Yellow Dresses

by Robert N. Stephenson


George pulled a hair out of his mashed potato and put it on the side of his plate. He could have complained, but what good would that do? The food still tasted the same, and after all it was only hair. A hair in his food was the least of his problems.

In less than an hour his first major exhibition would open. Twenty years of creation in his garage, spare rooms and kitchen on display in the biggest gallery the town had on offer.

Mary had left him exactly a year ago, after he’d glued three of her best dresses to a board and painted them yellow. He didn’t know why he’d used them, but at the time it felt right, something he needed to do.

For Mary it became her way out of their twenty-two year marriage. The marriage had started downhill after he quit his day job as a carpenter and taken up art. He stayed home and raised their only child, Stephanie, and made a little money selling his home-grown marijuana to the local biker gang. Mary never understood what he was doing, but he couldn’t blame her: he didn’t either.

Looking at the potato reminded him of Mary, not that she looked like the mushy mound, though her skin possessed the same pale properties. No, Mary also ended up getting some of her long, black hair in the pot while mashing or in anything she attempted to cook. Didn’t bother him then, didn’t bother him now. She was gone, and there was no bringing her back.

“Hey, George, feeling nervous?” Tom, the curator of the gallery asked, sliding into the booth opposite him. George shook his head and shovelled some mash into his mouth. “Come on, you must be a little anxious, being your first big showing and all?”

“People will look at it, shrug and walk away, like they always do,” he said, looking up at the thin man barely into his twenties. His grey suit looked new, his hair short and spiked with gel.

“Don’t underestimate your work, it’s good out there, and I think people will get it.” The waitress put a coffee in front of him. He must have ordered before sitting down.

George ate some goulash, which tasted bad, but Mary couldn’t cook either; it was why he ate there. He hadn’t wanted a full exhibition: the few small ones he’d participated in had all ended up with an argument between him and an art critic after too much free wine.

This time a friend of his daughter’s, who worked in the same art supply chain store, had come around one night with her. The usual flurry of exclamations about the pieces scattered about the house ensued and he hid away in the kitchen until the young woman had left.

Unlike Mary, Stephanie had stayed after the separation. She kept to herself mostly, making sure he ate proper meals: pizza and Chinese mainly, but it was better than his usual fare, minus the hair.

Tom was a friend of a friend of a friend who knew someone, or so University networks went. He called around just over a month ago, flashed a business card and asked to look at his art. George didn’t bother asking how he’d found out, Stephanie had dropped the odd suggestion a few weeks previous.

* * *

“This is good, Mr Vanetta,” he said, moving pizza boxes from the settee so he could sit.

“My life, what can I say?” George said, preferring to stand. He’d just spent three hours on a potter’s stool.

“How’d you like a major exhibition?”

“Of what?”

“This. Your art, Mr Vanetta.” Tom was all smiles and large gestures. Used cars could have been his business.

“Why?” George worked for his own pleasure.

“Why? This is your big break. The show to put you well and truly on the scene.” Tom didn’t lose the smile, but the timbre of his voice lowered. “You can’t afford not to take this offer, Mr Vanetta.”

“Will it bring back my wife?”

“It might,” Tom said. “Why wouldn’t she want to be with a famous artist?”

“I didn’t think it would.” George rubbed at his face; he hadn’t shaved in a week. “Let me think about it.” He wished he’d never made Yellow Dresses. He’d give anything to have hair in his food again.

“The exhibition opens in five weeks’ time. Just let me know which pieces you want to show.” Tom stood and headed for the back door, the only way out.

“What?” George frowned.

“Stephanie set it up,” Tom shrugged. “I just had to drop by and see your stuff first.”

“Stuff!”

“Just pick about fifty works across the range. I’ll send a truck.” With that, Tom was gone.

* * *

“What’s on your mind? You look worried,” Tom asked, sipping his coffee.

George, back in the moment, waited until he finished eating before saying anything. The café might have been warm, but the food went cold quickly. Tom sat and watched, checking his watch now and again and taking gulps of his drink.

George had chosen fifty-two pieces for the show, and he made it as scattered as he could without giving off a true representation of himself. Each piece needed to speak for itself rather than the collection speak for the artist.

George pushed the plate away, downed his cold cup of tea and waited for the weedy gallery owner to speak.

