Perfect Present

by Andrew J. West

Eastlit June 2014. Perfect Present,. Picture by Vasan Sitthiket. Story by Andrew J West

This will be my masterpiece.

I dribble paint onto the canvas with my bare hands in a continuous viscous stream, allowing the magnet inside my soul to join with the Earth’s gravity to guide the oil’s fluid oscillations. Next, I kneel on the gallery floor and use my hands as brushes with my fingers as bristles. Flicking paint, then smearing it with the side of my palms as palette knives until, finally, digging furrows into the oil paint with my nails.

In a moment of inspiration I pick up the large canvas by the wood frame, taking hold of it by the stretching strips across the back and starting to spin with it over my head, twirling like a Whirling Dervish in ritual ecstasy. I start tossing the turning canvas in the air and catching it, dancing as though doing wild airsteps with the painting as my partner—with a swing soundtrack of saxophones and clarinets blaring—flinging it behind me, catching it and flipping it back, taking it by the edge and launching it upwards, landing it flat on the floor and sliding over it on my chest face first. Jumping up, I grab it by the corner and start to rotate, getting faster and faster until I can’t hold onto it any longer and we go crashing into opposite walls.

The audience lets out an enormous cheer as I get to my feet and giddily cross the gallery to examine the painting. The frame’s been cracked, but nothing that can’t be fixed.

No!

Better still, leave the marks of the painting’s violent birth visible for the world to see! Paint is everywhere, smeared all over both sides of the surface. It’s got fingerprints and handprints, a footprint where I’d trodden on it and there’s even an impression of my face where it came to rest. It looks like a Hindu swastika made by my flailing arms and floundering legs.

Perfect!

I place it in the middle of the space suspended from the ceiling of the Bangkok gallery so the crowd can view both sides of my visionary self-portrait. I look down at myself. I too am slathered in paint. I won’t clean it off—I’ve been ritually washed—baptized as a sacred artist by immersion in holy oil. I must stay exactly as I am now, with myself as part of the exhibition, maybe even hang myself from the centre of the gallery alongside this piece.

Yes!  Brilliant idea! That’s what I’ll do! Pure genius!

Looking at it is like looking at a mirror into myself. The paint shines out, phosphorescent pigments that illuminate the darkness of the bleak, surrounding world of grey half-tones, which is flat like a black and white photograph taken by an amateur on an overcast afternoon. The paint shouts loudly with words, but in a pitch so high the human ear can’t hear it, like ultraviolet light that can’t be seen by the human eye. It’s an inexpressible perception, an inconceivable knowledge, a telepathic thought.

To see it one doesn’t require sight, but insight. The photons of this light pass through me as though my body doesn’t exist, but my essence bathes in it, becoming itself visible, shining with the hidden light of immeasurable love emitted silently by the all and everything. I see myself for the first time as I truly am, an art god clothed in radiance with unlimited talent bestowed upon me.

I have the incomprehensible power to reveal the hidden light through art to those who’ve never seen it. Despite my concern that these people aren’t ready—that I might blind them with the brightness even I find so brilliant as to be almost unbearable—I must shine.

I get another framed canvas and hang it from the ceiling. Looking at the white cotton reminds me of another mirror, only this one is fogged up, fog which will be brushed away as I paint. But what shall I see? What will reveal itself on the other side?

Poetic truth only ever arises from within the artist: never from without. And it’s at its best when spontaneous, free from the chains of predictability.

I close my eyes and a vision appears projected on the canvas at the back of my eyelids—I see myself hanging in the gallery, with the painting I’d just finished and the one I’m about to begin hanging either side of me—some will no doubt say it’s a copy of the cliché of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross between two other criminals at Calvary, but these archetypal symbols repeat themselves throughout the ages without conscious intention.

I open my eyes and begin to paint, this time using a brush. I start with a quick sketch of the overall scene. I depict the crowd of spectators surrounding me. They have come to witness the miracle of my resurrection as a work of art, with faces illuminated as they turn toward me, insignificant satellites reflecting the light of the sun radiating at the celestial centre. Next, I paint the picture hanging either side of me, then concentrate on the focal point: the image of myself hanging in the centre of the canvas.

I paint myself holding the brush with which I’m painting myself posed as I am now with an arm outstretched toward the canvas, I paint myself holding the brush with which I’m painting myself posed as I am now with an arm outstretched toward the canvas, I paint myself holding the brush with which I’m painting myself posed as I am now with an arm outstretched toward the canvas, I paint myself holding the brush with which I’m painting myself posed as I am now with an arm outstretched toward the canvas, I paint myself holding the brush with which I’m painting myself painting myself painting myself painting myself painting myself endlessly… I’m creating a universe not of two dimensions or even three or four, but one of infinitesimal possibilities.

The audience lets out another raucous roar. I’m approached by someone dressed all in white I’ve seen hanging around on the art scene before, an art critic for Bangkok Post. The critic nods and shakes my hand.

What do you think of my performance?

Interesting, very interesting, replies the critic.

Interesting? You’re an art critic: can’t you say anything more interesting than that?

We’ll see. Would you like to show me the rest of your exhibition?

We move to the nearest piece and do a lap around the gallery. As we walk, the critic narrates his review.

