Hidden Boy

Allegory / Laurie Hogin

:: Hidden Boy ::

Hid­den Boy showed up on the class ros­ter for advanced stu­dio majors, almost incred­i­bly, as John Doe. He said he was a trans­fer stu­dent who had done all his prerequisites—all of them, with just Senior Stu­dio and The­o­ry Sem­i­nar to fin­ish his BFA—at an art school some­where in the Pacif­ic Rim; it had a name that none of us could get around except for the exot­ic and bureau­crat­ic “Pre­fec­ture.” He spoke of blue mists on emer­ald hills and his father’s expat job; it seemed clear and rea­son­able, lis­ten­ing to him in the moment, but became all fog­gy and impre­cise very quick­ly, in fact almost impos­si­ble to recall with­in sec­onds after tak­ing leave of him. I attrib­uted this per­sis­tent ephemer­al­i­ty of his cur­ricu­lum vitae, this odd mem­o­ry loss, this evap­o­ra­tion, to the fray of the day as it tossed my old, yel­low­ing brain about like a coconut in the surf and to 35 years of putting ros­ter names to faces, and faces to beings, and beings to art­work.

Our Reg­is­trar sent me the link to a por­tal so I could view his tran­scripts and port­fo­lio, but I could not open the file nor find the pro­gram I’d need to install in order to open the file, and when I asked the Reg­is­trar to send me the files as attach­ments, I got an email noti­fi­ca­tion from the serv­er that I could expect pack­et laten­cy and pack­et loss; the Registrar’s mes­sage with files nev­er showed up. I had my son do a lit­tle hack­ing when he was in town with the grand­kids, to see what was in the Cloud, but we kept get­ting a mes­sage: File Not Found – Error 2323.

The Reg­is­trar snort­ed, mugged, and shrugged; he was over­whelmed with work, and I felt bad ask­ing him to do more. My col­leagues, what few of them remained those last days, seemed untrou­bled by the mists sur­round­ing John’s record and by the ques­tion of why he would choose to com­plete his degree with us. Our Fine Art BFA was to be moth­balled until such time as demand for such a degree might make a come­back on cam­pus­es like ours. STEM cam­pus­es. Part of it, I am sure, was that they were not pay­ing atten­tion. They were most­ly teach­ing the non-major cours­es that were to be the residue of our ped­a­gogy, pop­u­lar across cam­pus and going strong to keep our fac­ul­ty employed into the fore­see­able future. I, with only a year of my teach­ing career left (assum­ing the mar­kets were kind to my nest egg) before enter­ing that gen­tle pas­ture­land between pro­fes­sor­ship and assist­ed liv­ing, was being hon­ored with the priv­i­lege of shep­herd­ing our final class before the cur­ricu­lum was gone from the books. The admin­is­tra­tion had found our opaque, quirky con­cerns inde­fen­si­ble to the tax­pay­ers, and of course my young col­leagues resent­ed this, retreat­ing to their stu­dios, skip­ping all the bud­get cri­sis forums, ignor­ing the admin­is­tra­tive horn-honk­ing for inno­va­tions, effi­cien­cies, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary ini­tia­tives, the arts in sci­ence, the arts in busi­ness, design engi­neer­ing. I don’t blame them. They had their pro­mo­tion and tenure dossiers to think about, not to men­tion their actu­al art-world careers; each exhi­bi­tion and review a rung on a lad­der; the rungs were still sound for a few more years, as long as the Pro­mo­tion and Tenure com­mit­tees knew what a muse­um was. I’d been an activist, or at least mouthy, Chair, and they appre­ci­at­ed that. Their elder states­man, I was loqua­cious, vol­u­ble, emphat­ic, and of course sin­cere in my advo­ca­cy, but every­one saw I was only the frail cap­tain of a crum­bling hulk, shout­ing into a gale.

Maybe we just inbred too much, cross-pol­li­nat­ed into a some­thing like feed corn, unpalat­able with­out pro­cess­ing, an indus­try of encryp­tion for decoding’s sake; each plant looks dif­fer­ent but the DNA is all the same. Round-up ready. I saw it hap­pen. I helped it hap­pen, and I enjoyed it, too. I spent my days play­ing unwit­ting­ly into cur­ren­cies of cer­tain roman­tic stereo­types, in hind­sight, loved by cap­i­tal­ism; fixed in time and space like love and friend­ship in the greet­ing-card aisle. I wore pais­ley shirts and scarves and a goa­tee; I smoked unfil­tered Camels. I kept a bot­tle of whiskey in my desk draw­er. I advo­cat­ed free love, free speech, self-expres­sion, mind expan­sion drugs, the art and music of rev­o­lu­tion. It was the right thing at the time. How were we to know it would all turn into lifestyle brand­ing, that the sur­re­al and the new would be as rad­i­cal as sug­ar cere­al?

