Saturday, September 12, 2015


Jean Vengua introduces BEHIND THE BLUE CANVAS by Eileen R. Tabios
(Giraffe Books, Quezon City, 2004)

Serve me up some pretty, pretty people
Serve me up somebody I can believe
      You’d never know it to look at me
I got a Dracula moon
Love comes out any way it wants to
Doesn’t ask for your permission
          Joan Osborne, E. Bazilian, R. Hyman, R. Chertoff, “Dracula Moon,” Relish

I went around all day
With the moon stickin’ in my eye
          Don Van Vliet,[1] “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do,” Safe as Milk

My immediate reaction to the “aesthetic affairs” in this book is both attraction and repulsion. This is not negative criticism. Both exist, and are crucial to any work of art. And I find here a certain repulsion to the world inhabited by these artists. That is, one is attracted by the promise of eros, but to see artists as they exist within the economy and spin of the art world, and to read this as a narrative of sexual desire, is also to be repulsed. For sex itself, and sexual desire is narrative. To paint, to construct, sculpt, conceive (as in conceptual art, as in artistic creation) is, after all, to make oneself, or the extensions of oneself, interesting and desirable. In one sense, it is to love. Even that which appears repulsive wants to please someone.

At the same time, there is the lie. That is, the nostalgic and very western vision we have of the artist’s seemingly autonomous, or at least democratically independent, purity of vision. But the valorization of independence and autonomy obscures the relations of economy beneath the surface. We have here a counter-narrative that runs against the grain of the romantic notion of the artist, the genius in his garret, or in her expensive loft studio, working on some “pure” or original vision or concept. The New York City art world in these stories is itself stripped and exposed. You, the reader, are a voyeur into its intricate social and material network, not unlike that in the mansion from the  Story of O  by Dominique Aury (using the pseudonym Pauline Reage). The galleries of New York City provide the context. They are the mansion, the community, and city. But none of them, no matter how tasteful or avant garde, transcend the marketplace.

The artists in these tales are bought and sold. Even an artist of such seemingly organic purity as Richard Long, whose works narrate and travel through the natural landscape, must eventually channel his visions and experiences into book form, some object for consumption. Like the “Little Tramp” in Charlie Chaplin’s  Modern Times,  artists feed the machine, and are fed by it. Yet, ironically, the artists also desire, consume and collect. Like the incestuous author in Garcia Villa’s poem # 103 (No;I, will,not,speak,softly--/I,am,Thy,lover,Lord!”), the beautiful replicants in the postmodern film, Bladerunner, and the artist-collector in Tabios’ story, “The Art Collector,” the artists in this book are also lovers in love or in lust with the master, even while subverting his/her authority. Garcia Villa’s commas signal the ambivalent and shifting position of authority; relatedly, Tabios’ prose slides into the lyricism of the poetic line, subverting the boundary between genres: words and phrases are replicated like numbered canvasses, even as artists replicate their work as commodities for the public. Even while Tabios’ stories slyly pander to our erotic hunger, they morph into the unexpected. For example, “The Lucidity of Detachment” evolves into notes for the poem with which the story ends. In “Einstein’s Love Story” the expected erotic encounter becomes a “traditional” motif of desire and love followed by marriage. Surely its placement at the end of this collection whose stories offer a multiplicity of possibilities for the unraveling of love and/or desire must be deliberate. Is it naivete -- or deep intelligence -- on Tabios’ part not to allow the machinations of the art economy to demolish (her) hope?

It’s all about “taste,” after all. But what is “taste”? Before consumption, whether sensory or alimentary, the function of “taste” is discrimination. It has its roots in the imperative to survive. But warped under the pressure of the global, capitalist economy, “taste” becomes fetishization, the intimate, compulsive concern with, and categorization of that which we consume through our senses. In making such distinctions, one journeys into the labyrinth of intellect, and away from the senses. And yet, in the marketplace, intellect too often settles for simplification: one categorizes “good” art from “bad,”  “heterosexuality” from “homosexuality,” “normal” sex from “kinky.”

