It was meant neither to be an act of defiance nor a poseur’s conceptual riff. It wasn’t, in fact, meant to be seen at all. And yet, as an inadvertent homage, it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.
It began when I.M. James (MFA, University of Oslo), wasn’t asked to participate in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Biennial.
It doesn’t take much to understand why. Talented or not, he wasn’t exactly civil or, at least, art world sycophantic. I.M. James was seven feet tall, hairless, gruff like Van Gogh. He had the body (and odor) of a bear, the raspy, tubercular voice of a Welsh coal miner. Though people knew of him but later, after this all blew over, no one could say they actually knew him. Not the bar belles at The Learned English Dog bar where he used to drink and not socialize. Not his fellow artists in the studio above and below in what used to be the Weber Bread factory on Spring Street. Not even the angular, vampirish, and, in another life, pickpocket of unknown gender that was seen at all hours delivering rolls of canvases, stretcher bars, and boxes of what were presumably brushes, paints, thinners, and other artists’ what-not to his studio.
This studio of his was massive. He had lived in the building for 14 years. How he paid rent, no one knew. Over time, he bought and then tore down the walls of the three other studios on the fifth floor. What he had was an enormous 14,000 square foot space with 18-feet high ceilings and back windows that looked out over the Hollywood Hills.
He never let anyone visit his place and he never asked to visit anyone else’s. He never seemed to sleep and was always blasting Norwegian Death Metal music on speakers that were deceptively small and diabolically loud. Though kept awake by the noise, no neighbor would ever complain for the simple reason that they were afraid to. Because his was such a bizarre existence of which no one knew a thing, rumors abounded. It was said that he worshipped the devil. That he operated a meth factory. That he trafficked in rhino tusks, body parts, and genuine medieval illuminated manuscripts. That he forged fire and brimstone Crucifixion paintings in the style of Leon Golub and sold them to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
No one ever saw a single work he had done, which explains why he would never have been considered for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Biennial in the first place. One of the Co-Curators, a drinking chum of mine, told me that his that Biennial application suggested that he was crazy. Not artist-eccentric but AK 47 nuts. She told me that, over time, she had learned to be wary of artists. Smarmy, delusional, and mercenary, she said. With him, though, she was genuinely afraid. Even though the applications had to be submitted digitally, he filled his out by hand, written in execrable script with a wax pencil. She said his artist’s statement read like it was written by the Unabomber. “Cultural hegemony this” and “Imperialist philistines that.”
What really puzzled her, though, was that he wouldn't submit images. When she asked him why - in a letter; he didn’t have email - he responded that he didn’t want to spoil the Armageddon. That, she said, quickly disqualified him from present and all future consideration and also put him on the radar of the LAPD and, later, Homeland Security. That and the fact that he never had a show that anyone knew of, that no critic, me included, had ever written on his work, that no one claimed to own any of his work. She told me that one of the Museum’s Preparators, intrigued by what he had heard her tell a Trustee about him, piloted a drone up to one of the windows of his studio that faced the parking lot. The video feed showed stacks of immense canvases veiled in tarps. Up against the north-facing wall, there was a harp and a harpsichord; in the center of the space, eight feet off the ground, was a huge, painted-black Nightmare on Elm Street mobile of Harpies blowing like smoke tendrils in the room’s ambient breeze. There was some kind of burbling still on top of a Bunsen burner, next to which were dozens of corked apothecary bottles filled with murky green liquid. If this wasn’t enough to alarm the Preparator, observing all this on his MacBook Air three blocks down in his Prius parked in the lot of a brewpub, there was the artist himself: naked, slurping mangoes, and dancing some gnostic polka. In The Learned English Dog that night, the Preparator told a group of us what he saw. “I don’t know if he’s an artist or a madman, if he’s a threat or a genius; but I’d give anything to get into that studio to see what he’s up to.” Of course he never did because he figured, even if he got into the space, on whatever pretext or subterfuge, he’d never get out alive.
I would, I figured. It took 7 months, but I did. I left messages on the front door of the building. I told him that I was a critic, which was only true when it suited me. I told him I’d like to see his work, which was. No response. I told the bartender of The Learned English Dog, the bar I.M. James would come into each night at 12:30 and swill a mixture of mead and peppermint schnapps which some bar wag christened the Jackie Gleason, to give him a message. He did, several times, he said. Still no response. Finally, I asked the Preparator, the one with the reconnoitering drone, if it could deliver a message, asking I.M. James if he’d like to get together for a crit. The Preparator, once again interested in this bizarre character, said sure, why not. In a 36 Calibri font, I printed out, on vellum, “Let’s chill. Signed, Art Critic Manqué” and attached it to he the drone. The Preparator and I, parked in his Prius a few blocks down in t
On his laptop’s monitor, we followed its course. It got to the building. It turned right and then turned left and then leveled itself flush with the center of the window. The interior had changed drastically, the Preparator said. The studio’s walls had been removed. Now there were white sheets all over the floor, covering something that extended the length and width of the cavernous gallery. Something’s different, he said, and in no small way. Fine, I said. Let’s wait for him to respond to the message.
