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Art you don’t have to see to get

By Jeffrey Zuckerman.

Randall, or The Painted Grape, Jonathan Gibbs, Galley Beggar, 2014

“The art world” is an awfully curious phrase. Originally coined by Arthur C. Danto to name the establishment that, by bestowing attention upon something, makes it a candidate for “art,” the phrase has metastasized in common parlance. “World,” specifically, gives the whole arena a scale and ambition that “business” or “industry” likely would not. Money is exchanged, yes, and things are created or bought or sold or tussled over. But calling it a “world” draws attention both to the figures therein—looming, like Richard Serra’s sculptures, over their landscapes—and their intentions, which presumably lie outside the realms of commerce and industrial progress.

And what are those intentions?

*

Jonathan Gibbs’s Randall, or the Painted Grape, is full to bursting with the names of artists, collectors, curators, editors, and other notables of the contemporary art world. Chronologically, it begins in London in the late eighties, and so we expect Damien Hirst’s name to crop up. It does, very quickly:

Hirst himself was hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk, not far from his childhood home in Leeds, in February 1989. He remains an ambiguous figure in the myth and history of recent British art, seen by some as a tragic lost figurehead.

In the hands of a more conventional writer, this would be a signal that Randall, a novel centering around the eponymous artist Ian Randall Timkins, would function as an alternate history of sorts, an attempt to answer the question of what might have become of the Young British Artists if their leading figure had died before any of their major shows.

But this is not a conventional novel, and Jonathan Gibbs is not a conventional writer. His interest is less speculative and more satirical. Randall is cast as an artist who some “say . . . had only ever finished what Hirst had started,” but if we see echoes of Hirst in the artworks that Randall completes over the course of the narrative, from nearly-perfect freehand circles on plain paper to horrific and unreal creatures in perfectly polished vitrines, it is only because these artworks are in service of questions that Randall, like Hirst, seems to have been pursuing through his entire artistic career.

And again it seems odd to call Randall’s milieu the art world, rather than the art industry or the art business. When Randall is commissioned, on the spur of the moment, to create a portrait, he upends a bottle of Champagne in an ice bath, and fashions a bit of a bank note into a shape that perfectly mimics the subject’s mouth. “A wide, ugly mouth. It was crude, but it was spot on . . . ‘There we go,’ he said. ‘Barry, by Randall.’” Everybody laughs at the oddly accurate depiction, but satire’s sharp edge becomes clear as an investor comes in and flatly explains that the artwork shouldn’t be considered merely as artwork: “‘Don’t be silly, Barry,’ he said. ‘It won’t do anything if you keep it. Only if I buy it. Surely you see that.’ He passed the card to Randall. ‘There you go. Give Henrik a call. He’s my buyer’ . . .”

In the late twentieth century, and even more so in the early twenty-first, art and money were married in a way previously seen, to a much smaller degree, only in the Renaissance. Perhaps its investors felt that art was a more permanent or durable form of storing money; in any case, the art world decisively moved away from studios and cafés to auction houses and international art fairs. (It is convenient but incidental to point out that Damien Hirst’s record-breaking auction of artworks at Sotheby’s was seen as a sign that the 2008 recession might be a short-lived one.) And in Randall, we trace the trajectory of a small coterie of artists—but mostly Randall—through these heady years, as filtered through the words of Vincent, an investment banker and wealth consultant pulled into Randall’s circle very early on in their artistic careers. “I am a pair of eyes,” Vincent writes early in Randall, and yet this statement seems dishonest. Vincent plays a much larger role in the narrative than, we suspect, he would have liked.

His words, indeed, establish and shape our perspective of the mysterious artist. In reading through the novel and its set of alternating chapters—every other chapter an extract from Vincent’s unpublished memoir of Randall, and the remainder a third-person narrative of his trip back to New York to handle some work as co-executor for Randall’s estate—I was reminded of Mary Gaitskill’s formidable novel Veronica. The similarities aren’t merely structural, although Veronica does alternate between chapters set in a mysterious, slow-paced present moment and chapters of quick-paced, sharply observed reminiscences about the past. Indeed, both books are driven by the same theme and ambition: to show how a notorious and bizarre, even monstrous, person appeared in the narrator’s life and eventually changed it.

The questions that Randall pursues through his art, even as it grows in value and drives him upward—both in wealth and in status—are not rooted in money. These questions, rather, circle around other people’s responses and revelations. Randall argues against individual artworks in favor of the work’s origin as idea and legacy as emotion—in essence, its abstract existence within individuals rather than its concrete existence within the real world He summarizes it perfectly: “Conceptual art – art you don’t have to see to get.”

And this fascination with the internal—or, better, the visceral—is evident in Jonathan Gibbs’s writing. He is no stranger to exploring emotions, to diving deep into a character’s inmost being. In his shortlisted entry for The White Review Short Story Prize, “The Story I’m Thinking Of,” the few seconds between an empty bottle being set aspin on an oak table and its coming to a stop are stretched to breaking point; we as readers plunge headlong into the narrator’s mess of emotions and sexual history, through his guilt and shame and wonder and excitement and despair.