Eavan Boland, in "Letter To A Young Woman Poet" (American Poetry Review, May/June 1997), suggests: "the past needs us. That very past in poetry which simplified us . . . now needs us to change it. . . .Therefore we need to change the past.  Not by intellectualizing it. But by eroticizing it.”  What does it mean to eroticize this process of discrimination? To eroticize, not just the art, but the players, the machinery, the “mansion” that keeps it humming? In her previous books, Tabios has footnoted Boland’s statement, so it obviously has significance for her. In eros, control slips, as the object of domination revels in “losing” control.  Categories become unclear; the submissive may control the master, as Tabios reflects (in her poem “Beginning Lucidity”): “And what joy to recognize the curved line as both convex and concave -- a moment close to my backbone.”  Her statement suggests a wish to turn away from nihilism, a longing, as Nina says in “The Caustic Surface,” for relationships in which colors (or lovers) “exist side by side without encroaching on each other’s fields” and allowing “space for generating an emotional response.” Indeed, in all of these stories, I think that it is the emotional and sensate response that remains cherished and sacred, though often hidden or degraded.

Throughout Behind the Blue Canvas, ideas of perfection and fragmentation emerge metaphorically in the circular and linear forms painted on the artists’ canvasses, and in the circularity and linearity of personal relationships and social interactions upon the larger stage of world affairs. “Lucidity of Detachment” bares the narrator’s wounds to the reader in a longing that returns again and again to scenes of departure and detachment, broken lines and half-circles. Perhaps it reveals a disturbing cynicism, an acceptance of unfulfilled and doomed eroticism based on a society that profits from artists and art, diaspora, and elitist hierarchies maintained within the New York gallery world. These ekphrasic, erotic explorations of submission or domination, and all the labyrinthine machinations of power that lie between subject and object, reflect the global arena of politics and power, the densely layered realities of post-colonial hegemony. In “The Lucidity of Detachment,” the art gallery is named “FRACTALS” for good reason: fractals micro-pattern the larger world. Maxwell, the owner of “FRACTALS,” is an arbiter of taste; he seemingly rules the lives of artists in his “stable.” But he may also be the front-man for dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s son, Bong-Bong, who launders his unearned wealth through, among other ventures, New York art galleries.

Recently, in only his third state dinner since beginning office, U.S. President George Bush hosted Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Tabios, an oenophile, understands the irony of the Pride Viognier and Schramsberg wines served at the state dinner celebrating the alliance between Presidents Arroyo and Bush. Galleries, like nations, have their alliances, too. They have their compromises and back room deals. Like nations, they nurture the feeling of lack in their consuming patrons, and in their artists.  Imperialism defines itself by keeping its friends and enemies in a constant state of desire and hunger. The wines served are considered fine wines in the same way that works exhibited in various New York City galleries are considered “fine,” with all the marketing accoutrements of expanding “cultural capital.”

Yet, while these conflations of couplings and sexual triangulations with global imperialism play themselves out in these stories, Tabios does not let the reader lapse back into nihilism. She offers spaces for redemption in “Red Afterbirth” and “La Luna ‘Before the Silence of Winter Comes.’”  In the latter, she observes that the virgin moon is red, and pales as it rises – a metaphor for how life, which is “not easy,” may sap us – even though our light may shine the brighter for it.

We consume the erotic or pornographic narrative because of its predictability. But Tabios’ stories are not predictable, and they swerve into poetry, even as a musical note might bend into blues. What makes these narratives blue? The fact that love exists, suffers and enjoys, alongside that which is distant, cold, calculating, imperative. “Keep your eyes open,” commands the object of one artist’s desire in the story, “Blue Richard.” In the midst of struggle, in the midst of cultural disjunction, diaspora, and subjection, the artist is drawn to the authoritative voice that makes everything seemingly easy, simple, fluid.

The blues as music rarely gives us “answers,” in the intellectual sense; blues is itself an answer to alienation, separation and violence. If these narratives constitute an alternative, then I suspect that it is in the cognitive experience and recognition of distance, desire, and love. In the world of monetary values, of critical exegesis, of categorizing and so-called “discriminating” taste, we must come to recognize how we swerve, bend, and slip, how we desire to be mastered and to master, how we desire to destroy and be destroyed, and how we love. If sex and sexual desire is narrative, it is also knowledge.

[1] Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart, once called the “Fellini of Rock” by New Musical Express, may arguably be described as the Godfather of American alt rock and nu blues. In 1982, he gave up his musical career to become a visual artist, exhibiting his expressionist paintings on both coasts. He is currently represented by Galerie Michael Werner in New York.


Jean Vengua was born in San Francisco, raised in Santa Cruz, and now lives in Monterey, CA. She is a poet and artist, author of PrauThe Aching Vicinities, and The Little Book of Haptic Drawing. Jean's poems and essays have been published in many journals and anthologies. With Mark Young she co-edited The First Hay(na)ku Anthology and The Hay(na)ku Anthology, Vol. 2. She is also editor of, an online journal of writing and art.

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