We sat in his car, looking at the sheets covering everything, even the harp, the harpsichord, and the Harpies, wondering what the hell was going on. Except for the rustle of the sheets in the breeze, nothing was moving. After a half hour, the Preparator said he had to leave. Let me guess, I said, actress, intern, gallerina? Something like that, he said. Give him a half hour, I said, then we can go. Okay, he said, but you’re giving me money for drinks and a hotel. Fine, whatever, I said. We resumed our vigil.
After twenty minutes, the sheets began to stir. Then, up against the northwest wall, I.M. James, naked, emerged from under one of the sheets. At first it looked like he had been asleep. He stretched his arms straight up, grazing the veiled Harpies. Then I noticed - the Preparator was having a Facetime chat with his now-naked actress, intern, gallerina – that he had two paintbrushes in his left hand and a scalpel in his right. As he continued to stretch, he looked out the window, that is to say, he looked at me. Dude, check this out, I told the Preparator. The Preparator might as well have been on the dark side of the moon. I.M. James walked over to the window, stepping over whatever it was he had covered up with sheets. Three feet from the window, I.M. James and I were having a face off. He was reading my message, considering it, formulating, I suspected, a response. From the expression on his face, it looked like he was wondering what the message smelled like.
I.M. James stepped out of sight of the drone. A few seconds later, he reappeared, still naked. Cradled in the crook of his right arm was some kind of spindly, tubular, green metal thing. The instant he pulled the trigger, I realized, Fuck, it’s a bazooka. I saw a flash and then the laptop’s monitor pixilated. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I said to the Preparator. What now?, he said. He shot a fucking bazooka at the drone, I said. No shit?, said the Preparator? No shit, I said. Dude, he said, you owe me $600 for a new drone. Fine, fuck, whatever, let’s get out of here.
The Preparator drove off God knows where. I walked to The Learned Dog. Bringing me my gin martini with an abundance of olives, the bartender said, I have a message for you. Huh?, I said. I said, he said, I have a message for you. From whom?, I asked. From I.M. James, he said. What’s the message? I said. The message, said the bartender, is that he wants you to come over in five days. He has something to show you. He called a minute before you walked in. You got that? He said. Got it, I said.
I walked over to what used to be the old Weber Bread factory. There were police cars in the street, a helicopter overhead, flashing a spotlight, an ambulance. A SWAT team stormed past a bunch of stoned, paint-stained artists with their no-sleep glazed eyes. I walked around to the back. Yup, that was definitely a bazooka, I said, out loud. The back-facing window had been blown completely out. By this time, the crowd came around to the back so I moseyed around to the front and went home. The papers the next morning said there had been an industrial accident in an artist’s studio on Spring Street. Military action, more like it, I thought.
I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to meet I.M. James, in his studio no less. I knew that eventually I’d tell the Co-Curator, but I first wanted to have something to tell her. I thought of telling the Preparator what I was doing in case things went sideways. But I didn’t.
Five days later. I’d been thinking about this all that time. Fearful, awestruck, curious - you name it, I felt it. I got to the old Weber Bread factory. I went around to the back. The window and a portion of the wall had been replaced. I went back out front. Artists and their ilk were coming and going. Taped on the window was an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a piece of paper with a seven-digit key code. Well then, I thought to myself, here we go.
I took the stairs to the fifth floor. I knew he owned all the studios on that floor and so wondered which door I should knock on. At that moment, the door at the end of the corridor cracked. I walked up to it, nudged it with my foot, and entered slowly, wondering if I.M. James had reloaded that bazooka.
Come on in, said a voice that was unusual in its matter of factness. The voice reminded me of a kind priest I knew for the 2 months that I was a Catholic in my 20s. All-knowing, accommodating, and gracious, he was. In the middle of this enormous room stood I.M. James. He wasn’t naked this time. He wore black jeans and a black t-shirt. He reminded me of a much taller version of Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. He was barefoot. I noticed that the sheets that had covered everything before were all gone. He walked over to join me at the door. He shook my hand and then, with his left hand, handed me an enormous martini. Gin, with an abundance of olives, he said. Ttttthhhhaaanks, I said. Come on in, he said, I’ll show you around.
