Another Brawl Between Van Gogh and Gauguin by Mark Zelenka

November 19, 2012 Comments Off on Another Brawl Between Van Gogh and Gauguin by Mark Zelenka

While painting, we had begun to wear deeply on each other’s nerves, so I was not surprised when I found myself saying, “Your work makes excruciatingly painful attempts to be hip.”

I continued, trying to verbalize how I saw him. I said, you’re like a very drunk, very unhip man trying to blend in at one of those bars we used to go to. You know, those bohemian places in the Heights (not quite dives) where people dance nude without having been hired to do so, and you’re thrilled to be there, but at the same time, you feel punished at observing the scene as the invisible prison guard of the Panopticon lashes you from his high tower with a mile-long whip, because your inner Puritan has an obvious problem with sexual freedom and creativity, even as it pursues these values liberally and with a blind eye to its own actions. And of course you feel secretly pleased (and not punished) to be whipped because you’re looking in on a scene you want to be a part of — the gorgeous nude bodies of strangers draped across your consciousness like curtains — and by watching, you believe you’re also participating in the creative deviations of your time. Or maybe you’re a nonparticipant at one of those orgies you and I separately went to in West Vineland.

He didn’t like the criticism and told me so. He said that we were both doing similar work in a highly competitive art market and that my criticism of his work represented a jockeying for power, a symbolic way of trying to castrate him, ruin his confidence, and advance my aesthetic over his. In retaliation, he showed me a portrait that he’d recently painted without my knowledge: it depicted me as a corpulent, mad, slavering jockey on a white horse, which was frothing at the mouth.

Then he said, “You’re really a jealous crank, because you haven’t yet sold a canvas and you never will, and you believe that your tortured crankiness will eventually trump any honest aesthetic that attempts to harmonize with the new material of our day in consciousness.”

I laughed as I looked at the picture of myself on that ferocious white horse, and then I laughed harder, because I knew he was right. A hundred years later I laughed harder still while looking at a painting of the jockey on the white horse, which according to the placard in the Museo del Barrio belonged to an unknown artist.

The museum guards were staring at me.

Despite our bickering, I kind of missed Gauguin, and that was the biggest surprise.

© 2012 Mark Zelenka

Mark Zelenka teaches high school students for a living. In his spare time, He enjoys yoga and translating poetry from the Italian.

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