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.