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Matisse et Moi

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by Una LaMarche

When I was ten years old, I held my first public reading. It was an important moment in my life, and so—in the same way that my pop-culture-addled brain processes most of my formative experiences—I remember it in dramatic slow motion.

We see this kind of entrance in movies all the time: The camera starts at ground level, and slowly pans up the character’s body inch by inch as they round a corner or strut down a street, usually accompanied by a contemporary soundtrack that sets the emotional tenor of the scene. For John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, this was “Stayin’ Alive.” For the Mean Girls in Mean Girls, it was Missy Elliot’s “Pass That Dutch.” For me, in 1990, at least for the purposes of theatrical memory playback, it is Young M.C.’s classic “Bust a Move.”

In my mind—and, let’s face it, most likely in reality—I was wearing my favorite pants, a pair of pegged, stonewashed capri jeans that ended mid-calf with a pair of decorative bows. My hair was long, crimped, and parted to one side—as close as a white girl could reasonably get to impersonating Milli Vanilli—and it bounced under the fluorescent track lighting of the brightly-colored elementary school hallway, keeping time with the clacking heels of the cowboy boots I reserved for only the most special occasions. My trademark, as-yet-untouched unibrow raced across my forehead excitedly like an Al Hirschfield scribble of Pavarotti’s mustache. I was ready.

My destination that day was the principal’s office. I had been invited to read an essay aloud over the intercom. Each student in my fourth-grade class had been tasked with choosing a famous person to research and write about, and I had picked one of the foremost artists of the 20th century, the French painter Henri Matisse. I had chosen Matisse largely because my mother loved his work, because we had a poster of his hanging in our living room, and also because I thought it might make me seem worldly and superior compared to my classmates, many of whom had chosen to profile more current celebrities, like New Kids on the Block, or Arsenio Hall.

I remember how fast my heart was beating as I took my final steps up to the microphone. I remember the feel of the loose leaf crumpling in my fist as I squeezed it nervously. I remember the principal introducing me over the loudspeaker, and how important it felt, like I was on Star Search, about to finally realize my dream of performing an a cappella rendition of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” that would cause Ed McMahon to break down in hysterical tears. I don’t remember a single thing about the contents of the essay now, except for its title, a title that probably should have set off some alarm bells for my parents that they might be dealing with a child on the path towards narcissistic personality disorder.

I had decided to call my one-page biography “Matisse and Me.”

***

It is here that I should mention I was kind of a big deal in the art world by the late eighties. I hadn’t really broken into the New York scene yet, but just four years earlier, while my family was living in Austin, Texas, I’d had a drawing run in Highlights Magazine. This was considered so newsworthy at the time that the local paper had run a story about it titled, “Austin Girl’s Drawing Published in National Children’s Magazine.” The paper was also kind enough to reprint my piece, “Girl Holding a Parasol,” so collectors were aware. My previous work had been rough and juvenile—the typical Picasso-derivative misplaced facial features. I’d only trained at the Austin Waldorf School, where, if I recall, our craft time was limited to weaving rough cornhusks into the sorts of dolls Laura Ingalls Wilder might have received on a particularly lean Christmas. But “Girl Holding a Parasol?” That was my breakthrough.

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She was somewhat abstract, lacking a nose, or any discernible spinal column. Her feet were miniature hooves that seemed unlikely to support her refreshingly Rubenesque figure. One tiny T-Rex arm held aloft a star-spangled “parasol” with a jagged hole in the top—my best attempt at an allegory for the Reagan Administration. She stared off into the middle-distance with a Mona Lisa smile. The other “artworks” on that Highlights page—“My Dad,” “Cat,” “Helicopter”—looked downright amateur by comparison. Later, I submitted a second drawing, “Man Falling to His Death From Hot Air Balloon,” but Highlights, probably not wanting to stoke my ego or force its readers to confront their own mortality before 2nd grade, declined.

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Despite being quick to promote my newfound celebrity, my elementary school in Texas was somewhat lacking in resources for a budding artist of my caliber. The “studio,” if you could call it that, was housed in a long, mobile trailer tucked away in the corner of the schoolyard. I don’t remember any identifying details about the teacher, but I think the fact that he or she felt that Donkey Kong was a suitable subject for a papier-mâché puppet project pretty much says it all.

Thankfully, I had my mother at home to guide me. She was the true artist in the family, having gotten a master’s degree and gone on a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy to study sculpture. She was the one who decorated our walls with her big, abstract charcoal leaf forms, and posters of famous paintings by her favorite artists. She had a space out in the garage where she worked, and even set up a small easel for me next to hers. “That’s so interesting,” she would say about whatever I was doing. “Tell me about it.” She was never one to slap quotidian labels on the fruits of creativity; a stack of circles on top of an inverted triangle might read as an ice-cream cone to anyone else, but if I said it was Cher in Moonstruck, she wasn’t going to argue with me.

