So You Think You Can Dance (On My Grave)
By Brad Phillips - Apr 23, 2017
I’ve been holding back so much now, and for so long. What people of faith call turning the other cheek. What everyone else calls biting the tongue. What young people call not feeding the troll.
But, I do have pride. No, that’s not true. I have dignity. Or an approximate echo of what people call dignity. In any case, with P___ telling me to keep quiet, that bad energy begets bad energy (I do not believe in this energy), and despite J____ saying you’re asking for it, I’ve kept my hands off the keyboard and notepad and just watched.
Mostly with empathy, sometimes with empathy pierced by anger.
Were I to have sent this letter, which I realized quickly I shouldn’t do, I would have warned you to be careful about replying; I’ve recently made art that’s nothing more than screenshots of emails I’ve received, blown up large and hung in galleries that you must know by now are out of your reach. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking that means I feel important, I was disabused of that notion long ago). I imagine that might have scared you. Surely, you’re aware of the almost Amish amount of shame I could bring down on you.
Shame. It’s one of my favourite things. I feed it, and it feeds me. What is it about you that you’re missing that component of your personality – that neuron or synapse or brain part – that recognizes you’re making a fool of yourself? I don’t recall you ever having it.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Do you remember after you and Nan broke up, she had an exhibition of photographs at a gallery on Third Street that was comprised entirely of black and white self-portraits where she wore a white t-shirt with the fabric around her breasts cut out? She had such beautiful breasts. Of course, I never got to touch them myself. I went with Nikolai and Chris to the opening and I saw him there, your dad. What was it like for you, that he bought all those photos for himself? I don’t think you and he were even talking then. I imagine he took Nan out for drinks after. Where are those photos of her now, twenty-three, her high and perfect Australasian breasts squeezing through white jersey fabric? You’d been broken up for a few years at least. I wanted to hug your dad then, because he got you. I mean he got you as in he hurt you, but he also got you. He must have known you were sexphobic, or maybe Nan told him later over crantinis.
Can you imagine I’ve never shaken one hand, never faked one smile, never kissed any curator’s asymmetrically pant-clad ass, to achieve this comfortable if not wildly successful career I have?
That in four years I’ve gone to six art openings, three mine, one my wife’s, two my best friends. Did you know that was possible? To just stay home and work?
When I was a disgusting addict and alcoholic, I never begrudged any of my friends who got sober, although it was easy because none of them did. I can only imagine how hard it is for you, getting Euro-drunk, your time spent on Facebook trying to grasp the success of people you once knew. Time like that goes as slow as it takes for a flower to blossom.
Importantly, you were and are a rich kid. I was 20 when we met. I should have known then. You’d only ever been well off, I’d only ever been poor.
Of course it would end up like this.
“If this is Yuri Weiss, then the Canadian art world is doomed.” That was the first comment J___ sent me so I could see you slandering me.
You were going wild on an Instagram account full of memes about the sad, insecure Canadian art world.
The second time it was when whoever ran that account posted an image of an old dude from The Simpsons. The meme said, “Every artist in Canada knows this is Yuri Weiss.”
That you thought I’d started that anonymous account dissecting contemporary Canadian art – something I know nothing about (I know nothing about any contemporary art since my shrink seven years ago told me stop looking at art magazines and websites, advice that’s done a great deal to contribute to my current happiness) – was stunning.
I thought, this man has lost his shit. This man has no clue who I am.
But I can take a joke, I do look much older than I am. J___ sent me a screenshot of your comment on that post (I can’t see anything you post myself since you blocked me), which true to form you deleted later, maybe when you sobered up and realized that, A. I could cause you problems or, B. why would a man pushing fifty post grade-school insults on a meme on Instagram?
Your comment, “Oh, so that’s what a bitter old kook looks like.” Maybe I’m a kook, I think that’s skateboarding slang, but bitter is one thing I’ve never been called. Disenchanted and tired? Sure. But bitter…how could I be? As they say, the world is my oyster.
It just happens to be all I have to eat.
So, I sat on it. I wasn’t going to engage in some sad internet comment scuffle because well, I’m smart.
