To Brooklyn and back again

Two Trucks, with Tools

Anyone who doubts that painting is mostly a physical engagement with the world should have followed me around the past three days. I drove to Chelsea, to help another painter, Rush Witacre, build a set of storage shelves at Viridian Artists on 28th St. As a member there, I donate 40 hours of labor every year—doing whatever needs doing when I can get into the city for it. When I joined Viridian, our director, Vernita N’Cognita, asked me, “Are you handy?” I should have known better than to be honest about it. Three days ago, just before I left, I stood in our kitchen and took that photograph (up above) of my cargo for the visit to Manhattan. A power drill, extra batteries, a stud finder, a level, tape measure and—oh yes—a painting for “Moved,” the show opening next month to celebrate our new space, a few blocks north of where the gallery had been located for a decade. It was a move I’d helped the gallery make in July by loading heavy objects into Rush’s four-door pickup truck and then lugging them up to the new space, in a building wedged between a Porsche/Bentley/Rolls Royce dealership on one side and, on the other, Scores, the strip club Howard Stern helped put on the map. Directly next door to our building was what appeared to be an apartment complex called Art +, with a motto painted onto the street-level window: “Chelsea, the birthplace of creative modern art and the home of bad behavior.” I’ve been a member-level supporter of both of those causes, at one time or another, so I feel at home when I’m here.

It takes about five hours to drive to Manhattan from our Rochester suburb, which almost seems like a commute to me now, I’ve done it so many times. Yet our first afternoon of work was a lesson in the relative meaning of mileage. In his four-door truck, Rush had delivered a table saw on wheels, and the miter saw he carried from Brooklyn, placing it on a seat beside him on the subway—as well as a high-torque Hitachi power drill and several boxes of drywall screws. So, when I walked into the gallery, we could have started cutting and hammering immediately, but two dapper young men were busy setting up the gallery computers and Rush didn’t want to create a cloud of dust around their work area. As I walked into the gallery, he came up to me and said, “These two guys are both blind! One of them keeps leaning up to the computer screen and holding up a magnifying glass to it.” He was right. The computer technicians were blind, though, one of them had   minimal vision in one eye, with the help of the magnifying glass. He’d also loaded a program that spoke—in one of those droning, affectless computer voices—the name of anything he touched with the cursor. After three hours of work the two of them got the computers assembled and Viridian back onto the Internet without a hitch. They both had master’s degrees and had developed a reputation as computer consultants, and they charged only $15 per hour–which was the key to their arrival. Viridian runs on the contributions of its artists and the budget is tiny. What had first seemed like a Monty Python skit turned out to be an inspiring moment in a pretty wayward day—though I have to admit this particular geek squad was a little funny to watch, as polite and formally dressed as Jehovah’s Witnesses, wandering off arm-in-arm, the one with minimal vision in one eye tapping his collapsible staff ahead of them down the hall to the elevator.

“Let’s go to Home Depot and get everything today rather than start building,” Rush said.

I did a double-take on the words Home Depot. In my area code, that big orange necessity of life comes in one size and shape: huge and sprawling and single-story, with a massive parking lot and trucks you can rent. And, best of all, it’s five minutes from my driveway.

“Home Depot? Where? New Jersey?”

“There’s one on 23rd St.,” he said, and I laughed out loud. A Home Depot a few blocks down from the Hotel Chelsea. What would Bob Dylan would have bought if the Home Depot had been there back in the day when he lived at the hotel? Or Sid Vicious, Charles Bukowski, Larry Rivers . . . duck tape, anodized nails, joint compound? (They do sell alkyd paint, come to think of it. Paint thinner. Linseed oil. Picture hanging wire. So Larry could have shopped there.)

Rush hadn’t brought his truck to the city, so I pulled up to the gallery in my Acura sedan, and he jumped in, and we drove to 23rd, where he got out and left me to guard the car against an out-of-town sedan’s chief predator: the city tow truck. These trucks need to eat twenty times their weight every day, as far as I can tell, and, like sharks, they survive only by staying in continuous motion. I think they don’t actually stop in order to drag an illegally parked car up onto their bed—they just slow down and snag the car and winch it up as they go. (They work that fast, anyway.) Last time in town, up in the gallery’s old space talking to Vernita, I’d left my car unattended for ten minutes, and it was rolling off toward 11th Avenue by the time I emerged. So I had to spend two hours waiting to bail out my car from the city’s huge cavernous warehouse on the Hudson River where all the purloined vehicles seemed to be coated with a thick layer of volcanic ash. There was no way I’d be getting out of my car at the curb this time around. This Home Depot looked like a department store, with orange flags bearing the logo, and display windows where they had positioned barbecues, bags of charcoal, and a pyramid of paint cans. It was surreal. Two kids, a guy in sunglasses with dreadlocks pulled back into a knot behind his head and a crunchy-looking girlfriend, were sitting on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign: We’re trying to get back upstate. When Rush came back out pulling a dolly loaded with lumber, I popped open the trunk and we slid most of the two-by-four boards through the pull-down armrest space in the back seat so they nearly made it impossible to shift the stick, and then slid the rest of them diagonally through the back window down onto the floor matt of the passenger seat up front. A suited pedestrian actually stopped and stood there, smiling with skepticism, watching us load my car with lumber.

