George Duggan, Artist
by Louis Malloy
When the trouble started over the nude sculptures in his garden, George Duggan was sure that Asya would be proud of him. In many ways she was responsible for what was happening and it would be perfect for her to see him now as he stood before the ecstatic fury of a semi-circle of neighbours. He hoped that the uproar might get into the local papers and if it didn’t he had other plans which would. There was no going back now and that thrilled him to the core. He really wanted Asya to see what he’d done.
It was two months since their final Sunday morning. He’d gone round to Asya’s flat, carrying a bag of bagels and three of the serious papers. Those papers were so heavy with sections and supplements that when he let them fall onto her painting table they sounded like a proper, substantial gift.
“So let’s see, what’s the news?” said Asya.
She divided the sections and picked out headlines at random.
“The Italians are having another election. They have elections every year. Since the war they have had elections every single year.”
“Are you sure Asya?”
“Yes George. It’s true. Amazing isn’t it?”
He had never found out where Asya was from. Her English was all right but quite heavily accented and he was no good at accents.
“Have you ever been to Italy?” he said.
“No,” she said. “Look, the sparrow population here is decreasing by ten per cent.”
She got through the oddments of news in ten minutes while the water for the coffee boiled on the small stove. Asya’s flat was a large, completely open space apart from the bathroom at the back. There were drawings, paintings and sculptures everywhere and many pieces which George wouldn’t have been able to put into a category. The latest work was a pile of splintered wood, which looked like it had once been furniture, tied together with string and partly painted in mauve.
Asya was looking at the review sections.
“Quite a lot I want to see this week,” she said. “What are you doing today?”
Some Sundays, if Janet was out visiting her friends, George would go to a gallery with Asya.
“Got to get back home today.”
She made coffee. She didn’t cook or even prepare food as far as he had seen, but she made coffee with fantastic attention to detail and ceremony.
“I did this collage with some e-mails I got from the galleries. I wrote to them with proposals for a show and they replied. Come here and look.”
The printed mails were all brief, polite rejections of Asya’s proposals. She had annotated them in crayon with oddly phrased abuse: “You don’t even know art, you shit-monkey”; “Spend your money on your gallery cafe and your fat-ass whore painters”. There were stains of red and textured smudges of brown. George didn’t ask.
“It’s called ‘You Only Make Me Stronger’” said Asya.
She showed him some of the other works and installations she had completed that week. Asya explained the themes and the motivations and he went home holding onto a pleasant sense of conspiracy.
That made it even harsher when he went to see her exhibition. It was a weekday lunchtime and he caught a bus to a desolate area which he’d never been to in a lifetime in the city. The exhibition was in an industrial unit where a very young man greeted George and sold him a ticket. George walked into the large, cold gallery room and he recognised himself immediately.
It was a figure about three feet high made out of a wire frame and bagels. His first thought was that these couldn’t all be bagels that he had taken to her flat. She usually only nibbled at them, but there were still far more here than she could have saved. The figure wore glasses and a tie, which made him sure that he was the model. The small card on the wall said: “Going Stale”.
George stood still for five minutes, looking at the figure and the card and trying to think of a way that the model might not be him. But it was. He was wearing a tie now, as he nearly always did whether at work or home, and he suddenly wondered whether anyone else would be able to recognise him in the piece. He looked around to check that the gallery was still empty. It was, but through the doors, talking to the boy curator, he could see the small figure of Asya, dressed in a short mauve dress and what looked like pixie boots. George realised his eyes were now stinging quite badly and he wanted to run away. Asya grinned, waved and came though into the room.
“Great. You made it.”
George didn’t move and he had no idea what to say.
“Do you like it?” said Asya, walking around the figure.
When George said nothing she looked at him sweetly.
“George. What do you think of my sculpture?”
“Is it a sculpture?” said George. He thought you had to use a chisel for sculpture.
“Yes. I had to shape it. It’s sculpture.”
George watched her skip around it and wondered if he had been very wrong.
“It looks like me, I thought. When I first saw it.”
“Your tie and your glasses, you see? And the bagels. Obviously.” She laughed.
“But why?” George was speaking very softly. “But why the title?”
“Going stale. The bagels will go stale in a few weeks. It’s a living piece of art you know? Or a dying piece.”
“Am I going stale?” He didn’t know if he was crying. His eyes were certainly wet.
“We all are, George.” She came and put her hand on his arm. “I am an artist, I must tell the truth. Yes, you’re going stale. Unless we fight it, that’s what happens.”