Over the years, I gave names to all man­ner of hard-won, rig­or­ous­ly parsed art ges­tures, at first main­ly tra­di­tion­al media—painting, draw­ing, sculp­ture; oil, char­coal, plaster—and then an ever-widen­ing tax­on­o­my of stuffs, abject mate­ri­als, arti­facts, all mat­ter of this and that and what­not. It gath­ered and swirled in white-walled eddies on the banks of com­merce and cul­ture: stuff. Stuff on walls, hung from ceil­ings, crawl­ing across floors, films and videos of bab­ble and flash, a plop in a plaza for some imag­ined pub­lic. Sty­ro­foam mono­liths that look like polar ice “ref­er­enc­ing” cli­mate change, giant pho­tographs that make pain pret­ty, video col­lages of vio­lence and deprav­i­ty that tell only the sto­ry of video col­lage, all very expen­sive, jus­ti­fied in safe spaces by effort­ful and obvi­ous texts on the wall. So I under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing when reg­u­lar folks look at con­tem­po­rary art and won­der why we need that and say who­ev­er wants it can pay for it, which is Wall Street and big phar­ma, petro­le­um, agribusi­ness, and all their friends, the very peo­ple we’d hoped to insult. And what’s worse is that they want it for wall­pa­per and to out­do one anoth­er accord­ing to some mys­te­ri­ous pres­tige cri­te­ria. So that’s what’s hap­pened. The arts on cam­pus. The new empha­sis on Design, new part­ner­ships with Engi­neer­ing, the rhetoric of out­comes remind­ed me our unit’s mis­sion is all about man­u­fac­tur­ing desire. I’d held faith that this was a good thing, a crit­i­cal and rad­i­cal thing, and per­haps it was, but now I see it clear­ly: the oceans are full of crap and desire is no longer a protest, except maybe for queer peo­ple in red states. Though I must admit, even now, in the low light of my own set­ting sun, I still believe the arts can man­u­fac­ture dig­ni­ty. Some of it is just so weird and just so beau­ti­ful.

So our BFA pro­gram, by the time John Doe arrived, had dwin­dled to only eight in a school of near­ly 600 Design majors. The final course of our stu­dio pro­gram and the last days of my teach­ing career would waltz togeth­er through the soft­ly crum­bling white lofts of the stu­dent stu­dios, which were dis­tant from the new Design Cen­ter, rel­e­gat­ed to the grand ruin of the for­mer Botany build­ing, far from the bus­tle of the quads, wal­low­ing in slow­ness as though time and space were gelling. The build­ing had been slat­ed for demo­li­tion for some six years. Once we had done with it, it would meet its fate, but we could make do: the spaces were wide and light for our instal­la­tions and paint­ings, and there was qui­et for our sound and per­for­mance works. The snicks and rustlings of res­i­dent rodents and the expres­sion of our own breath made us mind­ful and present in each moment. We lived with the pop­ping of old rafters in the autumn breeze, the creak of stairs and squeak of the floor­boards, and slow crick­ets in the walls occa­sion­al­ly con­cur­ring in dis­so­nant, arrhyth­mic chords, a decrepit form of jazz but jazz nev­er­the­less, the wain­scot­ing bro­ken like miss­ing teeth, my hands on the ban­nis­ter twist­ed like cypress boughs, but we were still there. There would be art, even if it lived more like weeds thrash­ing their way up through cracks in pave­ment than like the ordained elms guard­ing the edges of the great lawns.

