The Partridge Museum was a massive building, a construct more akin to some kind of techno-futurist military compound than the staid and neoclassical constructs of the other buildings surrounding. Clair Andretti stood before the plain, unadorned facade of the massive, brutalist monolith and inhaled deeply. Excited, emboldened and hopelessly nervous. She hated being nervous. Then she passed within the huge, electronically released double glass paneled sliding doors and moved down the wide, onyx tiled foyer, her reflection following like a inter-dimensional shade.
Past the foyer was a gargantuan gallery, of stark white concrete, the floor, like the lobby, all of black stone. The sound of gritty electronica rattled over the massive bio-flow, a modulated moog-wave synth leading the aural assault in undulating filtered crescendos.
Andretti was surprised, she had expected Debussy or Rachmanioff, not EDM. She paused in the middle of the wide, semi-circular gallery and surveyed the jostling crowds. There was Jonas Beach and Brandon Chase, chatting with Hiroko Akane, a second year journalism student from the nearby University. The threesome stood in the center of the vast vestibule, Brandon dashing and randy as ever, Akane, giggling stupidly at his bawdy, purposefully bad jokes and Beach looking to all the world as if someone had placed a squid upon his head despite manifold protestations. In the far right corner, observing a series of speculative architectural drawings was Cole Hathers with a young, curvy woman who Andretti had never seen before. Something about the woman’s ceaselessly dour and drained expression and lifeless, unexcited movements caught Clair’s eye. The fragile little creature drifted past the portraits lining the alabaster walls with the listless moroseness of a funeral mourner, as if every work of art were a soul departed. A lonely sort of passion in which there was some peculiar beauty. Andretti normally detested any woman with a better figure than her own but some nagging fragment of inborn, instinctual sympathy prevented the formation of any such scorn, yet it did make her self-conscious. She looked down at the dress mingling with the body below, ankle-high leather boots, black jeans, tight, black T over which was a thin gray hoodie; wonders on matters of decorum filled the ambit of the thin and frigid creature’s cerebral ambit. At length she determined that it didn’t really matter; all that mattered was that Lynder noticed her and that the crowd noticed her work. An artist was nothing without her public.
Suddenly a figure appeared at the top of the upper landing, peering down at the insignificant host collected in idle study below. Lynder Partridge was of middling height with tar-pitched hair, cut short on the sides and wide at the top, dressed in a black overcoat, tipped at the collar with white fur. His face was pale and sharp, lips, blood-red and his eyes catching the light with the pale glinting of topaz. His posture was slack, yet ferine, as if at any moment he might pounce with sudden and terrible excitation. All about the man, a retinue of wealthy social climbers stood, taking in the crowd below a moment and then raising champagne glasses to lips and moving out their line against the balcony, waiting for their boniface to speak. Suddenly, the music ceased and Lynder raised his smooth, sonorous voice, which echoed throughout the entirety of the hall with regal splendor.
“Greetings and salutations, ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to see you gathered here before me for this momentous occasion. Now, to some, the unveiling of a series of drawings and paintings means little enough. They’re just pictures after all. Same as any other. But we understand the truth of it, that these are no ordinary pictures, because such pictures were not crafted by ordinary hands. Nor were they conceived of by ordinary minds. They were conceived and forged by visionaries and dreamers, by those bold enough to ask the question: Of what use is the art which does not ceaselessly seek to force life to imitate it? And to respond: None. To no one! So, without further adieu, it is my great joy and pleasure to introduce you to our three newest additions to the gallery, Jonas Beach, Brandon Chase and Clair Andretti!”
He gestured one by one to the three young artists as he spoke their names and upon finishing, the crowd erupted into applause. After the applause had died away, Partridge continued, raising a glass of sparkling moscato and smiling cheerily.
“To our new friends health and the flourishing of all!”