“Hey, sometimes you have to improvise,” I said. “It works.”

“Yeah, but that’s a nice car,” he said.

“Oh, it’s gotten more abuse than this,” I said.

As we drove back to Viridian, I said, “I can’t believe they sell lumber in Chelsea. Those paint cans in the window cracked me up. Like, what, somebody’s going to walk by and see them and go, Hey, I don’t know why but suddenly I feel like buying a gallon of Ralph Lauren cabinet paint.”

“They couldn’t cut the plywood to a size that would fit into the car,” he said. “They don’t cut anything. We’ll have to go somewhere else for the MDF.” (Medium density fiberboard apparently has become plywood’s nemesis.)

When we got back, Vernita–looking elegant and a little fey, in her black skirt and suede, lace-up heels–said, “There was an earthquake. Did you feel it?” We shrugged. We had shelves to build. After some desultory brainstorming with Vernita, we decided to head to Brooklyn. So Rush and I walked to the subway, passing a film crew doing a segment of a new TV series, Person of Interest, where Rush grilled one of the gaffers standing on the sidewalk—whose name tag read Scumbag/Ray, apparently his job title and name—and got a reference to call about landing a job as an extra in a film. (Any way to make some money, when you’re a painter.) As I was getting ready to buy a Metro Card at the subway station, a worker came out through the service door, which took about three minutes to self-close, so we ducked through it for a free ride to his borough. It was about thirteen stops to the Church St. station, and it took an entire hour to get there, and Rush used the time to tell me about his life and career so far, as other riders tried not to listen.

Rush moved to New York City from Cincinnati a month ago. He’s been married and divorced twice. On the day his first divorce was finalized, he had dinner at a Chinese restaurant with his new ex-, and his fortune cookie said, “This is your lucky day.” He taped it to the inside of his wallet, where it still reminds him to be happy he’s single. His second marriage also lasted only about a year and ended, as well, when he discovered his wife was cheating on him. Just before his move to Brooklyn, he finished his Ph.D. in fine arts. His college career is long in the tooth:  five different degrees: biology, bio-chem, and then the three fine arts degrees, bachelor, master, doctor. Ten years at Washington State Community College, 1.5 years at Maryville College in Tennessee, two at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and the final two at the University of Cincinnati’s graduate school.

First of all, Rush is essentially a lumberjack, about six-four, 260 pounds, and he tends to wear baggy cargo shorts, oversized running shoes and a dark t-shirt. He works big partly because he is big: his signature project in school tended toward massive installations involving furniture, lumber, hundreds of fasteners, power tools, yarn, and just about anything that could be used to create a sense of inhabitable space. Yet he was so prolific and overly ambitious with his concepts he constantly butted up against his advisors and the head of the graduate program, who kept saying, essentially, “You know how much this is going to cost?” It didn’t matter to them that he’d saved up $11,000 and was willing to spend his own money to finish a particular project. It didn’t matter that they were trying to look out for him: the irresistible force kept meeting the immovable object. It made him angry. To sell them on his idea for a “grow room” people could walk into and through, he built a maquette and used his cell phone attached to a stick to create a short film of what it would be like to wander through what looked like a cross between a greenhouse and a subway car. When you see the film, it’s amazingly illusory—you really have the sense of being inside a windowed building of some kind. They nixed it. So he built a crashing wave, a huge tsunami constructed of small plastic chairs manufactured for elementary schools—the little ones kids use during an assembly or around a work table. His most prized idea didn’t fly either: he wanted to build a loom and position it as the centerpiece of an installation created by a team of other artists from the program or visitors to the exhibit. They would each be given a backpack holding a huge roll of colored yarn, with one loose end of the spool attached to the loom, and they would be handed instructions on how to walk through the exhibit, weaving a single filament of color behind themselves, along their path—like spiders—or else they would be told to improvise and find a path themselves. Eventually the yarn would cover the floor of the entire room, nearly a foot deep, and Rush would call a halt to the show, and then spray the entire surface of the floor with Elmer’s glue.

