He quit chain-smoking at the same time he broke up with his girlfriend. He never mentioned either again and this action seemed the perfect extension of his coming out; cigarettes drew the lights of a peculiar class of men, themselves living by this sign, all decipherers of a reduced Morse code. The girlfriend, obfuscated by plumage, hazy in all this smoke, mostly kept him from getting laid. When they had sex who knows what it was like. I know after they had sex what his paintings were like, because he would creep back to his studio, exhausted now and still a little drunk, and wash his canvases in blue-blacks. Really, he scrubbed his canvases. Nobody looking at his “guilt-works” (as he later called them) would appreciate them for finesse. For the power of his images were mostly the results of an insufficient grasp of his medium. He painted without understanding the use of clover oil, rabbit glue on linen, or merely the patient, alternating applications of linseed and turpentine. He grabbed his tubes, considered a brush, and then began smothering.
I said he never spoke of Bethany or smoking again. His reticence on these biographic notices were playfully undercut during his joint show with Tayler Ittel at the Tate Modern last fall: setting up a hand-puppet’s theatre and using two flashlights (of all the dated, naive technologies), she created a sensuous glow to match her own circadian rhythms, blinking on one light and then the next, to the sound of her amplified breathing. This uncluttered analogue of the bioluminescence of fireflies spoke more about the faggy flightiness of Tyler than the “limits of art imitating nature, the redolent primitivism of children in the thrall of discovery, astonishment that can be provoked but never recaptured”—how the wall text rationalized it all. Did Bethany realize Tayler and Brian’s shows cannibalized one another? (Brian’s epic-scale Womb, with its Satanic splashes of alizarin blood drowning ripe tropical fruit, was a satire of his gallery-mate’s abortion the previous winter. Again, the wall text naively summarized the artist’s harrowing time spent in São Paolo, his vagrant life there, his eye-opening experiences on plantations outside the city, and a terrible violence he witnessed one morning in the hills. True: he had agreed to collaborate with Tayler upon seeing her work at the Associação Cultural Videobrasil’s International Electronic Art Festival, but the two had known each other as undergrads, where they were friendly but never-the-less rivals. She could not explain her tendencies in new media, and he could not explain his gravitation towards paint; they respectfully acknowledged that their explorations could only come to a head if they were up for a Turner Prize. Luckily they were Americans, and he would sell his paintings to loft owners in LA and New York, and she could sell her documented performance pieces on laser disk to galleries in Minnesota until she got picked up for the Venice Biennale.)
Perhaps that’s why Bethany left the show before champagne was served? Was she tired of the cat and mouse games among the earnest curators, the feigning critics, the all-knowing entourage, her ex-fiancé and herself—the conspiracy of gibbering rivals? What was the fun in undermining intent by conspicuously rifting on each other’s private lives, then to bury that first-order expression under a more assertive (and, sure, more lucrative) second order of misdirection? Their show, Fruit/Eat/Insects, was literally banking on the frisson of Tayler’s naïve elegance and Tyler’s sophisticated slop—even the Ts of their vaguely Germanic names (Tayler Ittel v. Tyler Hoke) held secret history, deadly, repetitious, poised in its cadences to look upon catastrophe with a juicy eye. Did Tyler and Tayler ever realize the emergent third order? Probably not: they were neither Marxist nor academic. They could not comprehend asphyxiation, or the choking self-sealed perimeters where all meaning is locked out by debonair in-crowd horseshit.
When he walked away from the show with a deal from General Electric, nobody was sure who was kidding whom any longer. Tyler would design patterns for refrigerator panels and Tayler would design the light sequences for the ice cube dispenser—a laugh riot. Neither had seen Murakami Takashi’s retrospective in LA or the Brooklyn Museum, but separately both had read about the merchandise he designed for Louis Vuitton and sold in the show’s centerpiece, a quaint hutch with gleaming chrome shelves and glossy lighting. Neither found this practice discouraging, in fact it seemed helpful to artists who hadn’t received an M.B.A.; how hopeful indeed, the idea of entering syndicated corporatism alongside their fathers, who footed their children’s bills during the years of obscurity. Recompense!
And yet this was something more than careerism disguised as financial salvation (I had visited both artist’s cramped studio-lofts before the sell-out, and remember well the sinks that doubled as showers, the hotplates re-heating coffee smuggled up from some other building’s lobby), this was the end of their “conceptual sincerity,” or their “intransigent whimsy”—basically their ability to make spectator’s cry. (Curiously, Tyler’s fruit-violence also made folks very hungry. The ravaged cheese trays and scattered leafy tops of strawberries attest to this force.) Going commercial deprived the artists’ later work of those base needs their early work so fiercely projected: food, shelter, love.
Am I in a unique position to rephrase the question? As Tayler’s husband’s brother, and Tyler’s ex-lover, perhaps so. Rather, their work post-GE failed to account for the more human, more universal inversions: starvation, calamity, despair.
In the parking garage, Bethany sat on the hood of her Audi and swallowed what she told me were ibuprofen. I nodded.
“Are you following me?” she asked. She seemed half-asleep.
In fact I was.
“Like you haven’t done enough,” she said.
“Look, I just came out to check on you.”
“You think I’ll throw myself in front of a car in here?” Sitting, her head seemed too heavy for her neck, and her coxcomb hair had fallen across her face. (Coxcomb—am I flattering her now?) Tired and sullen, still she seemed feral then, capable of tearing me apart. I didn’t know what I was doing out there with her. I hoped she would convince me I was a dirty, ridiculous fool.
“Tell me, what’s it like fucking a skeleton?”
Anymore, it was like fucking a grocery sack. Tyler was beyond gaunt—his body had entered that uncanny era of thinness that is ravishing and harsh, the cheeks pale, gone hollow, pulled against the teeth, hungry, the rest of him serving to hang blazers or tie pants around. His smile was a snarl. His step was rickety and grave, comically so. If we did have sex, I bottomed. He had no meat on his fingers. When he held my hips his hands felt like bird claws, and when he came in me he squawked.
“It’s just a phase,” I said.