Those below who had glass in hand raised their goblets and toasted likewise with a practiced ritualism, as if this were some lauded tradition. Clair was surprised at how reverent the response was, how sacral and mirthful the unfolding of the scene was. After Partridge had finished his toast he moved to the leftmost stair and, along with his cortege, descended to the gala floor as the museum goers moved about from alcove to alcove, gazing with wonderment at the elaborate sketches and illustrations, of charcoal and graphite and paintings of multifarious palettes and sculptures of brass and marble, alabaster and quartz. As the crowd dispersed out across the great U shaped ambit of the gallery Lynder coolly traversed the clacking marbled floor with a broad smile, crystal goblet held up beside his breast like a royal scepter.
He paused a respectable distance before the young woman, inclining his head, low, but not too low, as if greeting some lesser nobility.
“I’m so pleased you could make it, Ms. Andretti.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for all the world,” she cursed herself for such a bubbly and ill controlled response. The excitement was palpable all throughout the school-girlishness of the culled response. The legs close together, arms clasped together before nubile, lolling breasts, mouth slightly parted in a innocent and attemptedly beguiling smile, teeth white enough yet slightly yellowed by a penchant for coffee and sweets, eyes twinkling with longing and admiration. All of it ostentatiously performative. Clair cursed herself doubly at the visuality of the scene which anteceded the mental formations. I look like I’m trying to show off my bust. Like I’m trying to fuck the teacher. What disturbed her further was the uncertainty concerning whether or not that was necessarily false. Lynder was unaffected and wholly unconcerned with the impression he’d made upon the young artist as well as the impression which she attempted to make upon him. His bright eyes and sharp features impassive, unsettlingly opaque. The industrialist raised his free hand and gestured to one of his footmen who stood dutifully behind his master with a tray of silver upon which several glasses of champagne, half filled, rested.
“Would you care for a drink? Celebration without libation is such a sorry thing.”
Clair nodded thoughtlessly accepted one of the small, dainty glasses from the footman. She would have preferred some whiskey or Cognac in a fine little snifter but felt it rude to refuse. At any rate, she was thirsty.
“Walk with us, Ms. Andretti, I shall introduce you to my friends as we do so and you can tell us of your current and future projects as we admire the fruits of endeavors past.”
She wordlessly obeyed, fascinated, not just by the tumbling and spinning surroundings but also by Lynder’s catlike and slinking gait, an easy cavorting, a languidity rare amongst the tense and squeaming populace. Introductions were made; first Clair was acquainted with Jill Habermass, a nebbishy and elderly curator for the Institute of Urban Design, next Danny Price, a fiery, youthful mestizo and the owner of Price Construction, the second largest construction company in the city, then Domnal Eins, a middle-aged man of indiscernible ethnic extraction who did something with marketing analytics and crypto-currencies that eluded Andretti’s ken and, lastly, Mariana Ester, the chief officer of the Vandemburgh Consortium of History and Heritage. They all asked a plethora of questions about Clair’s life, half-disinterested but obliged, the rest genuine; they asked of her upbringing and whether or not she was seeing someone and what got her into art and what she wants out of life and what she thought of the heated political campaigns of the ongoing mayoral race. Clair answered all of the questions in vaguest and most passing and from-the-hip of fashions, trying to give as little away about what she actually believed on any given topic as possible; largely succeeding.
Lynder erupted suddenly, waving a hand in the air as if dispelling some arcane conjuration. All present fell silent as he spun upon them, expression showing mild disappointment and motioned to Clair’s panel alcove which occupied the leftmost portion of the great U of the gala. “It is of her work itself that you have come, for that is what is on display, not the woman herself. Tell me, Mr. Eins, what do you make of that one,” Partridge gestured to an enormous, hyperrealistic drawing of a futuristic cityscape with multiple layers, each of which was suspended above the other and each serving a distinctive function; the bottom layer for agriculture and food production and waste disposal, the second layer for transportation and distribution, the third for housing and socialization and the fourth for governmental administration and aerial defense.
“I’m not sure I understand it.”
Lynder’s face phased back into utter opaqueness.
“Then it wasn’t for your understanding. I find it most wondrous. Past patterns for future eventualities. The present is nothing without its visionaries.”