But still, I wanted to. I talked about it with more than a few people. Some said do it, some said don’t, but one thing everyone said is, “BCC me if you do.”
Because they’ve all wanted to say it too Alan, they just know that as usual, I’m the only one who will.
You’ve been insulting me for years and I’ve let it go. People tend to consider the source. You’ve aligned yourself with any provincial curator or blogger who disagrees with things I’ve published, making your distance from me known in that most intellectual of venues – the Facebook comment thread.
One thing you’ve never noticed is that you’re your own worst enemy. When we leave your comments alone, they linger there awkwardly like an I Love You uttered on a date, greeted by an embarrassed smile.
I’m not the type of person to list off my accomplishments or brag about what I get up to, mostly because cosmically, it’s meaningless. I know though that you certainly are aware of what I do, because I remember how vigilantly you monitored other artist’s careers, trying to understand the formula that was getting them press here and shows there.
You never did figure it out; there is no formula, it’s just talent.
Considering what I see of your sad investigations into what’s happening here, in this shoegazing replica of New York, I can only imagine you Google me, waiting for me to update the C.V. on my website.
I update it often.
“Bitter,” though – it stayed under my skin. Because while I appear to be doing great, it requires only practical experience to know that most writing pays nothing. To know that shows in even the most venerable galleries sometimes make no money.
I’m married to the most wonderful woman, I’m healthy, I’m productive. I’ve never been so content with my life.
Bitterness requires caring about success, and trust me, I stopped doing that a long time ago when I realized it was nothing but a big shiny balloon.
Pop it and it’s empty.
Had you call me an asshole, a solipsist, self-involved; a dozen other reasonable things, I wouldn’t have considered writing you. Just don’t call me something I’m not.
I’m certain the genesis of your more focused disdain for me was caused by that essay I wrote for H. W___’s journal.
I remember the day so vividly. J___ and I were in a Super 8 hotel room in Redding, California. The room was insanely hot, we guessed to kill the bedbugs. We were enjoying our marijuana and dancing semi-naked to A Tribe Called Quest. We watched the meth dealers in the rooms around us send their nine and ten-year-old children out to transact their drug deals.
I’d been working on this essay for a while and I posted a snippet to Instagram. People liked it. An artist from Los Angeles you admire, whose ass you kiss with such fervor it’s almost lurid, reposted an excerpt. You emailed me, asking if you could use what I’d written for a piece of your writing. I responded appropriately. I said no. You should have known really, I mean, come on, do you think I write great lines solely so my friends can use them when they get writing gigs? Does a chef slave over a soufflé so the busboy can be bathed in acclaim? You were, what’s the word? Outraged. I believe you were writing a catalogue essay for an artist-run-center in Moosehead. You mistook my refusal and astonishment at your request as evidence that I was looking down on you; you, writing an essay in a stapled catalogue for an obscure gallery that would likely only be printed fifty times. My essay was intended for a much larger audience, an audience whose attention you desire.
I don’t make these distinctions and assign value to them though, you do that.
The truth is I’ll write for anybody.
The source of so much conflict is projection.
So that was the day you turned on me for good. And it’s okay. It must have been very hard on you, hearing that that same Los Angeles artist read an excerpt of the very essay you asked to poach when she was the keynote lecturer at some fancy Los Angeles art thing. I’d never even met her! Never mind feigned laughter at her jokes and obsequiously complimented her work.
Tip for you Alan – nobody likes obsequiousness, and most people whose asses have been kissed strategically can smell it like a dead cat.
Maybe that’s what got you. Seeing again that guess what, you don’t have to try, you only need to do. Be sincere. Work hard. Attempt originality. Be the same person regardless of who you find yourself keeping company with.
I saw on your website last week, which I’d never looked at before (remember when you used to make fun of our websites? saying they were pedestrian and make artists look bad) and saw you had a writing section. I felt for you seeing you’d posted your homework as writing. Tough read. I saw it there and my head shook ‘no’ slowly – the word Klasse. I won’t name the teacher who followed. The teacher under whose wing you trembled in a European free school. The teacher whose work you became a mimic of. Are you truly blind to your namedropping? I could see no other reason for it to be there – Klasse ____ _____ – other than to write her name down. To let the world know you studied under her. You could have said Class of course, you yourself did not forget English there. Alternately, you could have known, namedrop or not, it still doesn’t look that great, in German or any other language, to post a short story on your website simply to draw attention to who you’ve studied under.