A similarly probing intrusion seems to be Randall’s driving motive as he designs further artworks. He achieves acclaim and notoriety through a series of screen prints called Sunshines, derived from Randall’s own shit stains on toilet paper, but magnified and recolored:

Randall’s own faeces, blotted and smeared onto absorbent paper, were transformed into this bright, discordant explosion, sliding off on brusque topographic tangents, as fleetingly figurative as cloud forms . . . [and there were] rows of wrinkles, where the paper had been folded and pushed between his arse cheeks . . .

Above all, they were also a stunning reversal of the art-historical idea of portraiture. Yes, they were deeply intimate – they brought to light an aspect of the subject’s life that no one, not even their nearest and dearest, had ever seen, but they were also absolutely universal – everyone wipes their arse.

The wonderful and frustrating thing about a perfectly executed satire is how perfectly plausible it all seems. Artists have worked with (literal) shit before; this particular iteration seems more properly thought-out than most instances. Yet it is not intellect, but intimacy—almost to the point of violence—that is Randall’s driving interest.

In the alternate chapters that take place in the present day, Vincent has flown to New York to meet his ex-girlfriend become Randall’s widow, Justine. They go to see a hidden-away studio of Randall’s, which turns out to be filled with very masterfully executed paintings (those near-perfect freehand circles did translate to technical skill!) depicting themselves, as well as nearly every other important artist, buyer, or other person that Randall knew in various forms of intercourse, actual and imagined. The shock and puzzlement at this discovery, as well as the duo’s worries as executors of Randall’s estate, pull readers through the present-day narrative and give them a reason to read through the chapters set in the past—because, one might well wonder, how did Randall come to this point? What drove him to do something that would alienate his supporters not once, not twice, but dozens of times?

Randall offers its readers many clues, but no easy answers. A few can be drawn from Randall’s relationship with other, actual artists. Jackson Pollock is easy enough for Randall to mock: “look at all that paint jizzing about the place, all that quivering, knee-trembling, teetering-on-the-point-of-losing-control messiness. The canvas was the female body.” Jeff Koons is an influence that he seems to have overcome. At a party in the Burj, drunk, Randall declares to Vincent about one of his monumental sculptures: “‘I’ve tried to get Koons to admit he hates it, but he won’t give in . . . it’s him, isn’t it? But bigger.’ He gestured upwards, taking in the whole upended hanger of the place.” But Pablo Picasso is a strange case. Any mention of him causes Randall to go quiet or to abruptly end the conversation: “Either Randall pretended to be genuinely afraid of Picasso, because he was so monstrously prolific and unassimilable, or else he was genuinely afraid of him.”

Those limits are where Randall the myth ends and Randall the human being begins. There has to be a reason that neither Justine nor Vincent—nor, it seems at first, anyone else—knows of this hidden studio and these pornographic paintings. It is as if the first salvo of shock was what mattered; and then Randall could happily withdraw into comfortable notoriety. “It was a question of boundaries and protocols, I think. He needed to know what he was pushing against, and how far it could be pushed.” It is not so much a scandal as a tired punchline that he managed to brand a specific shade of yellow as “Randall Yellow” merely by dint of repetition—Vincent explains to the reader that “It’s five parts Pantone 108C to three parts 3965C to one part industrial phosphorescent yellow, in case you’re interested.”

The real sense of limit actually comes with a vitrine with an infant-sized piece of art in it:

In it was a yellow baby, of a bright, not quite Randall Yellow yellow. It was certainly humanoid, but the limbs and face were instantly recognizable as being those of Pikachu . . . You would have to say, if pushed, that it was in pain, though whether caught in a momentary spasm by art, or frozen like that permanently, was less clear. It was Joshua. It was Joshua in the hospital . . .

‘This is art. This is what I do.’

‘This is your son, Randall. It’s Joshua. No, don’t shake your head at me.’

The argument, which Randall defuses by laughing at the fact that Vincent would make such an error as taking a piece of art seriously, reverberates uneasily through the rest of the novel, and evidently within Randall’s work as well: “nothing resembling Joshua-Pikachu was ever made again.”

So what exactly is Randall trying to do with his art? Is he even making art?

*

Randall is exciting and energetic even as it stymies its readers. The questions circling around the near-mythical figure at the book’s center, filtered through Vincent’s eyes or through his artworks, are never fully resolved—but the point of satire has never been to provide answers. Satire, rather, is a “painted grape,” to take from the book’s subtitle, which references a Greek myth about a grape so perfectly rendered on canvas that, when it was unveiled, birds flew to peck at it. This is an artist we can imagine—even in the excesses of the Great Day of Art, a violent frenzy of Randall Yellow where the plummy declaration that “It’s just paint! It’s just paint!” cannot assuage the people present—and he fits perfectly in the nebulous milieu that we call contemporary art.

“There’s only two things you can do with art,” Randall tells Vincent early in the novel, “make it and buy it. Everything else – talking about it, thinking about it, selling it, looking at it – either comes under one of those two, or doesn’t count.” If this is true—and I felt absolutely no misgivings as I read those words, just as I felt no surprise when somebody noticed at the Armory Show that none of the artists behind the artworks there could be found—then art today bears almost no resemblance to the art of the sixties and seventies, or even any era before then. And in that case, Jonathan Gibbs’s magnificent satire would be a satire only of the art industry, to come back to my consideration of the term. And in reality, Randall is a pitch-perfect portrayal of the art world—and of the titans captaining it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 28th, 2014.