Clair was struck by the intensity of his tone, despite his ostensible lack of expression. He looked to the elaborate drawing as if it were some sacred image, a totemic idol of direst consequence. The young woman’s technical skill had been impressive from an early age and her choice of subject had long been lauded, but no one, not even her most admiring professors, had ever spoken of her work with such sacral appreciation. It caused her heart to flutter and a smile of self-satisfaction to ever so briefly flicker across her smooth, colorless face.
“Clair, Mr. Partridge, other, uh, people-to-whom-I-haven’t-yet-been-introduced, hello,” Brandon Chase sided up behind the gathering, Jonas and Hiroko Akane trailing, nervously, uncertain of whether or not they should speak.
“Ahhh, Mr. Beach, Ms. Akane and the dashing Mr. Chase,” Lynder enjoined warmly, “So good of you to finally join us. From the looks of the crowds surrounding your respective works, I’d say that your public has properly found you. Most wonderful!”
“Yes, yes, well, I’m all for an admiring public but goodness these people are chatting my ears off.”
“The graphic artist is not nearly so lauded as the film star but both, upon finding sufficient celebrity, will quickly come to be the subject of desire for all their envious admirers; it must be realized that the reason for such admiration is not to be found in the actual works, or at least solely within the works of the artists themselves, but rather in the fact that they have achieved such social laddering-up by the creation of such works. Art ever seems easy to those who’ve never had a hand in its creation and thus the public at-large erroneously tend to believe that such a life is one to be envied and so they become envious themselves, failing to realize that were such a life their own they’d despise it with every fiber of their being.”
Eins gave a little chuckle, “That may well be the case but there aren’t a whole lot of artists who make the kind of cash I do on a regular basis, good art requires willful ignorance of the market, otherwise you’ll always be beholden to your audience’s whims, which means that to be a good artist, or at least one with integrity, you’ve gotta take hits to the wallet like a kevlar vest takes bullets, that is, with grit-teeth and frequently.”
Clair felt a welling distaste for the currency trader, she knew his type, trust-fund kid, smart, but not too-smart, educated but not well read and aware of it, always attempting to insert himself into a conversation if there was the possibility of pumping the ego and convincing all the rest of the conversant his intellect leveled up to his bank account.
Lynder didn’t directly respond, instead removing a small, gilded pack of 100s from his inner jacket pocket of his overcoat, lighting up the fag with languor and returning his attention to the artwork of the long, white stand-up panel, expectant of future innervation.
Jill Habermass was the first to pick up where Eins had left off and the two quickly fell into a good natured argument about the relationship of the artist to the market and various metrics of success. It was all rather staid and boring to Clair, who sided up to Lynder where he stood still admiring her work, seemingly unconcerned with the argument spreading out behind him.
“Um, Mr. Partridge.”
“Yes, Ms. Andretti?”
“I just wanted to thank you, personally, for all that you’ve done for me. It really means a good deal to me. So thank you.”
He turned to her and smiled ever so slightly, but his eyes didn’t laugh.
“Unnecessary. Go and met your public. Mingle. Network. Have some fun.”
Without another word Lynder returned briefly to her work and then departed to greet a group of well dressed philosophers from the nearby art school.
Clair turned to behold the crowd behind her which had grown doubly in size since she had moved to stand at the leftmost corner of her selfsame project. Half of the crowd glanced on in wonderment at the intricate series of buildings, her ideal sky-cities and mechanical sprawls, whilst another half had fallen into debate concerning the content of the drawings themselves. Even in art school Clair had very rarely ever seen such boundless vigor for creation nor such interest in its manifold applications. The scene filled her with wonder and mirth even as she moved away from it, wary that her presence and the questioning thereof and of the extrapolation of her creation would someone diminish the exhibit. The feeling pulled the woman back from all crowds and all the artifice of the museum the better to observe the objects and their relations. It was only then she realized the worth of her own work. Drawing, illustration, painting, all had been a venture undergone for the pleasure it generated, for the thing-in-and-of-itself, there, a quandary, for the essence of a thing could never be gotten at. Could not be unearthed by digging. There was no shovel for it. What she sought could not be found by looking. It arrived of its own accord. As if by some alien intelligence.
