An Explanation for the Uninitiated: Subjects With Objects is an ongoing, collaborative art project forever ordered according to the following rules: A shadowy public spaces painter sets up in pubs and executes spontaneous portraits at the rate of one painting per pint. He then hands off those enigmatic little ocular disturbances to a semi-anonymous poet & novelist who lives with them long enough to solicit their otherworldly mumblings and ephemeral whispers, distilling each of their essences into a line or two of poetic prose. The painter is Jonathan Richter. The poet is UNKNOWN & UNKNOWABLE, so it is best NOT TO EVEN ASK! However, for the sake of convenience we may refer to him as DKM.
Subjects With Objects Unplugged Untitled 17 (2008) The One That Almost Got Away…
Okay, so this little pink fellow gave me fits. First off, unless he’s been picking his nose (and be warned, dear reader, that I did explore that possibility), there’s no readily apparent “object” in the painting. So what is his object? Is it the tank-turreted Rorschach of his shirt? Is it the golden chaos of his unkempt, Nordic hair-sweep? His nose reddened from gobleted grog or Northern cold?
Or is it . . . Ah, yes . . . Is it perhaps an object in that other sense of the word: An intent, a desired end or outcome? An objective, as it were. As in: His one object was to negotiate world peace. He was the ever the most disappointed of men.
As I considered it, I saw that the ruddy fellow’s posture could clearly suggest that other sort of object. I noted the rigid but slightly leaned angle of his torso, as if he’s been waiting for someone else to finish speaking before he interjects his own words. The hand raised, finger up, to suggest that he’s a student or a new intern, waiting to be called on before he speaks. He’s almost certainly not the authority in whatever situation he finds himself in. In fact, he’s probably the sort of fellow who’s mostly at the mercy of others, if only because he cannot see past the rules to ascertain the spirit of any law and make his own broader judgments. And then there’s his expression. Not hopeful. A tiny insinuation of panic behind his small eyes. A sense that perhaps he has already, like Elvis, left the building and has entrenched himself in what he perceives to be the most defensible depths of the soul, walls erected and steeled against some great disappointment. The doorman left standing guard behind his eyes is now but a coin-operated automaton.
Those were some of my early thoughts anyway, but back to the question of “rules.” That’s the territory I lit out for as I first began to formulate the earlier possible lines of text. This little gentleman seemed to have retained his Germanic forebears’ love of order, though any martial aspect of the Teutonic warriors had long since seeped from his family line. So he sits there now as one who finds order in life by following the rules—if only he could understand what’s expected. And right now, he’s having a bit of trouble understanding.
Untitled 17 was originally created as part of a gallery show titled “First Day In Purgatory.” The overarching (though unspoken) context for that show was that each of its subjects were experiencing their first day of the afterlife. Some were reflecting on the temporal existence that had so recently drawn to a close. Others were seeking to get a handle on their new surroundings. It wasn’t too rigid a pretext and some of the pieces in that collection surely outside of it, but that was at least the loose context I had in mind as I approached this one.
The rules have changed, I thought. This poor fellow is sitting in a desk, in a room with a bunch of other newbies, and he’s trying to find order, to make sense of this new plane of existence. He wants to get it right. He wants to play by the rules. He’s like a first grader on the first day of school. And he wants so badly for the others to play by the rules as well. So what are the rules? Would someone please tell me the rules here? Or would they at least rigidly enforce what I assume the basic rules to be?
Excuse me, sir, I’d like to make just one point. People keep getting the paper towel stacks in the bathroom wet.
Excuse me, sir, I’d like to make just one point. People don’t seem to be wiping up their messes in the break room.
If he calls on me, I’m going to ask why the girls got a longer bathroom break.
If he calls on me, I’m going to ask to be assigned a new partner.
If he calls on me, I’m going to ask what they’ve done with my knees.
Is there anything I can wipe this on?
And the other thing is, my room is right beside the door and people keep coming in late and slamming it.
And the other thing is, my room is right beside the door and people were coming in late last night and slamming it.
If I could just interject one point. My room is right beside the door, so when people keep coming in late and slam it, it wakes me up.
Whaddayou mean ‘dispose of it myself’? It’s a booger!
Does someone have a tissue?
It’s a booger. Why?
It’s a booger!
What do we do with boogers here?
What are we supposed to do here with the boogers?
Is there someone here to dispose of this for me?
And one last question. What do we do with our boogers?
And one last question. Where do we put boogers?
I don’t know where to put this… booger.
I might not have been blessed with their talent or money, but at least I knew my place.
And then, BAM!, just like that, I was able to retrieve it from my nose.
If this isn’t hell, why am I so uncomfortable?
If this isn’t hell, why is it so uncomfortable?
I would just like to point out several safety violations I’ve noticed.
I’m just wondering if there will still be a daily quota.
Will we be graded on spelling?
Will we be graded on spelling? Because I’m actually pretty good at spelling.
When Untitled 17 hung in the “1st Day in Purgatory” gallery show, Richter and I opted for the slightly surreal text choice: If he calls on me, I’m going to ask what they’ve done with my knees.
I honestly don’t know why.
If he calls on me, I’m going to ask what they’ve done with my knees.
I think the idea probably just amused us enough that, in a moment of sophomoric giddiness, we actually did choose it. Part of the humor is that the statement presupposes that the ambiguous “they” did indeed do something with his knees, and what that could be, and why, is as absurdly perplexing to us as it is to him, but by golly, he’s gonna get to the bottom of it, if only they’ll call on him. Who knows what goes on in a place like purgatory, anyway? We even printed 20 paperback copies of a book version of that art show to sell in the gallery, so this version was forever memorialized, though in a limited fashion.
Still, this one nagged at me, and I found that even a couple years later I was still uneasy with the choice. It made me chuckle, but it just wasn’t the correct text.
It wasn’t until we had secured funding and were preparing for the printing of the hardback run of Subjects With Objects, Volume I last year, that I sat down to wrestle with this one again, throwing out all the previous brainstorming choices. And finally, at last, the answer lit like a butterfly on the tip of my nose and I said Oh, yes. All along, I had been trying to force this guy into the wrong venue and the wrong posture. He wasn’t the student trying to figure out the rules. No, he was the defendant whose flimsy defense had already crumbled, and who was now making his last ditch appeal, grasping at the only straw left him:
That’s true, your honor, but if you find me “Not Guilty” I will afterwards remember you with a greater fondness.
Now the piece was both comic and tragic (as many of the SubWOb pieces aspire to be), as it became a reflection of our ill-conceived human attempts to somehow find enough personal leverage to justify ourselves, or failing that, to “bribe the judge” as it were.
Postscript: I’d like to think that after this fellow made his statement, there were several seconds of complete silence in the courtroom, and then the sound of the judge’s booming, bellowing, mirth-filled laughter, rising up in waves and bursting forth like a flood that overtook all within it’s hearing, sweeping them up in a rising tide that was at once, joyful and terrible. And if our friend in Untitled 17 was at last able in that moment to suddenly see himself for who he was, and rather than becoming angrier and more defensive, was able to embrace his own absurdity and unselfconsciously join in the laughter, then I think it all might have turned out right for him in the end.
Untitled 17, 2008 is currently on display and offered for sale in the Subjects With Objects gallery show Pretty Girls Like It When You Take Their Things at O’ More College in downtown Franklin, TN. The show is open to the public and will run through March 3rd, 2014.