One of my favourite Frida Kahlo paintings, Without Hope (1945)
Is there potential in the prospect of critics writing short stories about art in the place of art reviews or traditional pieces of art criticism? Here's a short story that I wrote recently (raw and pretty much unedited) that used Frida Kahlo's paintings as a starting point and ended with mention of Diane Arbus.
“Frida Kahlo makes explicit the openness, fragility and leakiness of the body-self, as not just object and subject, but also as always potentially ‘abject.’” Reading this sentence in an art history text, I am reminded of my break from childhood to adulthood. What things change between these periods that could serves as signposts, you ask? I promise, it’s not what you think.
I remember when I was about twenty-one, living in my second apartment; I learned I wasn’t afraid of “gross” anymore. I remember doing the dishes, determined to wash each plate and mug until it was perfectly spotless. I relished in the steamy scent of green detergent wafting in my nostrils. By the time I finished this chore and the chortle of the last trace of grimy water circled the drain, there would be chunks of tomato and bloated grains of rice gathered at the bottom of the sink. Sometimes I would try to jam it all down the drain with my thumb. Other times I would scoop up the slimy detritus with my hand and throw it in the garbage under the sink unfazed. The bottom line is it didn’t bother me like it might have a year or two earlier, when I would have just let the dishes slide for another day.
When I was a child, I was afraid of everything gross. The country was gross. The way dragonflies skittered across the surface of a lake did not fill me with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, but rather with tiny jabs of fear that bordered on disgust. The mosquito avenged the contempt I had for nature. Their bites would swell to the size of fried eggs on my young, fleshy body, resembling breasts I did not yet have. My swollen self yearned to go back to the city, back to the perfect balance of chaos and control of subway lines and air-conditioned malls on Saturday afternoons. Garbage water and gutter dirt had nothing on the smell of cabin and the feel of algae on my feet. As I aged, visits to friend’s cottages were politely passed up more and more frequently.
Gross is never in style for teenage girls, and for a while it wasn’t for me either. But at one point, I realized that gross could be a weapon. I put egg white and Kool-Aid in my hair; put black tar around my eyes to look like a cross between a movie monster and a mocking caricature of femininity. While this may be gross to some, this isn’t really the kind of gross I am addressing here. This is a more topical type of gross. What I’m really talking about is the gross that gets under your skin and into your intestines.
In her biography, an acquaintance of the photographer Diane Arbus claimed that in the few years before her death, Arbus “would wander around Central Park with a camera strapped around her neck. She was always wearing the same leather pants, and often had a strong smell about her.” It is an unwritten rule that one of the more taboo day-to-day transgressions is body odor. That man on the bus who smells like a cross between salami and scalp, or the mouth-breather in the doctor’s office who has a cheesy funk to him. But one day, somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, it was like someone had flicked a switch inside of me. I began to welcome the smell of my own body, and almost revel in it. To some, the smell I’m referring to might be the sort to get under the skin and into the intestines. But to me, it’s a reminder that I am imperfectly and gloriously alive.