The first day of class was the Stu­dio Crawl and Crit, where­in the class assem­bles in the main class­room for a meet and greet, roll call, announce­ments, and such oth­er busi­ness as nec­es­sary before head­ing up to the stu­dios for intro­duc­to­ry dis­cus­sions. We used stud walls on wheels to divide the open space into cubi­cles that would be the per­son­al stake of each of our stu­dents; how rapid­ly our species makes homes out of wilder­ness! Even the con­fused ones had arranged their seat­ing; those more con­fi­dent, direct­ed, or obsessed would pack their spaces with mate­ri­als of all kinds: found objects, mil­i­tary and indus­tri­al sur­plus, toy parts, elec­tric motors, foam insu­la­tion, pho­tos, clip­pings, poems, sketch­book pages, odd rocks, pre­cious scraps pinned to walls; once, a whole lot of onions; always some­thing to love in these arcades of effort. There were source fads: one year, every­one shopped the home improve­ment aisles, the next, every­thing was repur­posed garbage, with a sub­genre of burnt things. Of course we always had painters, dear and real to me. Some­times they’d cling to me, ostra­cized by their peers and even my col­leagues. Paint­ing endured teas­ing and dis­dain for its vul­gar­i­ty, lack of sophis­ti­ca­tion. At times it was even con­sid­ered cor­rupt, too easy to approach, to com­mod­i­fy, too quick­ly the prove­nance of hob­by­ists, an impure species of art object, mix­ing, they sus­pect­ed, with such quo­tid­i­an prac­tices as inte­ri­or dec­o­rat­ing and shop­ping. As though the oth­ers didn’t.

We’d tour the war­ren of stu­dios, vis­it­ing each bur­row in turn as its denizen would describe its con­tents, explain the vein of knowl­edge, the map of top­ics, con­tex­tu­al­ize its mate­r­i­al man­i­fes­ta­tions among oth­er insti­tu­tion­al­ly or his­tor­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful objects it resem­bled. Seri­ous­ness ensued. Cri­tiques, crits. At their best, they were a phi­los­o­phy of a sci­ence of aes­thet­ics, more fun than any game, espe­cial­ly when the work was tru­ly weird. At their worst, they brought to mind the joke my moth­er used to make about how the dodo became extinct: it flew in ever-nar­row­ing con­cen­tric cir­cles until it dis­ap­peared up its own ass­hole. Some­times crit was an act of dis­course find­ing use­ful metaphor in the cir­cle jerk, not that I remem­ber par­tic­i­pat­ing in any of those myself. But they hap­pened. It was the Vil­lage. It was 1972, and like every­thing that spoke desire, they were sup­pos­ed­ly acts of cre­ative resis­tance. A’s to the most vig­or­ous.

The final ros­ter includ­ed a Jake, an Emma, three young women whose names were cog­nates of Kather­ine. All of these were seem­ing­ly well-heeled white kids from the sub­ur­ban coun­ties, stun­ning­ly easy, con­formist, pleas­ant, healthy; there were some char­ac­ter­ized by earnest­ness, and eager­ness, includ­ing a very tall farm boy named Edward but nick­named Jump; an African Amer­i­can kid named Malik and a Kore­an woman named Jun Yung but called Lisa. And there was John, who, in spite of his droll Anglo­phone name looked either mul­tira­cial, exot­ic, or utter­ly, gener­i­cal­ly human, depend­ing on one’s bias, as though his DNA includ­ed alle­les from every gene pool on the plan­et. He was cer­tain­ly beau­ti­ful. He was qui­et but pos­sessed of a strong, radi­ant benev­o­lence and very artic­u­late when he spoke. His gaze was like a mas­sive, slow riv­er, green­ish-brown. I called him John in class but began, after a time, to refer to him pri­vate­ly as Hid­den Boy, because he seemed to dis­ap­pear before my eyes as the semes­ter pro­gressed. The old­er I get, the faster the time goes, and Hid­den Boy’s ear­ly tricks were prob­a­bly obvi­ous to my sharp­er-eyed col­leagues and bright-eyed stu­dents. Through my ancient lens­es, though, they pre­sent­ed them­selves in a blur, both visu­al and tem­po­ral, and con­cep­tu­al, too; I began to see a sequence unfold­ing in halt­ing incre­ments, faster and faster, until flu­id move­ment took hold and played out, the crit­i­cal veloc­i­ty of ani­ma­tion, like the moment an old sprock­et film hits 24 frames per sec­ond and still pic­tures flick­er to life.

