Artist For a Day 

By Derrick Mathis

"The fucking chocolate bars keep falling off!" I blubber to no one in particular. Scrambling on my hands and knees I rifle through the toolbox that one of the gallery owners has loaned me. I've been at it for 20 minutes. It's 3:45 and the opening begins at 5. I still have a bouquet of flowers, two halves of a coconut, some fresh sliced yams, rolling papers, and magazine cutouts to go. Frustrated, I try again, coating the backs of the chocolate bars with heavier globs of glue and carefully pressing them onto the small patch of wall I've been allotted for my installation.

So far three artists have left their own work to come to my aid. They feel sorry for me when I tell them I've never shown before and have no idea what I'm doing. But as the clock nears the opening hour, they're becoming less sympathetic to my desperate begging. They've got their own masterpieces to worry about.

What am I doing here? About a month ago I was invited by Richard Lange, one of the owners of Circa Gallery, to participate in a multimedia group show entitled "Manhood: A Graphic Portrayal of Masculine Virility." I thought he was joking, but he wouldn't let up. "Oh, come on, you're a writer, aren't you?" I assured him that I was making a stab at being one, but I didn't see myself as part of a multimedia lineup at an art gallery. Yet the idea of being courted as an artist must have gotten the best of me, because before I knew it I was tripping over myself telling him about a homoerotic poem I had written last summer. He suggested I bring it over to the gallery so he and his partner Thom Frerk could take a look.

To my surprise they liked the poem and said they could use something like it in the show. I still couldn't see how my lovelorn verse could possibly be construed as artwork, but they dug it so I happily obliged. A couple weeks later they sent me a contract to cover the possible sale of my work, and I thought to myself, "These guys can't be serious."

About a week before the show I got messages on my machine from both Thom and Richard. They felt I should doctor up the poem a bit, fix the typos, put it on some paper more aesthetically pleasing than the white copy paper I had handed to them. At this point I grew perplexed. Wasn't that their job? The day before the opening I got some fancy paper and dragged my butt down to the gallery, thinking I'd hand it over to them and they'd do the rest. Instead I found out I had 24 hours to become a visual artist.

First my nine pages of literary art were copied on a thin rice paper in a large print, so viewers wouldn't have to squint to read the words. Good call. That was Thom's idea. Then Richard suggested that I create an installation: borrow some of the physical objects mentioned in the poem and display them alongside it. OK, OK, not bad. The poem referred to a lot of foodstuffs and there was a great deal of imagery. Thom suggested I angle the pages instead of lining them up side by side and insert the objects between and around them. Yeah, I panted, I can see it! I dashed from the gallery full of ideas and spent the better part of the next day shopping. I felt the creative juices charging through my veins as I flicked aside coconut after coconut in search of the perfect one. I searched high and low, calling confectioners, candy shops, and gourmet stores until I found the exact Mexican chocolates I had described in my poem. Ah, the joy of creation! I was on a roll. The muse was with me...

So now it's about 20 minutes till 5 and I'm fretting. The chocolate seems to be holding, but I'm worried about the location of my piece--will people notice it here by the stairwell as they climb to the second floor?--and unsure whether it really belongs here. Deep down in my heart I know that most of the work in the show has piles of hard work, dedication, and art-school tuition behind it. Still, I don't feel completely diminished. In fact I'm kind of proud of my makeshift installation. I mean it's, well...unique. For all I know this experience might have unearthed some hidden talent. I begin to fantasize about future openings at the modish galleries on Damen. "Ah yes, another Mathis piece--so brilliant, so full of depth, such layers of meaning. He's self-taught, you know."

People are starting to arrive. I take a deep breath and position myself across the hall from my wall. I don't want to be caught standing near it, looking like I'm trying to entice people to take a look; I want to hide and see if people will stop on their own. At the same time I have my eye cocked for friends. When Lange mailed me ten invites I couldn't think of anyone to give them to at first, but about a week before the opening I stopped by the gallery to pick up an extra 30.

My first viewers. Here we go. Four people slow down in front of my installation. I try not to look their way but can't help myself. Are they reading? Yes, they're reading!

More people begin to stand around. Puzzled looks on their faces, but they're reading. Several of my buddies have arrived. I'm getting slaps on the back, congrats, I didn't know you had it in ya's. Yes, I think, standing in the hallway, legs spread apart with my hands clasped behind me, I believe we have discovered some latent creative talent.

But the euphoria didn't last long. After the reception, nursing a drink at the Rainbo Club, surrounded by congratulatory friends, I was disappointed with the evening. Several of my fellow artists had sold significant amounts of work. I didn't sell one lousy page.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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