“Have you decided to turn up yet?”

“How many people do you expect?”

“The promotions have gone well, and more than half of the invited guests have confirmed, so there might be around three hundred.”

“That many!” George hadn’t been in a crowd any bigger than in the café on a slow Wednesday night.

“Could be more. Does it worry you?”

“I might not come,” he said. “Is that a problem?” He didn’t want to be on display; not this time.

“No, not really, it is the work they are coming to see, but it would be good to meet the artist, improve sales.”

“No. I’ll just go home. Get Stephanie to call around after the showing, she can tell me all about it.”

Tom looked downcast but didn’t try to argue. He took a long narrow booklet out of his jacket and slid it across the table. With a dispassionate smile he eased his lanky form out of the booth and left.

George knew the suppressed-emotions look; he’d worn it often enough himself, more since Mary had left. He studied the exhibition catalogue. The photography looked professional enough, and the asking prices a little inflated, but since giving away the dope-selling, money had become tight.

George waited twenty minutes before leaving the café himself. Rain had started to fall. He liked the rain; poets referred to it as tears, the sky crying, God weeping for his children. But George just liked it for what it was; rain.

He hated getting wet, though, despised swimming pools or dips in the sea. What he liked was the medium: its fluidity challenged his mind, and it remained the only medium to defy his hands.

He had tried ice, but the cold burnt finger tips. He didn’t like the general esthetics of fountains or water features; they always looked unnatural, and the water lacked its usual grace. Rain was its own art form, beyond human control or sculpting.

Mary hated the rain, complained he always became morbid as the sky grew darker. George did his best yellow work during those times. It rained the night she left, the night of the Yellow Dresses.

The gallery was only a few city blocks away. He had decided to attend, but as a secret visitor. He entered the lane way beside the building, took off the cheap overcoat he’d hidden under during the meeting with Tom and put it inside one of the many overflowing bins from the restaurant next door. It might smell a little later but a walk home in the rain might freshen it up some.

With a black woolen fisherman’s cap well down he entered the gallery through the delivery door. The sound of voices, loud against the polished floorboards and white walls, confronted him as he eased into the gallery area. This was his first time in the rooms, but he had come by for a look a few times to see if they suited the work he had picked for show.

The building, eighty years old, had once been law courts. High vaulted ceilings, rosewood flooring, and extra wide doorways made it an ideal place for a gallery. The building could have done with heating though. Without the coat, the chill of the air quickly pushed through his light shirt.

A thick crowd gathered around his sculptures of fingers and broken things; the broken pencil gained much attention. His plaid shirt, blue in the worker’s style, and scruffy jeans didn’t seem too out of place. George easily joined the press of bodies. The last time he’d been as close to another human being was in bed with Mary. But they were not good times as he recalled.

“I like the extremes of light he uses,” a woman wearing expensive leather said, sipping wine from a long stemmed flute.

“It is interesting how he uses shadow to hide the intricate detail,” a fat man in a paisley suit said in a light, airy voice. “I think he is drawing the eye, pulling you into the shadow. I feel the shadows are the art and the sculpture is simply the vehicle.”

George smiled. He hadn’t thought of it that way before. Perhaps he did work with shadows. The use of light wasn’t intentional either; he just worked in dingy rooms or the unlit garage. To him, detail needed to be hidden away; it somehow showed the intricate nature of the artist’s thoughts. He didn’t feel confident in showing those thoughts too openly.

He moved through the gathering listening to wilder and wilder interpretations. On the walls hung his paintings, in the room with the bulk of his sculptures, mostly sandstone or resin, were his divorce works. The black and blue squares reached into the centre of the room from the walls.

Mary seemed to be square to him, her corners sharp and points of view straight and unwavering. The paintings weren’t of Mary of course; to him they were just coloured squares, meaningless, pointless and as unfathomable as the emotions he felt. He listened to comments and speculation, none of which helped him understand the works any better himself.

A commotion had sprung to life in another room. George joined the slow flow of sound and motion. The walls, alive with bright lights, filled the expanse of the room with yellow. On the far wall hung the Yellow Dresses. Five metres wide and three high.