That first day of class, Hid­den Boy stood at the front of his stu­dio cubi­cle, which was at the back of the loft space, in the cor­ner. He’d arranged his par­ti­tions so that his space was long and nar­row, with the far end recessed in shad­ow and the front lined along one side with win­dows. A lau­rel oak lived out­side; the space was vague­ly green with light reflect­ed off the foliage and the lawn below. All avail­able wall had been cov­ered in paint col­or chips, hun­dreds or thou­sands of them, all shades of white; the col­lec­tion spanned many years. I rec­og­nized com­mon Amer­i­can hard­ware store names: Frost, Snow, Linen, Parch­ment, Pow­der, Pearl, Porce­lain, Arc­tic, Alabaster, Ivory, Cot­ton, Rice, Cream; there were swatch­es with hip, new-cen­tu­ry names like Sea Salt, Mod­erne, and Ios, rank, sen­ti­men­tal names like Pacif­ic Mist and Antique Lace, and some he’d clear­ly mixed and named him­self, includ­ing “Dust Tooth” and “Meth Bag.” This made us all think of when, how, and why this prac­tice of nam­ing shades of wall paint had become so com­plex, and its impli­ca­tions; maybe it was about race, class, or domes­tic­i­ty, or labor. Maybe it was about art gal­leries or muse­ums. Hypothe­ses abound­ed, draw­ing dis­parate sub­ject mat­ters into prox­im­i­ty and argu­ing for the impor­tance of these asso­ci­a­tions, for their con­se­quen­tial­i­ty and new­ness, because that’s the plea­sure of the game, and that’s the game they faced after grad­u­a­tion, too. There were an awful lot of swatch­es just to make those kinds of points. What I saw was the stun­ning hint at infin­i­ty. The group seemed non­plussed by that; per­haps it was age. Hid­den Boy stood just bare­ly in the shad­ows, hands in his pock­ets. I noticed he wore an ecru t-shirt under a worn, white, businessman’s Oxford with painter’s pants, white cot­ton can­vas of the type avail­able in paint stores of old. They were splat­tered with roller spray. His can­vas high-tops were dirty white, and as the light rose and dimmed with pass­ing clouds and the day grew long, he began to fade into the walls behind him. Even his raven-black hair and light tan face blurred in the gloom.

The class for­mat is designed to encour­age self-direct­ed stu­dio prac­tice and basi­cal­ly con­sists of three ses­sions a week, eight hours each Mon­day – Wednes­day – Fri­day of free-range stu­dents with me float­ing among them to advise and “men­tor,” with group cri­tiques to mark things like midterms and finals. Every vis­it to Hid­den Boy, every cruise past his space, it would take me sev­er­al slow sec­onds to spot him. He was a chameleon, a moth on bark, a tiger in tall grass, a phas­mid. He was cam­ou­flaged, some­times inten­tion­al­ly as an act of art mak­ing, of per­for­mance; short­ly after his open­ing gam­bit he filled his stu­dio with scraps and strips of green images and mate­ri­als that hung from the ceil­ing and piled on the floor, derived from things like mag­a­zines and mail order cat­a­logs, plas­tic shop­ping bags and thrift store cloth­ing, and which he sewed into a kind of post­mod­ern ghillie suit. When he wore it, he was indis­tin­guish­able from his stu­dio habi­tat, though he was mon­strous and ter­ri­fy­ing in the hall. Some­times, as when he installed an elab­o­rate archi­tec­ture of charred scrap lum­ber that cov­ered his white clothes and brown limbs in char­coal dust, he was invis­i­ble as he worked but for his move­ments. For his midterm cri­tique, he paint­ed his near­ly nude body to match the pat­tern of the iron­work struc­ture in the base­ment ceil­ing and installed him­self there before hav­ing me ush­er his class­mates in to search for where and what the art might be this time, his limbs tense and shak­ing, span­ning the open bay between two fret­ted joists like a spi­der, hid­den in plain sight and invis­i­ble for the dura­tion of his per­for­mance, which was per­ceived only after the fact. Even for the brief peri­od when he was mak­ing plain old paint­ings on paper, iter­a­tion after iter­a­tion of still lifes of his stu­dio clut­ter, res­o­nant, splat­tery pic­tures of ten­den­tious­ly col­lect­ed books and cof­fee cups and paint cans and myr­i­ad oth­er objects, flat­tened in the scream­ing flu­o­res­cents and reflect­ed in his night-dark­ened win­dows, his clothes were marked up with the very same pig­ments, and his blue-black locks dis­ap­peared against the back­drop of win­ter gloom. I’d stand at the entrance to his space and scan, blink­ing, as though my eyes need­ed to widen and clear, my pupils to adjust. Some­times he’d reveal him­self. He’d smile at me slow­ly or move his arm in a del­i­cate wave and wait for me to see him. Oth­er times I’d be sure the shape in the shad­ows was a pile of his long limbs around a sketch­book, but the shape would shift and dis­solve back into the floor and walls and piles of mate­ri­als, and I’d see I’d been wrong all along. Oth­er times I was sure the space was vacant, only to hear his gen­tle, chid­ing greet­ing emerg­ing from the riot of things as I turned to leave.