He didn’t say a word as he showed me around. He didn’t have to. I stood in the middle of the room, agog. What he had created - and covered up under all the sheets seen through the window with the drone - was a scale replica of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Each of the Biennial’s three floors was set in three different parts of his enormous studio. Flattened, like an unassembled wedding cake. The walls were as tall as my knees; conjoined with their neighbors, they articulated all the nooks and crannies of the Biennial’s installation space. It looked like an elaborate doll house.
I.M. James had planted himself in front of the window that he had previously blasted out with his bazooka. He had the thumbs of both hands in his belt loops, staring at nothing in particular. I went back to looking at this incredible project, wondering what the hell was going on. I walked around the perimeter of each floor; the scale was too small to actually enter into each gallery. I wasn’t paying attention to anything in particular; I was still awestruck by this unexpected thing, done on such a diminutive but detailed scale, by an artist of such huge proportions. I.M. James wasn’t so much following me with his eyes around the room as he seemed to be comparing something he saw in the room with some mental inventory. I think he forgot I was there.
A little less sober, a little more alert, I made a second pass of the room. Then I noticed something that made the scale modeling of the space pale in comparison. On each wall, on selected spots on the floor and from the ceiling, I.M. James had copied each and every single work in the Los Angeles County Biennial. Each painting, each sculpture, each installation, each video piece, all done to scale, so that the pieces fit into their space as if they were in the actual, life-sized museum.
I got down on my hands and knees to get a closer look at the work. Christ. I tiptoed from gallery to gallery, bent over, my hands on my knees. I lost track of time; the light in the room was growing dim. The sun setting behind the Hollywood Hills gave the room a tint of raspberry Jello. I also lost track of I.M. James; he vanished off into the shadows. I looked at my watch - I had been looking at the work for almost 90 minutes.
I couldn’t understand, much less process what I had been looking at. It was confusing and not a little eerie, him making a model of the show of a show from which he had ceremoniously been rejected. I wondered if it was a form of catharsis, of redemption, a way of showing that he could make art as good as anyone else in the show. I wondered if he was going to show this to anyone else and, especially, why he had showed me. That he had talent, at least some kind of ability, was beyond reproach, especially after the rumors that had been circulating.
By the time I sat against a perimeter wall, the room had gone almost pitch black. I thought I should get up and look for I.M. James and ask him what this was about. Really, though, I just wanted to sit there in the dark and reflect on what I had seen. In the back of my mind, I still wondered if this was some kind of stunt.
The word “stunt” had literally come trickling through my consciousness when a flood light from the ceiling burst on, washing the room in a tidal wave of luminescence. It was so bright that it hurt my eyes. I.M. James was standing in the middle of the room. In his left hand, he held a massive glass that I think was filled with a biblical sized portion of what I assumed was a martini. In his left hand, he held a black leather whip. He was naked. He seemed taller than his seven feet, bigger than the room.
He began to chant in a hypnotic, singsong voice. He spoke for a full 20 minutes. His voice resonated throughout the studio. If his daily voice was a little louche and outré, his special occasion voice spoke, if not with the authority of God, then at least with that of one of his equally formidable colleagues. As time passed, he seemed to glow from within; he seemed to hover above the floor. And this is what he said:
By the authority of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost, and of the holy canons, and of the undefiled Virgin Mary, mother and patroness of our Saviour, and of all the celestial virtues, angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, powers, cherubims and seraphims, and of all the holy patriarchs, prophets, and of all the apostles and evangelists, and of the holy innocents, who in the sight of the Holy Lamb, are found worthy to sing the new song of the holy martyrs and holy confessors, and of the holy virgins, and of all the saints, together with the holy and elect of God. (Wait, what the fuck is this?)
We excommunicate and anathematize this malefactor (What malefactor? The Co-Curator? Me?), and from the thresholds of the holy church of God Almighty we sequester him, that he may be tormented, disposed and delivered over with Dathan and Abiram (Who the hell are they?), and with those who say unto the Lord God, Depart from us, we desire none of thy ways. (A bit harsh, wouldn't you say, I.M. James?) And as fire is quenched with water, so let the light of him be put out for evermore, unless it shall repent him and make satisfaction. (Is this some political screed? Are we being recorded? Sequester who? Let the light out of him as in kill this nameless person?)
