that permeate and extend into the multidimensional universe; the polygon’s squaring of the circle and, though gaining ever more sides, never approaches infinity and never becomes a perfect circle—all combining and mesmerizing me until the flood of evil gradually recedes. Once the last evil being is cast from consciousness, I’m left at last to face the greatest fear of all: myself, only myself, lost in the enigmatic limbo of pure nothingness.
Such a self-portrait!
Time and space stop.
I’m not sure if I’m alive or not but I’ve left my body. My formless essence is floating away into a paradox. Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. I’ve ceased to exist. A ray of light appears above me and I drift towards it, reborn. As I ascend, it intensifies and intensifies as I fly faster and ever faster, approaching the velocity of light, until, upon reaching it, it becomes the beginning and the end. It is absolute and I, invisible in its compassionate presence, am indivisible from the blazing white luminance in this endless empty space that exists for an instant that flows on for eternity.
Editor’s Note on Self-Portrait:
You can view a larger picture of the drawing for Self Portrait by clicking on the picture at the top or going to the Vasan Sitthiket’s Self-Portrait Art.
Note on Author’s Work:
Self Portrait is not Andrew J. West’s first story in Eastlit. He also had The Mansion published in the June issue of Eastlit, Art of Evil in the August issue and The Puppet Tree in the October issue. The December issue of Eastlit featured The Student.