They stood in the middle of the big room and then looked at the other exhibits, but George could take nothing else in. After ten minutes he said:
“I have to go now, Asya.”
“Okay.” She smiled and he smiled back without wanting to. “George,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. But I am an artist.”
She kissed him softly and slowly. Not too long ago he had told her, sincerely, that hers was the best kiss of his lifetime. But now he was only half-present at the scene and felt anxious to be outside. George walked over two miles back to the office at a self-punishing pace. It was nonsense. Surely it was nonsense. Art. It wasn’t art. Asya was just a person without a proper job and with a ridiculous hobby. She was pretty in a crazy-looking way and had given up some wonderful treats on their Sunday mornings, but what was there beyond those pleasures? She was ridiculous. It wasn’t art. Anyone could do that.
He did no work that afternoon, he hardly even pretended to. He could get away with doing nothing for days, probably weeks or even months. Janet didn’t question him when he got home early, she just told him what was for dinner and handed him some post which he didn’t read. He sat upstairs for a while, came down for his dinner, then went back upstairs again and sat for a lot longer. He watched no television. He sat on a chair with no book or newspaper and didn’t go down for any snacks. He found that he didn’t get bored at all, though when he went to bed he wasn’t sure what he’d been thinking about for all that time.
At breakfast the next day Janet asked him if he was all right but seemed satisfied when he said that he was. When he drove to work he watched the faces in the other cars and studied the shoes of the pedestrians. He could have taken a snapshot of anything and put it in a frame and called it art. Maybe that was what Asya did. Which made her a fake in some ways, but in others it meant she was doing exactly what she claimed.
George sat at his desk and took a few calls but did no work all day and felt like he never needed to again. No one was ever going to sack him and no one was really going to know if he was working or not. George not working did not cause the world to stop; only people at the bottom producing the goods or people at the very top taking the decisions could make a difference by not doing anything. They could have cut out the middleman if they’d really thought about it and George was right in the middle. Dead centre.
He took a long lunch in a terrible café. He looked at the marks on the table, at the small landscape of the salt in the plastic pot, at the back and forth of customers and staff. The world was full of things and all of those things were made of other things. One of the grains of salt was the two-hundredth highest in the hill of grains and something would happen to it. Even if it was shaken out and eaten or thrown away at the end of the week or the month, then something would happen to it, it had a future. None of this amazed George, it didn’t make him happier or unhappier, but he guessed that this was how Asya saw things too.
He went into a bookshop and bought a guide to modern art, one with lots of pictures in it. He read it all afternoon and it became obvious. Basically you could get away with anything, even Picasso and a few others he had heard of. They obviously knew what they were doing and they could draw, but you wouldn’t be sure of that if you hadn’t been told. He liked the objects best. Installations, sculptures, pieces of rubbish stuck together and given a name. He hadn’t appreciated this when he’d been to the galleries with Asya, but that was it, he was definitely an objects man.
George gave up TV. It wasn’t hard, he’d never liked it that much anyway, it was just a way of passing an evening. He sat upstairs a lot and pretended to be preparing things for work.
“You work too hard,” said Janet.
He had never worked too hard and he certainly wasn’t now.
“Do you want a drink?”
He didn’t. Nor a snack. She didn’t fuss too much. As long as George wasn’t ill or stressed, Janet would leave him to do whatever he wanted. It was the kind of wife an artist needed, he thought, and when that thought came to him he almost laughed out loud. Absurd, but why not? He knew you didn’t really need any technical skills, not if you did certain types of art. He would have the right to call himself an artist as soon as he had come up with something.
He started immediately.
There was some wire mesh in the garage which he had bought to cover the drains. He could bend it into some kind of shape and cover it with papier maché and then he could paint it. It would be pretty similar to the stuff that Asya did except he wouldn’t paint it mauve. Once he was in the garage he decided that it would now be his studio. He brought out a mug and a coffee jug which they had brought back from Spain and never used. He wasn’t sure how it worked, but he would take great care in the brewing, just like Asya did.
He bent the wire mesh into shapes which he was quite pleased with. Then he lit the camping gas single ring and made coffee. Unfiltered it was thick and very strong. But it felt right, standing there, drinking coffee in the foreign style and looking at his work in progress. He could imagine taking up smoking.
The papier maché took a while. He had learned to make it in school but couldn’t remember exactly how. He piled on the layers and made more coffee while he waited for them to dry. It was clearly going to take a long time, so he created another piece while he was waiting and then another. By eleven o’ clock the pieces were still wet, so he decided to leave them overnight.