Incidentally, Matisse and I have supportive mothers in common, which perhaps is why I felt close enough to him to add myself into his biography. Sure, his mom brought him art supplies after a bout of appendicitis, waking his talent, while mine handed me a box of granola bars and turned on a Smurfs marathon so that she could “give birth to my sister,” but I knew we were cut from the same cloth. After all, his bold, colorful early work got him labeled a “Fauve,” which is based on the French term for “wild beast.” Similarly, my early performance pieces, in which I drew all over my naked body with Crayola markers and ran around our loft like my parents had dusted my Cheerios with amphetamines, was designed to challenge the constraints of more widely accepted modes of expression. In 1983, Marina Abramovic was in Thailand filming monks, but somehow I had already internalized her talent for confronting the limits of the body, and making audiences uncomfortable. Once, when my grandmother was visiting from Rhode Island, I famously ran into the living room—naked, of course—and crouched down, pretending I was about to relieve myself on the rug. I might still take that one to MoMA.

***

Despite feeling so simpatico with Matisse and Abramovic, by my middle school years, my style took a surprising turn, developing into a blend of realism and pop art. I found my niche in cartoonish self-portraits; the kinds of tableaus Frida Kahlo might have painted had she also been watching a lot of The Simpsons in her free time. I even trademarked the brand name “UnyToons” for my custom camp stationery, but there was confusion in the market about what a hirsute pre-teen had to do with Bugs Bunny, and so I eventually gave it up and moved on to more serious subjects. My seminal 1996 still life of a Diet Coke bottle and a Troll doll, “Stuff That Is Near Me,” made a clear statement about the sleek commercialization of the booming mid-90s, and, in a shocking postmodern twist, included the very pen with which I was sketching. On the strength of that piece I was elected as president of Hunter College High School’s distinguished Art Club, which met weekly during lunch period and, as a result, focused mostly on stipple portraits of our sandwiches. In our yearbook photo, I am looking down at my paper, far too seized by the muse to notice the photographer.

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Or, perhaps, I was avoiding facing an existential struggle that had been building ever since that day in the principal’s office. After all, I’d been so excited not because of an artwork I’d created, but because of an essay I wrote, that all of my peers would be forced to listen to. An essay I manipulated to be mostly about myself, despite that not being the point of the assignment at all. My mother was a great artist, and my younger sister was already showing more original talent than I had ever displayed, even at the height of my renown within the Austin city limits. If I was honest with myself, my talent wasn’t really visual. For every drawing I stuck to the refrigerator, there were dozens of loose-leaf pages stuffed into my desk drawer, pages filled with short stories and tortured diary entries in my passionate, slanted penmanship. My best friend Halima and I had even completed a handwritten, 42-page novella, about a detective whose mistress kidnaps his runaway teenage daughter. We called it “Kidnapped,” never having read the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name. In our defense, though, we did add two exclamation points.

Maybe I was meant to be a writer. This thought haunted me throughout my freshman year of college, during which I chopped off my hair, took up anxious smoking, and enrolled in a life drawing class that, while not giving me much more confidence in my artistic ability, did allow me to view my first naked man, at some very interesting angles. For my final grade, I had to lug my huge portfolio out to Wesleyan’s stark, cement-block arts campus, where I spread my work out on the floor for the professor to critique. We’d done a series of self-portraits earlier in the year, and in a fit of substance-induced inspiration, I had cut mine into pieces and rearranged them so that they formed an unsettling collage of a face, accented with other pieces of my eyes and mouth and capped off with manic swirls of paint and nail polish that I can only guess were supposed to represent my complete and utter failure to make any good decisions while high. “It’s kind of obvious, don’t you think?” he chuckled, and I had to agree.

It was obvious. My life imitating an artist was coming to a close.

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***

I think it was best for everyone that my career ended when it did. I stumbled around through the arts for awhile trying to find my place—a film studies major here, a West African dance class there—until I finally accepted my love of writing, and, more importantly, reading in public to a captive audience. I no longer have to pretend to understand the Dada movement, and I can go to museums and galleries to enjoy the works of the masters while drawing horses for my son that look suspiciously like dogs in the privacy of my own home.

I won’t lie, though: Sometimes I gaze at my little boy quietly drawing at his table and wonder if maybe there’s still hope for my bloodline. He did tell his pre-K teacher that he wanted to be a painter, later switching it to fireman and then astronaut, but we all have confusion early on. He recently drew a delightfully avant-garde bunny for Easter, with legs and arms emerging directly from the neck, and long, confident whiskers that bolted all the way to the edges of the page. But my favorite work of his is a portrait he drew of me. In it, I am broad-shouldered and wide, like a professional football player, or maybe an anthropomorphized mattress. My hair shoots up in five lines from the top of my head, like blades of grass, and my eyes are large and determined; I am focused on a triangle floating in the distance—running towards it, in fact. I am running so fast that my nipples—my only discernible features except for the eyes—trail slightly off my chest as if caught in a powerful wind. My son tells me that the phantom triangle is pizza, which makes a lot of sense and which I would indeed run for, with very little provocation.

It’s a mature piece of work, dynamic and assured.

I would send it off to Highlights, except for the nipples.

I’m pretty sure there are laws about that.

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