In the overly bright light, George studied the work. He felt he understood the piece now, away from the confines of the garage and jumble of his life. In the centre, painted yellow and billowing out with the aid of epoxy boat paint, was the evening dress Mary wore the night he’d caught her holding hands with a man at a party.

To the right a once little black dress, pressed flat, a number she’d been wearing when she’d stayed out all night; and to the left, a strapless floral with all the colours blotted out in the brilliance of the almost fluorescent yellow. Mary had taken this one away on a three-day business trip.

“The ruin of good dresses, if you ask me,” a young woman said, teetering on her high heels. “Like the rest of this yellow crap, it’s pointless.”

Along each wall hung various household items glued, wired or screwed to boards; kettles he’d cut in half, cooking pots, scissors, utensils, even the hotplate from the stove he never used. Everything glowed yellow, and under the lights the brightness created a blinding effect. To George the over-lighting hid the truer meanings of the works. Did Tom do this deliberately?

Most of the commotion centred around a sculpture that occupied the middle of the room, a collection of computer components, animal bones and household garbage.

“Whatever the artist is saying here, I think it’s revolting.” A tall woman, not dissimilar to Mary’s slightness, complained. Her nose stuck up as if the whole exhibition insulted her disposition.

“It is meant to be bright and happy,” Tom said, his voice raised and jubilant. He pushed through the bodies to stand beside the sculpture.

George eased back into the crowd.

“The artist’s pleasures are displayed in the brightest colour known.” Tom was doing the sell. “George Vanetta’s works bristle with life, much in the same way van Gogh’s late pieces gave new meaning to vibrancy.”

Van Gogh cut off his ear, George thought. Not a lot of happiness there.

“So, please join me for the official opening,” Tom said, holding his hands up. “Join me now at the rear of the gallery where more wine and food will be served.” He pushed his way through the crowd, creating a flowing stream of people.

In moments, the room neared empty. For an instant George felt relieved. His inner thoughts were safe, for now.

The centrepiece, a half-robotic woman asleep in a rubbish heap, all in shades of yellow, screamed yellow at the walls, which screamed back. He didn’t know what it represented, he didn’t know what anything represented, he just created. These pieces were the dull days that made up his mind. He didn’t particularly like the sculpture, but he thought it would break up any artistic pattern he might have been showing. It kept the viewer guessing, he supposed.

“What do you make of that?” a voice said from beside him.

George turned to see a woman in her mid-forties looking up at the Yellow Dresses. She wore an old camouflaged military jacket and a long, blue neck scarf. “There is a lot being said here.”

“I really don’t know,” he said, being polite.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with being happy.” She approached the work, her small form dwarfed by the enormity of the piece. “These are happy dresses. I’d certainly like to own one, if not all of these. But they are lifeless, the happiness taken out of them, flashed away with brilliance.”

“Interesting,” George said, taking up place beside her again. His own revelation moments before hadn’t been missed by everyone.

“Pity the artist isn’t here.”

“You want to know what it means?”

“I just want to know the artist, the work says many things and most of them I think I like, or at least understand.” She looked at the dresses. “Maybe I’d like to know whose dresses these were.”

“Why? If the piece conjures sadness, why meet the person who creates sadness. He might not want to talk about the trauma this represents.” George looked at the work himself. This was really the first time he’d really looked at Yellow Dresses. He looked at the woman. “Mr Vanetta might not want people to know what it means. He could be a recluse.”

“You speak as if you know him.” She turned and looked up into his face. Her soft features were set off by short, boyish hair; blonde with grey threads at the temples suited her, along with wrinkles around the eyes and lips. He liked her look. “Do you know him?”

“I might.”

She took a card from a pocket and handed it to him. “If you see Mr Vanetta, could you ask him to call?”

“Why the interest?”

“Tell him I also like yellow,” she said. He liked the way she smiled. Honest. Mary never smiled like that.

“What’s your name?” He noticed the card only said Miss J. Doro. Painter.

“Janice.”

“I’ll see that he gets the card.”

“Thank you Mr...” She paused, expectant.

“A friend,” he said.

She seemed happy with his anonymity.

They shook hands and she left to join the hubbub of Tom’s presentation and sales speech. George studied the card. In each corner were yellow birds sitting on a sunflower. Does she like the rain? he wondered as he made his way to the exit.


Copyright © 2009 by Robert N. Stephenson

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