“You’ve been busy,” said Janet when he went back in.
“Yes,” said George. He didn’t need to give too much away. He doubted whether Janet would understand and he couldn’t really blame her, not really understanding it himself.
“No thanks.” George decided to give up sweet things.
“No.” He almost felt angry at the word. Biccie. But then he added “thank you”, because Janet really might be the wife of an artist, which would never be easy.
He did very little work the next day but was busy in the office reading his modern art book. Finally he put it down, because that wasn’t what art was about anyway, it was about just doing it. He was formulating quite a few of these artistic philosophies now, but he couldn’t remember whether he was just repeating some of what Asya had said or actually thinking it all up for himself.
The mesh and papier maché pieces were dry when he got home and he painted them with soft orange matt emulsion. They didn’t look bad and he tried some other colours, though he didn’t have many. He cleared the garage floor, placed his pieces in the middle and examined them while he drank a coffee. He was drinking it black but he’d found the packet of filter papers which they’d not even opened and now it tasted quite good. The main piece needed a title, so he wrote “The Unexpected” on a piece of paper and taped it to the floor. He moved the pieces around again and decided he would also get a shade for the light at the weekend.
He went into the house quite late again and he had a conversation with Janet which was similar to the one they had had the night before. After he had been in the bathroom he said he had forgotten something and went back out to the garage. He changed the title to “What you Never Expected.” He still wasn’t sure whether it was right. He lay awake for a while making up different titles, all of which contained the word "expected" or “unexpected”.
On Saturday morning Janet was going into town and would have lunch with a friend. George smiled and told her to have a good time and asked her to get him some sheets of white card if she was going near a stationers. She looked pleased that he had asked and wrote it down at the end of a long list which she had already been working on.
When Janet had gone off in a cab, George drove to the DIY superstore. He bought small items first. A shade for the garage light, a few small tins of paint, some overalls. He put them in the car but he didn’t feel he had nearly enough. He went back inside and got a thick roll of the wire mesh and a lot more paint, large tins this time and a dozen brushes too. Plasterboard, six sections. Sacks of powdered plaster, the ones in the trade section; he’d never bought anything from there before. He had so much that it wasn’t going to fit in his car, so he paid for the hire of a store van for two hours. When he put his goods in the van, it didn’t seem that there was really that much anymore, so he went back inside and bought more plasterboard, a selection of timber and sheets of polystyrene insulation.
He was delighted with his purchases. Nearly a van full and it had cost him just over a hundred pounds and most of that was on the paint. When he got home, he unloaded the van and then had to clear out the garage to make space. Two hours later, filthy with sweat, he went upstairs and showered. Everything was in order by the time Janet returned.
“Hello. Been busy?”
“Just a few odd jobs.”
“Oh you good boy,” said Janet. “I got your card.”
George rifled through one of her shopping bags and took out two packets of white card. He was pleased that she hadn’t got anything ornate.
“They alright?” called Janet.
George was more pleased than he would have expected. He was glad Janet was contributing because he’d felt bad about going to see Asya. Not that there was anything wrong really, not that he had been intending to try it on with Asya, but even so, it had been dishonest. Janet never asked too many questions about anything. A good artist’s wife, definitely. It didn’t feel so strange now, calling himself an artist.
They went out in the evening for dinner with three other couples. Everything was a subject for art now, he discovered. The conversation, the clothes, the angle of a leg, the flash of an earring. He was imagining snapshots and giving them titles and he wanted to be back in his garage putting everything into frames and plaster.
For the next month he did his duties, eating dinner, talking to Janet, taking the car to the carwash, buying the wine. He watched no TV, telling Janet he was fed up with the rubbish that was on these days. She nodded and agreed but carried on watching. He smuggled coffee and crackers and cheese into the garage and bought a small cassette player to play his jazz tapes on. And he worked hard, using his DIY skills which were basic but efficient. He built wooden frames, cut plasterboard into bold curves, mixed plaster and slapped it on, layer after layer until some kind of pleasing contour was achieved. He chopped bits up, threw bits away, put bits together. Every evening he produced something, however rough, and wrote a title on a piece of card. “The End,” “Bullfight,” “The Young At War.”