Divining an artist’s outpouring of fantastic images from their childlike imagination is comparable to interpreting dreams through enigmatic physical forms. The tangible dreams of one such creator can now be decrypted at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) until the end of the month, affording audiences the opportunity to see themselves through the transforming eyes of the artist.

An artist’s dream may not be considered as revelatory as a prophet’s in ancient times, but the dream-inspired works of this artist retain the power to slip beneath the ego and into the id, performing the miracle of telling the modern world what is otherwise unknowable. Geniuses, saints and mystics have depended on dreams to enter their subliminal selves, returning in the morning with renewed inspiration and insights into reality, leaving little wonder why many artists also sidestep the limitations of the senses by turning their attention inward.

Through dreams artists scratch beneath the surface, something all artists strive to achieve, attempting to suffuse the pores of their canvas by boring into the world around them or deep into their own interior in an attempt to tap one of the scarce wellsprings from which acute meaning and originality are derived. Through such means, the artist escapes the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real, a powerful force driving almost every aspect of human life. And while most of us are unwilling or unable to disentangle ourselves from our empirical egos, this artist has taken up the challenge to present their own personal illusions to the world.

In this solo show at the BACC, the essence of existence is expressed in nothing more than paint splattered across canvas, metaphysical purity revealed by brushstrokes. Here, art draws upon the fount of creativity flowing beneath consciousness, finding inspiration on the edge of feeling, love, desire, darkness.

The critic finishes the review at the same time as we return to the centre of the gallery. Someone else nods at me and shakes my hand, passing me their card. It reads: Dr. James Liu, Director, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA 94102 U.S.A.

As I’d done with the critic, we do a lap of the gallery as the director speaks.

Forging a path in the highly competitive world of art is a challenging proposition for any artist, and many of the most talented from among the cohorts have fallen by the wayside. After investing years of their lives building their abilities, they have to tackle the difficult business of building their reputations in the hope of making a living as a professional artist, and very few of those who set out on this arduous journey succeed in reaching their ultimate goal. Indeed, many lose their minds along the way, as the fine line between illusion and reality we call art becomes blurred.

The risk involved when it comes to backing new talent, and deciding which talent to back, is no less problematic. It requires risking a great deal more than mere capital—we risk our reputations—and making the right call requires the acumen to anticipate the future before it arrives in the present. We need to discern the real artists who are the harbingers of things to come from those who represent nothing more than their own misguided egos. Worse still are those who present only their own distorted perception of themselves and the world. We need to catch these in our filter as we sift through the sea.

I feel… I know… that you and your work are harbingers, and on behalf of the Museum, I wish to acquire these three masterpieces—that is the two canvasses hung from the centre of the space and you yourself—and install you permanently on display in San Francisco…

As the director goes on opening and closing his mouth like a fish, his stream of words become so heavy they can no longer be dissolved in the air around us and they become bubbles that rise upward as the atmosphere around us thickens to the point where it liquefies and becomes unbreathable except through gills. It’s so dense it’s like being crushed at the bottom of a salty ocean, with untold tonnes of water pressing down on me from above. The director’s mouth finally opens so far his lips stretch around his head and down, an aperture consuming his entire body, leaving nothing but a howling bubble of rising air.

I look around at the paintings hung from the walls and the sculptures scattered here and there. They too begin to warp as they drift in the refracting water. The fore and background recede and swell together, contorting contours, distorting the walls of the gallery that begin to buckle under the oceanic weight.

People float, becoming parachutes. Suspended body parts detach from torsos and reattach randomly throughout the hybridised crowd. Women’s elongated arms are now where men’s legs should be. Men’s stretched heads are now where women’s arms should be. Ears, eyes, noses and mouths all sail freely through the gallery, finding and creating new mismatched faces for themselves arbitrarily. Eyebrows and moustaches trade places. Skins crawl. Sex organs abandon their owners and couple together in a writhing orgiastic assemblage.

The whole incongruous scene becomes a surrealist entanglement of anatomical transmutations, seemingly unending permutations of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, a compositional frenzy of disparate elements without stability, gleaming with vibrant intensity. But the fabric of the universe can’t sustain the kaleidoscopic mutations of motifs and symbols. It ripples, ripping into zigzag fragments. Reality itself becomes beleaguered, convulses, shatters and splits off into shards as the scaffold supporting the collage of the universe collapses and collides in a crumbling geometric heap of incoherent volumes.

The dislocated mess eventually melts into giant inkblots that settle down and separate into immense fields of dissolved colour, pigmented primordial layers that blend together until becoming a monochromatic mirage. At last I escape the forms, floating forever in the freedom of a colourless vacuum, so empty the waves of the monotone voice that had found resonance as they’d flowed within me become tendrils so stretched out they can no longer propagate and lose all meaning, decomposing echoes of muffled transmissions lost in the endless expanse of incomprehensible emptiness. And in the meaninglessness, at last I finally find the deep and true understanding of everything I’d spent my lifetime seeking and that is ultimately only to be found in the complete and utter silence of the perfect present.

Editor’s Note on Perfect Present:

You can view a larger picture of the drawing for Perfect Present by clicking on the picture at the top or going to Vasan Sitthiket’s Perfect Present Art.

Note on Author’s Work:

Perfect Present is not Andrew J. West’s first story in Eastlit. The following works have also been published in Eastlit:

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