Ariadne Campbell scoffed.
“It’s… really quite dreadful. He’s talented, clearly, but it’s just so… grotesque.”
The woman’s companion, a bulky man with golden hair, dressed in a blazer that was far less expensive than it looked, folded his arms took a step away from the painting. He scanned the composition for a few moments and then returned his gaze to Campbell.
“I have to disagree with you. I think it’s lovely. No, that isn’t the right word. Striking.”
“You’re far too accommodating, Calvin; you never like to say a negative word. No spine beneath all those muscles.”
“It’s not that I am afraid to critique, it’s just in this I find nothing to critique at all. It’s magnificent, really.”
“It’s shock-drivel. I mean, rape… really?”
“Are you sure all that faulty ire isn’t just a result of Lynder Partridge getting top-slot and you getting… well, nothing.”
Some art reviewers from the local papers walked by, sizing up the massive canvas and it’s disconcerting contents. They stroked their stubbly chins and scratched out some notes and chattered amongst themselves about the latest cinematic releases and celebrity scandals.
“You seen the latest Captain Omega film?” A pudgy, balding man with a windbreaker inquired to a young, starry eyed Asain woman who stood beside him. She shook her head mane, “No. Haven’t seen them, superhero movies are rather… I don’t know I just don’t find them interesting. They’re all… it’s like the same film over and over again. There is no dramatic tension because you know the good guy will always win. You know one thing I was thinking about was how morality is handled in these films, superhero films, action films generally,” the fat man nodded blankly, he wasn’t really listening, didn’t really care, his eyes scanned the room, seeking out the all-stars from the world of the arts; there was always a scoop, if one was keen enough to but find it. The woman droned on, “So like, they’re always just like good and noble and whatever which is fine and all except that, ya know, they’re actually vigilantes. I mean, think about it, that’s what superheroes are, really. If someone dressed up in a mask and a cape and went around beating up criminals we’d all think they were crazy.”
The fat man turned to his companion with a knowing glint in his eye, “Lady, we pay good money to watch the mistresses of inner-city thugs throw tampons at each other; I think we’re all crazy.”
The woman gasped and turned to her friends to relay the horror she had just witnessed as the fat man cracked a grin and moved up stand between Campbell and Calvin, examining the elaborate drawing in between darting glances to the aloof duo.
“You’re the famous Ms. Campbell, aren’t you? The photographer, right?”
Campbell was surprised and flattered to be recognized; she tried in vain not to let it show through.
“Yes. Do we know each other?”
“Nope. But I know you know. I’m Ashton Derby,” he flashed a well-filled notepad in front of her face, “Been following your work. Pretty stuff, very pretty stuff, you’ve got a keen eye.”
“Apparently you do as well,” she smiled smugly, luxuriating in her burgeoning fame, “Are you an artist yourself?”
“No, not me. Ha, can barely draw a stick figure. I just like writing about it. I fancy that’s what the shrinks would call ‘cathartic release.’ Or voyeurism… or something like that.”
“What do you make of Partridge’s work; his drawings?”
“They’re… different. They’re kinda… I dunno… disturbing.”
Campbell turned to Calvin with triumph shinning in her eyes, “See, I told you he wasn’t all that.”
“Oh no, it isn’t that I think they’re bad, I mean, it’s like a car crash, it’s horrible but I can’t look away, that’s kind of a testament to the artist, don’t you think? Whole reason I came to this gala event was to snag an interview with the elusive Lynder Partridge, guy never answers my emails, phone calls, nothing. He’s a hermit. Ya know, I tried looking him up… weirdest thing, there are no photographs of the guy anywhere, online, in papers. Must be camera shy.”
Campbell’s heart shrunk. She was so sick and tired of hearing that name. So sick and tired of everyone praising such a rank amateur. This should have been her event. HER gala. If only… if only…
Now it was Calvin who looked victorious, he arched a brow in his friend’s direction as if to say, “Still so haughty?” Campbell crossed her arms about her breasts and bite her lip and then scoffed at the fat man.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe our collective tastes have reached such lows. Decades ago this city used to be the art capital of the world and now… THIS? This is what passes as art? This ghastly aberration?! Lynder Partridge is nothing more than an over-hyped elitist.”
Darby was taken aback and for a moment he stood in stunned silence; he’d not expected such a sudden deluge of passion. Calvin only sighed, it was not the first time he’d witnessed such an outburst. Before either of the men could respond, a new voice fluttered over the air, low and scratchy and strangely sonorous.
