Amongst the dabs and strokes of color, I see Blake, I see Smith, I see flowers, I see skulls, I see robed Chinese horsemen, and snakes and cranes. I see Yehonala, and I see me. I see me everywhere. In every painting: there I am, eyes glazed with passion, or dreamy, or angry, or hard, or sly. Standing by the window, the sunlight streaming in, throwing the colors and patterns of a large, open, semi- transparent fan onto my br**sts.
And I see Vann.
In each wild, joyful splash of color I see his dreams, his desire for freedom. It is everything that matters to him, everything worth giving up what he once called ‘the unyears’ for. I feel proud of him.
Skulls, snakes, evil-looking flowers, but all have been transformed into objects of terrible beauty. In one painting a baby, its eyes open, is in a jar. Fragmented pain vibrates across the canvas as if the painting itself is crying. You can’t just hang that on a wall and not look at it. It screams at you to look at it, experience it—it’s terrible beauty. It is like the lure of Medusa.
As I pass through I notice that all his paintings have a lyrical longing that is fraught with something darker. Sometimes it comes in the way of horns where none should be. Sometimes in the form of sharp cornered black cubes or the single eye, suspended and watching. I remember—the symbol for the brutal God El.
Finally, we come to the last piece, the pièce de résistance.
I can’t take my eyes off it.
And you must bear with me now because I have to describe it to you. It is unbearably erotic and sublimely beautiful in execution, but there is something else. A something that almost feels as if the painting is alive and it is gently purring at you. The undercurrent of mystery and emotion that powers out of it is like a palpable energy. It makes my stomach clench. It reminds me of the feeling I had when I was reading Lana’s notes. The uneasy sensation that hidden away from my view, in the dark there are things that I know nothing of.
In the painting I am sitting in a garden, and the garden is so lush and so dreamy that the viewer will convince himself that it must be Paradise. I am nude, sitting with my legs wide open, head tilted slightly, mouth parted, and eyes mysteriously hooded and inviting: it is a brazen invitation to whoever is watching to enter me. But they won’t dare. A very large cobra is coiled around my body and my legs. Its hood is extended and its mouth aggressively open. It is a fierce guard. For my sex.
I remember his words, ‘Beauty is dangerous. It has the ability to tantalize and crush. Even strange beauty.’
The painting is titled Adam & Eve. It would seem that I am Eve and the cobra is Adam, but—here’s the occult gem: Vann’s real name is Quinn Adam Barrington. At the bottom there is a little card: Not For Sale.
I don’t turn to him and say the work is beautiful, because that would cheapen it, judge it, classify it. Let it be left that his art left me speechless.
‘My art didn’t come out of a vacuum. It came in a flash… After you. Thank you.’
I turn to look at him. He looks unbearably sad. I want to put my arms around him, but I know it will be the wrong thing now. Later. I have plans for this man. I don’t know what is in my eyes, but he takes a step back from me.
‘Let’s go back out. I’ll introduce you to everyone.’
I nod, and we leave that area and go back out amongst the glittering people. Lana comes to me. She is wearing a jaw-droppingly large, pink diamond teardrop pendant necklace. After she gets pulled away I smile and nod, and smile and nod, but I am not the same person who came in to see the exhibition. All I can think of is that last painting of Adam and Eve. The expression on my face, the exaggerated plumpness of my mouth, the ferocity of the Adam between my legs. Vann tries to keep me with him, but I can see that all these people want to talk to him, have a piece of him. Some of the women even give me dirty looks. They want the newborn star, and they think I am monopolizing him. After a while, the dirty looks become tiresome and I allow myself to be separated from Vann. My feet take me back towards the paintings.
His paintings make me remember what I thought I had forgotten from my school days. A snatch of Oscar Wilde. To reveal the art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
I start again at the beginning, but now, with the other people shuffling about me and their quiet murmurs dotting the air, the effect of his paintings are thankfully less intense. My senses are not as overwhelmed as before, and I can assimilate more. I hear snatches of their conversations.
‘The colors remind of Ed Baynard’s Flowers That Talk range, but the background is almost Murakami.’ A woman declares that they are ‘scary but compelling the same way a road accident is. Horrible but it makes you look.’ A man with a pompous voice makes me stop and listen. ‘It’s good, but there is too much slavish attention to beauty.’
He is exactly the kind of intellectual snob who would declare a tin of excrement as an innovative piece of great art. Vann has done what he set out to do—beauty is no longer a frivolous thing, a pretty postcard or a chocolate tin Monet painting. Beauty, he is saying, can be compelling the way horror is. You don’t want to look at a skull of an evil-looking, flesh-eating flower, but you have to because it is so beautiful. He has become the master of beauty, strange beauty.
A man comes to stand beside me. ‘So, you’re the muse.’
I look at him. He is in his thirties and brilliantly successful in some capacity that would make him useless on a desert island. But here, he is a prince holding two glasses of champagne. He is the kind of guy that would install a lap dancer’s pole in his bedroom.
‘Sam Shepherd,’ he introduces. ‘What will they say? Not a toilet bowl in sight.’
I smile despite myself. How Vann would laugh. I will tell him later about this remark.
‘The last painting is…interesting, isn’t it? Do you think it has some hidden meaning? A social commentary on our dissolute life? Or…’ His eyes suddenly change. They start to undress me. I am frozen by the violence in his eyes. Nobody has ever looked at me like that. ‘Would you like to have your purse full of money and supper with me in Paris?’
Suddenly Vann is at my side. I exhale the breath that I was holding in a rush. Sam smiles at Vann.
‘I was just asking Miss…’ He turns to me briefly. ‘Sorry I didn’t quite catch your name, what the meaning of this painting was.’
Vann’s jaw is set in a hard line. He doesn’t smile and he looks angry. I realize that I have never seen him anything but indulgent or passionate. This new Vann is perplexing. Messes with my head and yet I kind of like that he has this side to him. This hard, don’t mess with me persona.