By the second week he could look back on his first attempts as juvenilia. His plastering wasn’t bad now, though still incredibly messy. When he ran out of space he just destroyed some of the early works, put the debris in sacks and emptied them into a builder’s skip which was permanently parked outside a house at the end of the road. His art didn’t need to be permanent. Asya’s ‘Going Stale” probably had now started to rot; he supposed she would throw it away. He drank a coffee while he thought of Asya, smiled and shyly raised a cup to her as he looked at his collection. George thought he could be a better artist than her. But he would have to exhibit.
He pondered this for a few days and it wasn’t until he went out to the garage one evening that he saw his space. The garden flowerbeds were shaped and cultivated by Janet; it was her hobby, though she hadn’t been out during the winter months. The lawn was George’s, or at least he was the one who cut it. When Spring came Janet would be back out in the garden and would be far more likely to spot what had been going on in the garage. Best in some ways to let her know about it before she found out. Janet, as far as George knew, had no interest in art, so she might need convincing.
George would exhibit by April, the earliest Janet was likely to set foot outside. He would do the first mow of the season and then he would put out his art. For the moment he wouldn’t make it a public event, just test it out on whoever came round. The idea excited him and he reduced his productive time at the office to half-an-hour a day, to the dismay of no one.
He worked at an even more ferocious pace than before, building a large frame and filling it with polystyrene. His plastering was quite accomplished now and he produced some lovely rolling curves and a super-smooth finish. It was going to be the sea, then the desert, but running his hand over the surface one evening it felt more obvious what it had become.
He added modest but more or less recognisable genitals where appropriate. As heads were difficult he didn’t bother; the sculpture was about the body anyway. He made extensions to produce arching backs, strong buttocks and fearsome breasts. There were now clearly, to his eye at least, two entwining figures and he painted one light brown and one a rather lurid pink. It was finished a few days before his deadline and he made a list of a hundred titles, finally deciding on “Adam And Eve.” It was maybe a bit too simple, but George didn’t like the stupid titles which he’d seen in the galleries. And there was an apple tree in the garden, which made it perfect.
At seven o’clock on a Saturday morning in mid-April he heaved his creation out of the garage. He placed it in the middle of the garden so that the female figure would have been looking towards the tree, had she had a head. He drank a coffee made with the proper ritual care and smiled, almost wept, in the sunshine. The morning was glorious.
Within two hours he had received three complaints from the neighbours whose houses overlooked his garden. They were mournful more than angry and stared at him with sorrow and bewilderment. Janet only noticed the figures when she returned from shopping. She started by laughing in an odd metallic way as if it was a joke which she didn’t actually understand. Then she asked George dozens of questions about what he had been doing for the last few months. She began to cry and talk about getting him to see someone. She ordered him to remove the thing from the garden but he calmly, though fearfully, refused. She went into the garage while he stood in the kitchen.
“’What You Never expected’”, she said when she returned.
“It was my first piece.”
“So it’s all about me George?” She was screaming now. “You’re just taking the piss out of me.”
George felt dizzy. He had hardly ever heard Janet swear, but what surprised him more was that it obviously wasn’t about her. He must have been thinking about Asya.
“Couldn’t you just speak to me? If you’re unhappy, there are better ways to say it.”
“Are there?” said George, but it didn’t sound as meaningful as he had hoped.
Janet blazed throughout the day. Maybe that was a good thing, though it was certainly uncomfortable for him at the moment. On Monday he took the day off work. The police came round and there was a meeting with the neighbours, who were convinced that there was an obscenity law.
“But it’s not obscene.”
There was a minor uproar and the policemen glanced at each other and said little. Janet was quiet but not timid and for the moment took no side. There was talk of depravity, decapitated congress, so-called art and house prices. People were embarrassed and shocked, there were pleas and threats, but George talked art back at them and they howled their exasperation. When they left they warned him that it was by no means the end of the matter, though the police urged all parties to sort it out amicably between themselves. Janet closed the door behind them without saying goodbye and came back into the room. George was looking out of the window, wondering how long the plaster would last when it rained. Then he turned to face her. He was scared enough for his hands to be shaking, but he felt strong and wished that Asya could see how they all hated his creation, hated him even. He wished that she could be there to acknowledge the artist before her.
© Louis Malloy
Louis Malloy lives in Nottingham, England. He works as a computer programmer but prefers to write fiction. His recent successes include publications in ‘Subway Lit’, ‘The Paumanok Review’, ‘Aesthetica’ , ‘Eclectica’, ‘Projected Letters’, ‘Pindeldyboz’, ‘In Posse Review’, ‘Clean Sheets’ and a winner’s prize in a BBC short story competition.