“I’ve been called many things, Ms. Campbell, but never ‘over-hyped’.”
All heads turned to behold a man of middling height and pale flesh standing before them. The intruder wore an off-white suit, expertly tailored, a red tie and a jet black overcoat, tipped at the collar with expensive furs and leather loafers that clattered musically upon the gala’s marbled floor as the cane that followed with them. His features were sharp and angular and his opaque blue eyes reflected the light in prismatic sparks that were diluted from the thick and serpentine whorls of smoke that roiled up from a daintily clutched cigarette – half smoked – which he held in his left and leather gloved hand.
Darby’s face lit up as he saw the man, his long-sought quarry as Campbell’s own fell in dismay. She’d not actually expected to meet the man when she’d accepted invitation as Partridge was notoriously aloof. Some who knew him reported that he was partial to month long vanishing acts; where he went was anyone’s guess.
“M-Mr. Partridge! Hello, I’m-”
“Ashton Darby. Newspaper man. Culture reporter for The New Daily Standard. I read your column,” the fat man waited in vain for the artist to comment on the quality of his writing; when he did not, the light faded from his eyes and he twirled the notepad with agitation, “And you are Ariadne Campbell, and this must be your friend,” Lynder turned to Calvin with the faintest trace of a smile and extended one of his thin, leather-gloved hands.
“Calvin Mercer, pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Partridge.”
“Do forgive my friend here, she sometimes gets a little carried away, I’m sure she didn’t mean-”
“I meant absolutely everything I said,” Ariadne snapped hotly, her gaze narrowing and her mouth going taunt. It occurred to her suddenly that this chance encounter opened up a whole world of new possibilities for her career. Perhaps, she thought, Darby would even write her up in one of his columns! If there were to be a public spat, surely someone would pick it up. One of the tabloids. One of the screamsheets. Tantalized, she steeled her resolve.
“Your art is dreadful.”
Darby nearly gasped while Calvin simply shook his head in resigned vexation; why, he thought, could she never behave herself? There always had to be a show…
Lynder’s face registered nothing. His facade as placid and impenetrable as a Venetian mask.
“You’re a photographer, are you not, Ms. Campbell?”
“What I should fancy is truly cause for dread is the photographers’ dilemma; the photographer is a documentarian through and through. He does not create, he captures creation.”
“All art is documentation.”
“This is true. Art is documentation of one’s own creation, not of anothers. The photographer who does not arrange his or her own scenes, why,” Lynder finally turned towards her, it was the first time he had looked directly at Campbell since he’d entered the scene; his head level, piercing blue eyes unblinking, “She wouldn’t really even be an artist at all, but merely a voyeur, a vessel for the real actors to communicate. A medium.”
Campbell froze having noticed the gender switch – he to she – she’d heard the words but they did not instantly register in her mind. When they had sunk in she groped for a retort but there was nothing other than the rattling of the crowd like a great and baying pack of hounds echoing all throughout the hall surrounding and her own rapid cluttering thoughts which slithered up from the viscous recesses of her frantic mind. She had never considered such a position before; she knew he was wrong, of course, indeed, had to be, but she could not articulate why and in due course began to question her own conviction. I’m not… I’m not just some documentarian. I’m an artist. Just like you. Only better. Far better. You think you can talk down to me because you’re on the rise? Because you’ve got a little bit of local fame? Because you got the gala slot and not me?! I’ll show you, you arrogant bastard. I’ll show you!
Campbell made a showing of carelessness, sighing and turning from Lynder as if he bored her, though, in truth, it was to escape his gaze. Most people looked off at regular intervals when they were talking with someone but Lynder’s eyes never wavered, he was focused wholly upon her, expectant, she assumed, of a reply. She didn’t like it. Didn’t like him or his weird eyes or his fancy coat or his preened dress clothes beneath it. Didn’t like the gala and the insect clattering of the crowd.
She wanted to get out. Needed to get out.
“This conversation bores me, I’m leaving,” she thought that might do it, that that would stir some hint of passion from him, rouse some semblance of anger. But there was nothing. His cold, blue eyes and his sharp pale face remained wholly immobile, unfazed.
Momentarily, Lynder inclined his head respectfully, sincerely, “Good’day, Ms. Campbell.”
It took considerable willpower for Campbell to keep herself from running from the gala. The bastard had won, she thought to herself, and what was more infuriating was that she was fairly certain the battle was entirely constrained within the confines of her own mind. He had won today, but she vowed she’d never allow him the upper hand again.