When our Seniors return from their Spring Break on the final Mon­day in March, we expect them to com­mence pro­duc­tion of the work that will be exhib­it­ed in our stu­dent gallery as their BFA The­sis. At least, that’s how it had been. This year, Design need­ed the gallery, and our Fine Art majors were to install in the Botany build­ing. They could use any space, though, inside or out. This free­dom from for­mat served as con­so­la­tion, at least for me. Our stu­dents always made us proud with pol­ished, inter­est­ing, gallery-ready BFA shows, but our ban­ish­ment gave me a sense of relief and hope, like a caress of air from an open win­dow, in let­ting our “pro­fes­sion­al prac­tices” ped­a­gogy be a lit­tle less pro­fes­sion­al. I was excit­ed to see how they dealt with the decrepi­tude, the obscu­ri­ty, the lone­li­ness, with the knowl­edge that their audi­ence was just them. Their friends and fam­i­lies would come, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, proud and per­haps anx­ious about what respons­es they ought to have. They’d bring beer and cup­cakes and bags of chips and baby car­rots for the open­ing recep­tion, but oth­er than that, they would be most­ly baf­fled.

Our final cri­tique would be of the installed works. The Katherines—Kate, Kate­lyn, and Kath—collaborated on an instal­la­tion. Col­or­ful yarn—crocheted, knit­ted, knot­ted, and draped—snaked through and over the build­ing using archi­tec­ture and its fail­ures, wrapped earnest­ly around the building’s his­tor­i­cal and phys­i­cal prob­lems as though on spin­dles: the exposed gird­ers, the phal­lic lime­stone pinecones flank­ing the entrance, the mas­culin­ist, alle­gor­i­cal bas relief. The work was ide­o­log­i­cal and intense­ly pret­ty, strands of col­or in gor­geous knots and webs strung over grey plas­ter, radi­at­ing wooly warmth in shafts of sun­light from the old sky­lights. It was a nice piece. Jump and Malik had great bod­ies of paint­ings, Malik’s mon­u­men­tal and mul­ti­me­dia, installed as though at the Tate Mod­ern on smooth walls. Jump had a series of small, exquis­ite­ly craft­ed and obses­sive­ly detailed urban land­scapes of ruined indus­tri­al neigh­bor­hoods in the St. Louis that was the Emer­ald City to his farm life. Though they were hung casu­al­ly in a row in the long, first-floor hall­way, they were intend­ed to be viewed in a very spe­cif­ic order, one that would bring the view­er to an under­stand­ing of a walk­ing or work­ing body in time, space, and loca­tion. Of course, they couldn’t not do that; they were paint­ings, but the The­sis pro­to­col required an artist’s state­ment, stuck on the wall like an OSHA poster. Jump’s paint­ings were pre­dictably pop­u­lar open­ing night. My col­leagues snort­ed at this, but they real­ly were stun­ning, bright, airy, believ­able, com­pli­cat­ed, smart, and fun. Lisa had made sculp­tures, con­i­cal tow­ers of plas­tic kitsch and spray-paint­ed foam insu­la­tion, six, sev­en feet tall, which were like liv­ing beings in the gath­er­ing twi­light under the cop­per beech out­side the crit space win­dow.