“It’s archival,” he said, “I bet you didn’t know that.”

No, I did not know that. “But it would be clear enough?” I asked.

“It wouldn’t alter the color. You could then remove this huge block of yarn and exhibit it other places with a film or photographs of the installation when it was being built.”

As he told me about the project, it occurred to me that the imagery of this concept could be interpreted as a clever, whimsical commentary on  Communism, or Capitalism, for that matter—the Industrial Revolution began in textiles, and Engels’ father owned a textile company. And the image of these artists turned into workers could be construed to have other subtle implications: are they tethered to a controlling machine or are they rebels and creating their own, individual paths, or both? The postmodernists could ask whether these individuals were really creating their own pattern of color or are they just appendages of their Culture, limited by whatever yard it happens to assign them? It surprised me that Rush’s committee didn’t see the intelligence and probably the beauty of the yarn nest people would have woven with their feet. Or maybe they did. Rush leavened his immense confidence and energy, when he was with me, by being affable, totally honest and charming. Start off with a base coat of anger and all you have left is confidence and velocity, so once might be able to sympathize with his committee.

“At this point, I woke up and said, this is bullshit. So I just fed them their own bullshit back to them,” he said. By surrendering to the tone established by his department, he came up with a project they could accept and, subversively, for his own work, decided to paint rather than create installations. The problem with the program, for him, was that the people running it decided to emphasize thinking rather than making, so therefore, in his personal work—not for his thesis—he began doing images offering little in the way of an anchor for the bullshit mill, as it were. In Ohio, when he had all the room in the world, he began painting enormous images of flowers, on canvases that would fit snugly onto the side of a tractor-trailer. In his tiny Brooklyn garret, which he shares with two young female artists—Lauren and Crystal—he’s begun a series of paintings of bridges in Central Park.

Yet, after he showed me pictures of his installations and described the thinking behind them, I had to admit this installations sounded intriguing and poetic—though my whole fundamental view of art supports the notion of making as opposed to thinking, and emphasizes my partiality to paint. When he told me his father, a doctor, had built three houses from the ground up, and had recruited Rush, as a kid, into the work—how he learned to do a miter cut and toenail a stud with a drywall screw—I realized that his art, as well as his biochem degree in his pre-med days, had grown out of an emulation of his father. His mother, though, provided the requisite torment every artist needs, the pain that had struck the match under the tinder box of all these skills.

“She loves me unconditionally, but she doesn’t like me. She has issues. She’s unstable. After I announced that I was going to become an artist, she tried to kill herself on every major holiday that year. Four attempts. I had to visit her in the mental ward,” he said. “She was horrified. How will you make a living? How will you support yourself? My father had his doubts but he stood back and said, let’s see how it goes.”

How he’s supporting himself, aside from doing contracting work for the gallery, on an hourly wage, is probably the most unlikely aspect of his saga. Just as he was preparing to get his doctorate, at the end of his fifteen-year stint in college, the woman who had rejected nearly every idea he’d presented came to him and said, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not is looking for somebody to do shadow art for their museum in California. They are interested in talking to you.” He heard only the cruel irony of that word, museum. At the time, Rush took it as a put-down, her little way of saying: you may have 900 friends on Facebook, but look where all your high-flown Ph.D. projects have taken you. (She may very well have passed it along as a genuine tip, a gift.) He gladly took the information and contacted the company. (Along with painting and installations, he’d also been doing shadow art, where he constructs what appears to be a pile of random junk until you shine a light at it and project a shadow that forms the silhouette of some clearly recognizable scene: one of them shows a woman painting at an easel, a la Norman Rockwell, with a gun trained at the back of her head. When he contacted Ripley’s, they told him they would pay him $20,000 for a shadow sculpture of Marilyn Monroe. Once he picked his cell phone up off the floor, he said yes, and then chose the perfect time several days later to tell his advisor, who’d passed along the tip, how much he would be making from the job. From her expression, it appeared to him she’d had no idea how much he could make from the work. If and when the check arrives, it will be more than enough income for him to live an entire year in Brooklyn, searching for a gallery.