Lost to time a clacking of soles ruptured her reverie. She turned to behold a familiar face. Aiken’s face. A thick bluish bruise marred his otherwise handsome, blocky face. His eyes were foggy, faraway; a hidden sadness leaking through with jellied light.
“What the hell happened to your face?”
“CAF fanatics. They blind-sided me on my way to the campaign office.”
“Did you file a report?”
“Nah. I probably should. Too busy. Seems like your work is getting the attention it deserves,” he gestured to the crowd still huddled in gentile argumentation around Clair’s exhibit, “I’m glad. Clearly you are as well.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You look happy.”
“Is that so unusual?”
“You want me to answer that honestly?”
She smiled wryly and punched him lightly in the arm. Gaze to gaze, face to face. She wanted badly to kiss him but knew better than to do so in public. Together they walked back to the seething crowds whereupon they crossed paths with Cole Hathers and a dire-eyed young woman with long, dark hair and pure, Italian features.
Cole stopped short, shocked to see his foe standing so comfortably beside someone so well known as Layne.
“You’re Aiken Layne.”
“That’s me. You a friend of Ms. Andretti’s?”
Hathers shot Clair a embarrassed look and ran his tongue quickly across his lower lip as he always did when he was nervous. Clair was pleased.
“I know her from school. From the college. I’m Cole Hathers. Graphic Designer. Uh, this is-”
The young woman cut him off and moved forward with a forced facade of amiability and conviviality.
“Anna Campana. Nice to meet you two.”
One by one in turn, Layne and Andretti took the woman’s hand and shook it warmly. The four shared stagnate conversation, walking in a tandem with the curvature of the great U shape of the gala, from left to right, surveying Clair’s exhibit, then Jonas’, then Chase’s. Upon passing Clair’s work Hathers clenched his fists, lip twitching, upon passing Jonas’ he shrugged, upon passing Chase’s he nodded approvingly as Eins turned greeted a short, garishly dressed blonde.
“Well, well, I didn’t expect to see you here, Ms. Vikander.”
Jonas Beach stood before his exhibit. It was a tall white assemblage of three matte panels upon each of which hung his varied works. From somewhere nearby he heard a young woman cackle, “What the heck is this stuff? I thought this place only put out the ‘finest’ up-and-coming artists. Fantasy art… I mean, really? That’s so a decade ago.” Beach could feel his blood pressure rising, his brow furrowing; a serpent of endless rage uncoiling from his reptile brain. The woman was young, pretty and exceedingly banal. She was thin and wore a fake tan. Spray on tan. Cheezy smile. Over-sized and superfluous scarf wound about the neck like a great desiccated python. Eyes blitzed out from marijuana consumption, donned in pop-fashion chic with a fake alligator bag slung about her bare, left shoulder. Cell phone blue-glowing in her free right hand. She was perfectly normal by the standards of the city.
Jonas Beach wanted to bash her face in.
Lynder Partridge swilled the last of his champagne with relish from the heights of the second-floor landing overlooking the gala floor. His eyes swept over the teeming multitudes below, stopping upon the unfurling forms of Angela Vikander and Aiken Layne. They were arguing. A throng gathered, some laughing, others enjoining, still others dourly observing in silence. Clair was aghast. Chase looked amused. Jonas was nowhere to be found.
“Well… that was quick,” The footman intoned with mild surprise, “I knew they didn’t like each other but I didn’t expect things escalate like this…”
Lynder handed off the empty glass to his loyal attendant without removing his eyes from the scene of chaos playing out beneath him. Almost instantly a guard walked up to Lynder as the footman departed.
“Mr. Partridge, you’ll want to see this.”
The guard handed off a small digital tablet displaying the security cameras which thronged the outer facade of the museum. Upon the camera-output screens were numerous black-clad CAF members assembling; the motley assortment carried flags and picket signs, a couple had rough-hewn sticks as makeshift weapons. There was no sound but they were clearly chanting in something approaching unison.
Lynder turned to the guard without expression.