May the Father who created man, curse him. – May the Son who suffered for us, curse him. - May the Holy Ghost, who was given to us in baptism, curse him. - May the holy cross which Christ, for our salvation triumphing over his enemies, ascended, curse him. (At this point, I was too astonished to be afraid. Was this a goddamn excommunication? Given the references, I had ruled out alien possession.) -May the holy and eternal Virgin Mary, mother of God, curse him. - May St Michael, the advocate of holy souls, curse him.- May all the angels and archangels, principalities and powers, and all the heavenly armies, curse him.-
May St. John, the Praecursor, and St John the Baptist, and St. Peter and Paul, and St. Andrew, and all the other Christ’s apostles, together curse him. (Oh, oh, the disciples. He’s bringing in the heavy artillery here. Where did he get this? Is he making it up as he goes along?) And may the rest of his disciples and four evangelists, who by their preaching converted the universal world, and may the holy and wonderful company of martyrs and confessors, who by their holy works are found pleasing to God Almighty, curse him.
May the holy choir of the holy virgins, who for the honour of Christ have despised the things of the world, damn him. (Okay, I will admit, I do covet holy virgins and I do despise things of the world. But I need context - who is this him? It’s not the Co-Curator. I know that for a fact that she’s a she.) -May the saints, who from the beginning of the world to everlasting ages are found to be beloved of God, damn him. - May the heavens and earth, and all the holy things remaining in therein, damn him.
May he be damn'd wherever he be - whether in the house or the stables, the garden or the field, or the highway, or in the path, or in the wood, or in the water, or in the church.-May he be cursed in living, in dying. May he be cursed in eating and drinking, in being hungry, in being thirsty, in fasting, in sleeping, in slumbering, in walking, in standing, in lying, in working, in resting, in pissing, in shitting (Getting a little scatological, are we?), and in bloodletting (Wait, what, bloodletting? This sounds fucking medieval.). May he be cursed in all the faculties of his body. (You could have just left it at that, without all the detail.)
May he be cursed inwardly and outwardly! - May he be cursed in the hair of his head! - May he be cursed in his brains, and in his vertex, in his temples, in his forehead, in his ears, in his eye-brows, in his cheeks, in his jaw-bones, in his nostrils, in his fore-teeth and grinders, in his lips, in his throat, in his shoulders, in his wrists, in his arms, in his hands, in his fingers! (Jesus, what’s he visualizing, an anatomy chart?)
May he be damn’d in his mouth, in his breast, in his heart and purtenance, down to the very stomach! May he be cursed in his reins, and in his groin (Really, his groin?), in his thighs, in his genitals (Let the record show that I stopped paying attention at this point and began to fear for my life.), and in his hips, and in his knees, his legs, and feet and toe-nails!
May he be cursed in all the joints and articulations of his members, from the top of his head to the sole of his foot! May there be no soundness in him!
May the Son of the living God, with all the Glory of his Majesty, curse him! And may heaven with all the powers that move therein, rise up against him, curse and damn him unless he repent and make satisfaction. Amen. So be it - so be it. Amen. (Fuck, amen, indeed.)
He stopped, eventually. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face, down his naked body, pooling at his feet. He paid me no heed and, come to think of it, he hadn’t, really, since he handed me the martini with the abundance of olives. He didn’t so much fall to the floor, crushing a couple of the galleries he had so painstakingly constructed, as melt down into it. I smelled the gas before I saw the flames emerge, kitchen stove-like, from jets he must have installed under the floor. Almost immediately, the entire munchkin LACMA was consumed in flames. The room filled with toxic smoke laden with whatever he had fabricated his faux-Biennial. I.M. James lay on his back, consumed by the flames. To the day I day I will never get this final image out of my head: he wasn’t bellowing in pain, writhing in agony, begging for relief - he was laughing.
I had always had a tenuous relationship with the art world. In it, but not really; more on the fringe, where the benefits were better. In other words, I could take it or I could leave it. I left it that night, as fast as my legs would carry me, past the fire trucks, past the police cars, past the poseurs thronging as close to the studio as the yellow police tape would let them. I went to The Learned English Dog. Except for the bartender, it was empty, as I expected it to be. Did you hear what happened?, he said. Another explosion at I.M. James’ studio. Really?, I said, Was anyone hurt? He brought me my martini with an abundance of olives. And then another. I asked him if he knew of anyone looking for an eager paralegal out of state. It was my last time in The Learned Dog. It was my last martini, ever.
I somehow managed to ignore the deluge of digital and analog news about the conflagration that had consumed the building and, miraculously, claimed but one life, that of Mr. I.M. James. I never contacted the Co-Curator. I never told anyone about what I saw. I never heard what happened to my Preparator chum. I never wrote about art again. I never skulked about the art world’s fringe, reaping its benefits. In five days, I was living in Milwaukee. Eight days after that, I was a paralegal in a law firm that specialized in corporate tax law. Now my adventures are more pedestrian, relatively speaking. The latest one involved peyote, a parachute, and an Argentine actress. And so it goes. That night, though, I had seen something that was not entirely of this world and, perhaps, of no other world. It was something I never want to revisit as long as I live.