She scanned Darby’s column as soon as it was released. There was no mention of “Ariadne Campbell.” Ariadne cursed herself; I should have made a better impression on Darby and a worser impression on HIM. I should have… I should have…
“Something on your mind, Ms. Campbell? You look worried.”
She turned to her model where he stood in the albescent loft, naked and holding a fig. Putting down the paper upon her worktable she looked up at the man and shook her head.
“It’s nothing. Hold the fig a little higher.”
“Yes, good. Good.”
Only it wasn’t good. It was a stiff and cliche sub-par Renaissance-era facsimileism. It was deplorable. She looked at the digital camera reel, picture after picture of the lithe, muscular young man in various poses of heroic splendor as hackneyed and messageless as the splicing on-to of Roman columns upon a Brutalist facade. She had attempted Homeric Joe McNally and ended up as just another amateur floundering at the fathomless edges of the new. She sighed and leaned back, setting the camera down with a dull clack upon the worktable and sipped some lukewarm bourbon from a small, squat wineglass. She hadn’t been able to find any of the damned shot glasses, she wondered idly if Calvin had thieved one for his upcoming flat-party. He’d better not have…
“Ms. Campbell, I could really use a stretch, like I said before, I don’t mind posing a little over-time, and we’re,” he looked towards his mobile phone’s clock, “ten minutes over, “But I’ve been doing this pose for almost twenty minutes straight, neck is killin’ me.”
“Yeah. Sure. Fine.”
She was only half listening. Frustration’s savage increase consumed the whole of her mind. She couldn’t find her shot glasses. She couldn’t get a gala slot. She couldn’t get featured in any of the big name art columns even if she was being recognized by their writers. She still couldn’t think of rebuttal to Lynder’s rebuke and as a consequence had decided to forego her typical photographic methodology of streetcrawling for real-life scenes in favor of a elaborate and meticulously crafted designer-fantasy shot. What bothered her most was that the draftsman had not spoken out of anger, but out of concern and curiosity. His low and sonorous voice echoed still.
Art is documentation of one’s own creation, not of anothers. The photographer who does not arrange his or her own scenes, why, she wouldn’t really even be an artist at all, but merely a voyeur, a vessel for the real actor’s to communicate. A medium.
A medium… is that all I really am? A vessel? She wondered with horror, her hands closing tensely upon her sunless knees, her lips and brows trembling with emotion. The week had begun so promisingly and now everything felt wrong. Fate was taking the piss.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t pay you to psychoanalyze.”
The model threw up his hands in entreaty, his mouth going taunt, eye mired in confusion and a mild but growing sense of irritation.
“Yeesh. Sorry. Don’t know why you’re in such a foul mood today. I was just worried about you-”
“I don’t pay you to worry. I pay you to do good poses for my work. A task at which you have miserably failed. Look at this. It’s cartoonish,” she held up the camera reel screen for him to observe, “See. Look at this.”
“Those were poses you asked me to do.”
“Well, you didn’t do them very well, did you?” The question was rhetorical. She knew they were bad and she knew he knew they were bad. She just wanted him to suffer for it. He wasn’t an artist but he’d been around enough artists to know what was aesthetically pleasing and what was schlock. It was his fault, she thought, anger rising with her body from the couch. HIS, not mine!
“I don’t know what else you want from me.”
“I want you to leave. You’re fired.”
His eyes went wide, “What? Why?”
“Just get out.”
“An explanation for my CV would be appreciated.”
“I said get out.”
He turned to leave, hurriedly dressing and snatching his phone up from off the counter of the exposed kitchen island. He paused at the door and turned to look at his former boss with equal measures of disappointment and disdain.
“You ever wonder if you can’t get into the big galas because you aren’t talented or if its just because you’re a unbearable bitch? Food for thought. Have fun with the rest of your life.”
She was expecting an infuriated slam but he closed the door gently behind him. As his feet clattered down the old tenement hallway Ariadne moved to where he’d stood before the counter, as if to envelope his afterimage. Some indeterminable amount of time clocked away into nothing before she inhaled deeply and poured herself another shot of brew, sipping the golden drops in quick, nervous gulps, cursing her former employee in her mind. You never really cared about my work. You probably only cared about me because of money. Maybe you wanted to fuck me. Well, now I’ve fucked you. Bastard.
Outside the cars tore at the concrete and a flock of birds she’d never seen before squealed by, as if in protest of gravity’s suzerainty. The city screamed and she screamed with it.