Hid­den Boy—John—began his BFA The­sis work imme­di­ate­ly after break. That first Mon­day, his stu­dio had been swept clean, the walls patched and paint­ed. In the cen­ter of the space was a large, office paper shred­der. Next to it was a box of mate­ri­als, appar­ent­ly to be shred­ded, most­ly old draw­ings and paint­ings on paper or unstretched can­vas, some his, some donat­ed or scav­enged from the non-majors trash bins, but also office paper with text, aca­d­e­m­ic papers, office doc­u­ments and such, and junk mail includ­ing adver­tis­ing fliers and cred­it-card offers and the like. Almost half the space was occu­pied by dozens and dozens of clay flower pots, stacked accord­ing to size. He was nowhere to be found, and it wasn’t until I was deep in my last con­ver­sa­tion of the day, tour­ing the yarn instal­la­tion, that I heard the shred­der. By Wednes­day, the flower pots had been dis­trib­uted and filled with what was clear­ly the pul­ver­ized prod­uct of the shred­der mixed with ver­mi­culite and pot­ting soil. Maybe there were oth­er kinds of soil, too—local soils of dif­fer­ent types—because not all were the same col­or. Still no John, but as I looked close­ly, I saw that seeds had been dis­trib­uted among the pots of soils, some pushed down into a poke hole, oth­ers scat­tered on the sur­face. I didn’t rec­og­nize any of the species. Some were del­i­cate and tiny, like pop­pies or morn­ing glo­ries, oth­ers larg­er, and hulled, like sun­flow­ers or pump­kins, but the col­ors were pecu­liar: dull pinks and oranges, strange blues. Some of the seeds had a glit­tery sheen, a near­ly holo­graph­ic aspect. Some even appeared to be mov­ing, ever so slight­ly, as though the floor were puls­ing with loud music, or a small earth­quake. By that Fri­day, the pots had been watered and growth had begun, but these were like no seedlings I’d seen. All were far more advanced than would have been expect­ed. Some were long, rangy, and pale, translu­cent and almost white, striv­ing in crazy, loopy ten­drils towards the win­dows. Oth­ers were blunt, thick, and bul­let-shaped, with spiky sprouts like a pota­to or kohlra­bi, dull magen­ta or pur­ple with red or yel­low veins hoist­ing leaves like curly sails. I won­dered if the tox­ic heavy met­als, the cad­mi­ums, chromi­um, and lead in the old paint­ings, or oth­er mys­te­ri­ous indus­tri­al poi­sons in the shred­ded, repur­posed works were, at least in part, the caus­es of this strange­ness.

After my last con­ver­sa­tion, with Malik, I went back up to John’s stu­dio. The build­ing was emp­ty, and the win­dow­less halls were turn­ing blue-grey with the falling evening. In Hid­den Boy’s space, late after­noon light pro­ject­ed a line of rose-col­ored squares on the par­ti­tion wall. They danced light­ly with dap­pled shad­ow from the live oak. I star­tled when the build­ing set­tled loud­ly behind me—a nor­mal occur­rence, but it took a few sec­onds for the throb­bing rush of my pulse to recede from my ears and the tin­gle to crawl down from the nape of my neck and go dor­mant again. In the silence, I could hear my own heart­beat and the high pitch of my ner­vous sys­tem, tin­ni­tus in my left ear, my breath­ing, still heavy with reced­ing pan­ic, and some dis­tant sound of stu­dents shout­ing, prob­a­bly a soc­cer match or frat house bas­ket­ball game. And then I noticed some­thing else—noises like faint whin­ing and click­ing from the seedlings. They were mov­ing, def­i­nite­ly, slow­ly but per­cep­ti­bly, grow­ing before my eyes, send­ing tall stalks and vine-like appendages that would reach and curl and kink. Bright shoots unfurled, ter­mi­nat­ing in broad, quiv­er­ing leaves or offer­ing com­plex, radi­ant blos­soms that burst open before set­tling in del­i­cate twitch­es. I watched as berries formed, trans­par­ent and filled with sparkling seeds like stars, like tiny galax­ies. The air in the space bil­lowed gen­tly with new scents that were spicy, earthy, flo­ral, fecal, fun­gal. Shoots thick­ened, bulbs pushed up through the dirt, sprout­ing crowns of thick blades, green, red, orange. A woody vine as thick as my wrist had made its way down the hole in the floor where the radi­a­tor pipe came up; anoth­er had begun to bur­row into the plas­ter high up on the back wall, cut­ting a crum­bling ravine. The late spring evening was gen­tle and long, but as the light fad­ed, the plants had col­o­nized the room. The ceil­ing hung with vines. Bits of debris began to fall and scat­ter, fol­lowed by a plat­ter of plas­ter and lath that crashed down and shat­tered like a chi­na teacup. Lumi­nous white blos­soms the size of pie plates twirled open at my feet. Dark root-like struc­tures began to crawl over the floor, between me and the way out, and it was at that point that adren­a­line over­came aston­ish­ment, and I fled.

Fri­day night, late in the spring semes­ter, and my col­leagues were all home with their young fam­i­lies or on the town. I encoun­tered no one as I made my way to the park­ing lot over at the Design build­ing. My home was emp­ty of peo­ple since the mat­u­ra­tion of my chil­dren, my divorce, and the death of my part­ner near­ly five years ear­li­er; only my cat, a ridicu­lous crea­ture with a flat face and a bent tail, was there. He rubbed against my leg and I picked him up and cud­dled his heft as he trilled with plea­sure. By the time I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to describe to anoth­er human being what I thought I had seen, I did not want to.