We got off the subway and walked a couple blocks to where his truck was parked along a street of houses and brick apartment buildings, and we climbed to the third floor, a dim comb of several rooms, where he sleeps in what’s essentially a closet only slightly larger than the queen-size mattress on the floor. The actual bedroom goes to Lauren who first rented the place, with a curtained-off cubby for Crystal, about the same size as Rush’s room, all of it in the state of disorder one would expect from a trio of artists. Lauren works as receptionist at Viridian, and Crystal has a $16 an hour job as an administrative assistant for an office in Times Square. Lauren paints small, wry cartoon characters who comment on their surroundings on the canvas: in one, what looks like a Turner reproduction shows a cartoon character standing in the middle of the maelstrom saying, “Sure is sublime!” A little nod to Edmund Burke and Turner all in one.  Crystal works  with encaustic, but I didn’t spot any examples at the apartment. After this glimpse of this classic garret, we got in the truck, and he plugged his smart phone into the stereo so we could hear Taylor give us directions to the building supplier. I dubbed her Taylor because for more than a year, Russ has been writing an autobiography, a la Van Gogh, as a series of letters, one per day, along with a daily poem, which he puts into an envelope and sends to Taylor Swift. He’s not a fan, nor a stalker, but shortly before he began this book, in serial installments, he threw out his lower back after a day simply leaning slightly forward while working on a piece of art, straining a pair of muscles that spasmed while he slept and immobilized him for five days. The subscription of Percocet knocked him out and caused him to have the same dream night after night: he would be standing in an empty gallery, as a woman’s hand and arm appeared from behind him on the left—he couldn’t move his head to see who it was—and eventually Taylor Swift’s head emerged into view and she asked him, “Color? What color?” And he awoke in a sweat, shouting. At that point, he began noticing her everywhere: on the cover of magazines in the check-out line, on billboards, the side of a bus, everywhere. He decided to write to her, knowing she’d never see anything he sent. It got him onto her list of fans and now he gets bulletins about her whereabouts and what she’s thinking, via Twitter and email, so he actually has a correspondence going with her, though neither one really pays attention to the other. Their like two characters from a Chekhov play: all talking, no listening. So Ms. Swift is just a prop for this piece of performance art which will be called “Letters to Taylor: A Year in the Life of Rush Witacre, through His Letters to Taylor Swift.”

“I’ll have it bound and covered at Kinko’s, and I figure that use of her name twice in the title will finally get a real response either from her or her attorneys,” he said, laughing.

So when I named the GPS woman Taylor, he groaned.

“No! It isn’t like that! It isn’t about her!”

To get to Home Depot in Brooklyn, on Bedford, only three miles away, it takes half an hour. We find big planks of MDF painted blue around the edges, some more screws, some quarter-round baseboard, and picture wire for me–since  I’m always running out—and we ask the checkout where we can find another Home Depot which will actually have some pegboard in stock. She looked it up: “Bedford Stuyvesant.”

All I know about Bed-Stuy is that someone in a movie once referred to an animal as “big as a Bedford-Stuyvesant rat,” so I’m all about heading back into Manhattan and leaving the pegboard for another day, but he’s determined, so we reprogram the GPS on his smart phone. Taylor begins to give us instructions we can’t seem to follow. We make wrong turns everywhere, driving underneath the highway, rather than on it, like Gene Hackman in The French Connection, speeding under the El–but in slow motion this time. After one last wrong turn, we get locked into an on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. So, at last, this is how I find myself riding across this legendary bridge, for the first time in my life—though I’ve seen and photographed it many times over the many years of visits to the city. We head up the FDR, and again miss our turn at 34th St. and end up taking 42nd Street through Times Square.

“This is awesome! I’ve always wanted to drive through Times Square,” Rush says.

Though his dream probably didn’t include huge sheets of board sticking out the back of the pickup. We head onward through the flood of pedestrians and, on the left, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum appears. “Hey look! There it is. The New York version,” Rush says. I said, “You should go in there next week and say you’re doing shadow art for the California museum and you’ll be available to do it for them soon.” He looked over, “You’re right! I’ll just say, they’re sending me to this place in a couple of months.” We laugh as he turns down 11th Avenue, back past the Porsche dealer and unload at our building. We pop open a couple of Blue Moons and decide to call it a day. The next day, we’re as productive and unseen as carpenter ants, and by six, we have a set of rock-solid storage shelves for paintings, sculpture, whatever. On the way back from the corner shop and grill, run by two Levantines, who look as if they auditioned for the Soup Nazi and never managed to slough off the roles, we carry our Philly cheese steaks back past the entrance to Scores, where the massive doorman, all in black, is carrying into the strip club a huge custard cone smothered with sprinkles, all that sugar no one should ever eat packed into a circular cookie, and he hands it to the receptionist, as the Mister Softee truck behind him plays a twee jingle I remember from my childhood, the truck still idling, parked at the curb where it will never get towed. Not with that bouncer standing at the door. Bad behavior, indeed.




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