It’s best to know our strengths. Especially as we age.
Long before I was shown your sophomoric insults on the internet, I’d been hearing about you. I heard the How Could Alan Story. I’m certain you’re claiming it’s untrue, but I met so many people that night who were there Alan, people who saw it all in the flesh – the Alan some of us have known for a very long time, exposed to a new group of people in most shocking fashion.
I heard you were having a show here. I remembered that before we stopped talking you asked me to introduce you to every art dealer in the city. You didn’t realize I have no clout here. I’m a ghost. In any case I learned that after many failed attempts you landed at his gallery, Clark Rowajinski. He’s a good enough guy. You could have done much worse.
Typical of the sexist world in which we live, there is no term for a male prima donna. Difficult artist is what men get called, what I’ve been called, but it implies something different, it implies integrity, an unwillingness to compromise. Prima donna is essentially the same, but doesn’t connote an unwillingness to compromise or anything related to integrity. It’s code for drama queen with a dash of difficult bitch.
In the story, you sound very much like a prima donna.
Your sculptures were displayed on the gallery floor. There was even a piece hung on the wall only inches above the ground.
Truly contemporary, that.
As the story’s told, Jessica – a nice quiet woman, a good artist, smart and decorous – made the grave and insulting error of walking over your five-inch high sculptures, in pursuit of libation or conversation with a friend. You lost it on her. You were, as I’ve heard, screaming and yelling at this poor petite woman. Cries of ‘How dare you!’ rang through the gallery. Did you scream ‘Don’t you know who I am?”? If you did, trust me, the answer is no.
You terrified her and she was forced to leave. You kept ranting. In my head, I envision a silverback gorilla that claims to have read Baudelaire in the original French, beating its chest and uttering strange atavistic sounds. Someone had to step in and stop you. I heard it was Lenny. Why Alan? She didn’t step on them. Even if she had, they were bronze and could have just been put back in their place. Why did you feel so gravely insulted? More interesting to me, how could you not know how that would play out? The only person in a gallery not from this small community, screaming like a lunatic at a slight young woman for the transgression of gently stepping over your work.
The story spread like wildfire! Within a week I’d heard it in my basement suite with no phone and a bad Wi-Fi connection, sitting in a haze of Nag Champa smoke drinking Gatorade and watching documentaries on Ruby Ridge.
I heard you left town quickly after.
Months after this now infamous event, I was invited to a dinner at Clark Rowajinski’s Gallery, and I wanted to go, because the dinner was in honour of a very old friend of mine.
Everyone seemed to be aware that I’ve known you for a very long time. Suddenly I found myself being asked questions about you. I try to be nice. I don’t like to speak negatively about people. One thing that I’ve been practicing doing though since I moved back here is being completely honest (part of sobriety), and I was that night. I honored my commitment to honesty.
The incident in which you chased poor Jessica out of the gallery was traveling around the long table, some people laughing at the memory of it, all of them still astonished. I glimpsed Jessica trembling in a shawl wearing sunglasses unable to touch her food. An older woman, someone very ‘dialed in’ to the art scene here pulled me aside when I went out for a cigarette. ‘You know Alan quite, well don’t you?’ she asked, and I told her I did. Rather, I once did.
She asked what you were like when we met, and I remembered a story from twenty plus years ago. It was about Nan. I’m sure you’d still remember that I was very infatuated with her, but for some reason was intimidated by her beauty and found myself unable to make a move. You and I were spending a lot of time together then, and I told you how badly I wanted to approach her. Then one day I showed up at school and there you were out front, smoking with her. You and her rolling cigarettes, her delicate hands always shaking.
“Brad, this is Nan.” you said to me.
“Hi Nan.” I said. I remembered so clearly the way you smiled at me when you put your arm around her shoulder. Nan kept her eyes glued to the ground.