John was gone before the BFA The­sis Exhi­bi­tion open­ing. He had offi­cial­ly with­drawn from the pro­gram. Accord­ing to the Reg­is­trar, he had been called home due to a fam­i­ly situation—not an emer­gency, a “sit­u­a­tion.” The Reg­is­trar shrugged; that was all the infor­ma­tion he had. John’s email account should have con­tin­ued to work for a while, a cour­tesy accord­ed all fac­ul­ty, staff, and stu­dents who depart for any rea­son, but it did not. I couldn’t find him on social media; try doing a search on “John Doe.”

His stu­dio had been emp­tied of all art­works, mate­ri­als, and effects and swept clean, as was required by pol­i­cy, but as I inspect­ed it in the bright light of day, mak­ing one last check of the stu­dios before the oth­er stu­dents and their guests would arrive to cel­e­brate the first exhi­bi­tions of their pro­fes­sion­al lives, I noticed dark soil and glit­tery seeds pushed into the deep cracks of the ancient linoleum.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Thir­ty-three years ago, when I was still a stu­dent, I stopped writ­ing cre­ative­ly because I came up against the type of social appro­ba­tion writ­ers know well—angry fam­i­ly who sus­pect they are impli­cat­ed even in the con­vo­lu­tion and fan­cy of fic­tion and poet­ry. I start­ed again about fif­teen months ago because I’m old enough now to know that the cen­sor­ship was wrong, and oppres­sive (cer­tain­ly gen­der played a big role, espe­cial­ly giv­en my gen­er­a­tion), and it’s time to own all my impuls­es. After so many years of mak­ing most­ly only paint­ed pic­tures I want­ed to use ver­bal lan­guage in ser­vice of my art again and final­ly feel enti­tled to speak and able to con­cen­trate. My words had been most­ly ephemer­al, spo­ken, in ser­vice of dai­ly life. Many of my favorite phras­es, my best jokes, were there­fore evap­o­rat­ed. When writ­ten they’d served most­ly obligations—professional oblig­a­tions like let­ters, artist’s state­ments, course descrip­tions, emails; per­son­al ones like con­do­lences, obit­u­ar­ies, legal and busi­ness correspondence—although I’ve had the great hon­or of writ­ing essays for a few won­der­ful edi­tors, with impor­tant projects. My visu­al work has always been about sto­ries, but with­out words, they make use of a kind of mute­ness and still­ness, as pic­tures do; their rela­tion­ship to nar­ra­tive is by impli­ca­tion. Paint­ings do things that words don’t, of course; they offer sen­sa­tion of col­or, record of ges­ture, and their pres­ence as objects in the world, but writ­ten lan­guage is adja­cent and vis­i­ble ter­ri­to­ry for me, aban­doned long ago, and I am ready to set up shop there once again.

Hid­den Boy” came about for sim­ple and obvi­ous rea­sons relat­ed to my years of teach­ing art in the acad­e­my where the acad­e­my lives in cap­i­tal­ism, and cap­i­tal­ism warps art in its own image. It is cer­tain­ly an alle­go­ry, but also a lamen­ta­tion as well as an opti­mistic doc­u­ment. It is a reflec­tion of my stu­dents’ frus­tra­tion and sur­prise when they are forced to prune their art into metaphor­i­cal top­i­ary for insti­tu­tion­al gar­dens, to tame it for white walls in safe spaces, and to serve the cause of aes­thet­ic encryp­tion and the tyran­ny of the new, but it’s also an appre­ci­a­tion of them: their beau­ty, their gen­eros­i­ty, and the per­sis­tence of their cre­ativ­i­ty.

 

Best known for paint­ings of mutant ani­mals in lurid, over­grown land­scapes, Lau­rie Hogin exam­ines human desires and needs, includ­ing plea­sure, vio­lence, greed, and love, describ­ing polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and emo­tion­al phe­nom­e­na. Her work has been exhib­it­ed nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly for 23 years, and is in mul­ti­ple pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions. Hogin lives and works in Mahomet, Illi­nois, with her hus­band, their 15-year-old son, and some ani­mals. She is a Pro­fes­sor of Paint­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.