I was telling this woman that story, how you’d scooped a woman out from under me. That’s hardly unusual for you, and not even that shitty in relation to what came later. This woman I was talking to, let’s call her Lizbet , well she frowned at this story. Then I went on to tell her (it was all flooding back) how you’d call me from Nan’s place after she’d gone to school. I told Lizbet how you’d read me excerpts of Nan’s diary over the phone. You read very specific parts. You’d been dating a while at this point and I assume she’d grown weary of you. You read me the parts of Nan’s diary where she said things like ‘Why didn’t I just choose Yuri? He’s so honest and trustworthy.” – variations on that theme.
Lizbet was horrified. I saw she was right to be. I cared less that you taunted me with her private thoughts than I did about the fact that your stubby fingers turned the pages of something so sacrosanct. I would never have done that to Nan, but I guess she knew that, twenty odd years ago, judging from what she wrote in her diary.
“It seems like he really has some weird obsession with you.” I’ve heard this before. I’ve also heard you desperately want my approval. I thought she might have a point when she said it, but then seeing you obsessing over me on Instagram from your rent-paid-by-mom apartment in Cologne, I saw that you really do seem to have a thing for me.
There’s something terribly sad about an obsession where one of the parties involved literally never thinks of the other.
Clinically, this is reminiscent of de Clérambault’s syndrome, just minus the romantic aspect.
Lizbet led me back to the table, telling me that when you met with Clark, which happened after you stopped working with Kate Jefferson Gallery in that other city we lived in, you’d said that you left because you didn’t like her program, you had creative differences with her. You were the one who terminated the relationship.
Because of my commitment to total honesty, I told her I was surprised to hear that, because I knew it to be fact that you were dumped from the gallery after years of Kate not being able to sell your work, after years of you not delivering the goods. I mean come on Alan, we both know you’d never leave a gallery.
Boy, I gotta tell you. She was really surprised to hear this. Then she told me that after your debut solo exhibition at Clark’s gallery, he also decided to dump you. Lizbet told a secret. I guess you were on the website for a brief and magical moment there as a represented artist. But Clark chose peace and equanimity over showing an artist who really, were we both to be honest, peaked in 2003, and wouldn’t bring much more to the gallery than demands and endless iterations of old work. That must have been a blow, a real gut punch, and I’m sorry.
I could hardly swallow my canapé, so many people asking me about you at this dinner. They wanted to know when you’d be doing another show here, how you’d be able to show your face after screaming at Jessica. So, I had to tell them (honesty again) that you wouldn’t be, that Clark decided to drop you from the roster.
Jessica heard this, and I saw her shaky hand reach for some pita and hummus. The news was restorative.
I’m sorry to hear that all of this happened. Really. I know what it feels like to worry about your career. It’s very hard to do this for a long time and find yourself with no representation. And as much as I know you despise me, even in the face of your public efforts to smear my name, I just want you to know you have my sympathy.
The next day, going over what I’d heard the night before at dinner, I decided to look at the Clark Rowajinski website, to check out the work you showed at your solo exhibition. I was stunned. Imagine my surprise discovering your debut exhibition at a new gallery in a new city was comprised entirely of old work I’d literally watched you make back in that other city we lived in, almost a decade ago now.
I like to make a good impression. Sometimes I don’t pull it off. But I always make a point of showing new work at solo exhibitions, primarily because, as far as I know, that’s the idea.
I felt for you. You must be struggling.
I just want to say what people have said to me countless times now. Hang in there. We picked a hard job for ourselves. I mean, it’s always been easier for you of course, knowing real poverty is something you’ll never have to contend with. But nonetheless, it’s rough. Art is a brutal enterprise.
Please believe that even if we don’t get along, I’m on your side. Know that these setbacks, this How Could Alan that’s currently popular, my being forced to tell people the truth about how you came to leave your old gallery, that this new gallery didn’t pan out – it’s all okay. People have short memories. I know you’re going to be fine. And I want you to know that no matter what, I’ll always be rooting for you.
I’m happy I decided to take the high road and not send you this letter. From what I can see you don’t need more shit to deal with right now. But, it really was therapeutic for me to get some of this stuff down.
Thank you for that.
Brad Phillips is a writer and artist currently based in Kingston, Jamaica.