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Readers of previous episodes of my personal memoir (variously ‘Pisstory’ or ‘Wet Paint’, depending on whether I want to emphasise my credentials as a sexual fetishist with artistic interests or an art critic with a sideline in sexual fetishism) will know that I am a middle-aged English art historian and writer whose lurid early sex life contributed in no small measure to his career.

When I made most of my income by writing on the subject for art journals and national newspapers I was courted and dreaded both by artists and the curators who organised their exhibitions, having early on established a reputation for saying exactly what I thought about the work I was paid to comment on. Sometimes this made no difference whatever, on the principle that no publicity is bad publicity, such as the time I denounced as an untalented and cynical charlatan the then highest-earning fashionable artist in the world, which only seemed to increase the prices fools were prepared to pay at auction for his work. Sometimes, curators were even secretly glad I was prepared to stick my head above the armoured parapet of the art ‘establishment’, to whom the principle of praising the Emperor’s New Clothes is an article of faith, because they didn’t dare do it themselves and I might just have helped sow some doubt about some of the nonsense they felt uncomfortable going along with.

However, the phrase ‘another Joe Exeter hatchet job’ became both an attempt to diminish any truth I’d told which they might accidentally recognise, and a magic spell designed to hold at bay the evil spirits of adverse criticism in general. It also enhanced my reputation and kept the work coming in.

I often wonder what they would have made of my championing of the visceral, challenging and, indeed, fetishistic early work of Louise Stearman if they’d known that the first time I’d met her she fucked me in the insanitary toilet of an old British Rail train between Dover and London. Or that I was the disguised man in her notorious cut-up slide montage ‘Everything He Wanted To Do To Me’ — the last piece of art, incidentally, that the late anti-indecency campaigner Mary Whitehouse tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress as ‘obscene.’ Admittedly, I was a 20-year-old student at the time, and the curators of more adventurous galleries were quite ready to accept Louise’s strange talent as genuine without my help. But enemies I subsequently made might have tried to use the knowledge to embarrass me.

I am, of course, utterly unembarrassable, but they didn’t know that. And as I’ve got older and given up exhibition reviews for occasional lecturing and the writing of books about my favourite art and artists I find myself increasingly in favour. I’m frequently invited to contribute to exhibitions of work by, or associated with, those historical figures whose personalities or creations can no longer excite any but the most cursory and unexceptionable ‘controversy.’

My old friend and sparring partner Paul, head curator of an eminent gallery in the north of England, contacted me to tell me he’d secured a major retrospective of a legendary American abstract expressionist, long dead, about whose work I had already written one well-received book and was contemplating another. The deal was a generous fee to give one of the introductory talks at the show’s opening, and another to contribute an original essay to the exhibition’s catalogue. Knowing my liking for the work, combined with the fact that some of the paintings had never before been shown in the UK, and his knowledge that at my age I was no longer prepared to make snap judgements about anything, Paul also offered to put me up at a decent local hotel for three days while I acquainted or reacquainted myself with the paintings concerned, putting all my meals on the gallery’s tab, and not interfering in any way with my visits to the show. At first I wondered what the catch was, then realised that there was none. I’d finally made it. My name was enough to enhance an opening, a catalogue, and even an exhibition of an established artistic genius. For a couple of hours after I’d emailed him my acceptance I felt like the king of the world.

Then, of course, I started calculating the losses which had led to this apparently happy situation. I could instantly agree to take up Paul’s offer because I had no one else relying on me — perhaps a desirable situation for an ambitious man half my age but, I couldn’t help feeling, evidence of a fundamental lack in someone who’d reached sixty. I had no family. I’d been married twice, but there had been no children, and my twin devotions to my career and what to both my wives had evidently appeared strange sexual tastes had eventually alienated them. As far as I could tell, I’d only been in love once, for two days, with a strange girl forty years before, whose history I didn’t know but which led to her suicide the first time our relationship was obstructed. I kept telling myself there was nothing I could have done about this, and yet on a certain level just below rational consciousness I felt it had been my responsibility. My subsequent pursuing yalova escort of women with whom I could engage in physically similar, intense, paraphiliac relationships (according to convention), became pathological in a way I was absolutely sure our preferences and practices were not.

My tastes are a matter of more or less public record, and will be evident from my own autobiographical writings on the matter. As I said, I’m unembarrassable about them or anything else, but when I was a young man I didn’t fight hard enough for Alana’s and my right to love each other as we pleased, and I needed to compensate for that. As the years went by I forced all my energy into my work, favouring transgressive artists as a displacement from my personal guilt, at the same time trying to replicate something that was already gone, however pleasurably I managed it with strangers and occasional girlfriends. As I grew older, less physically energetic, and more aware of how ridiculous old men look trying to pull women of whatever age for whatever sexual end, I almost found myself giving up. I had friends, was never short of invitations both personal and professional, received plenty of opportunities for work and travel and, I think, was well thought of. But I couldn’t ever get what I wanted, even though I was no longer sure what that was. In the meantime, work would have to do.

My speech at the opening was well received by the Great and the Good who had been invited to hear it. Among them was the Chair of the late artist’s family foundation, which still owned much of his work and was responsible for gifting or lending it to those galleries around the world which it considered worthy of the honour. Afterwards, I was taken by taxi to a well-reviewed restaurant in the city centre to have dinner with him. He’d previously given me the green light to access the Foundation’s archive for in-depth information toward the drafting of my second book on the life and work, but there was one item in particular that I needed his specific permission to research. Obtaining this was, originally, intended to be the highlight of my visit.

We weren’t even halfway through our aperitifs when he said: “The trustees all agree you should have access to the notebooks. We’re confident that your proven track record of candour about your own, er, circumstances is evidence that you’ll deal fairly and unsensationally with anything you find there. You obviously have a huge understanding already of our man, and we have every trust in you.

“Of course…” He took a sip of his gin.”…if you betray our trust and run to the yellow press with any type of scandalous intent we’ll hire a hitman to take you out. Agreed?”

An Englishman brought up on my countrymen’s stereotype of Americans as lacking irony momentarily shocked me. Then I noticed the twinkle in his eyes and laughed with him. It was a perfect result.

The following morning my instinct was to run away back to my London flat, cobble together a catalogue essay from what I already knew, and concentrate on sketching out the structure for my new book. But Paul’s invitation both to me and the Foundation chair had cut out the need for several tedious transatlantic phone calls and, in all likelihood, the cost of at least one return trip to New York, so I felt I owed it to him to do what I’d said I’d do. I dutifully turned up at the gallery the following morning with my own notebook, to reinspect the exhibited work, make notes, and think.

I spent the morning in the first two rooms, examining then sitting down to contemplate the dozen or so early canvases on display there. I’d save the others, the late work, for after lunch.

On my advice, Paul had ignored the very early paintings — the uninspired figurative pieces, both pseudo-cubist portrait and semi-abstract landscape — and jumped straight in at the point where the artist had seemed to develop, overnight, the inklings of his mature style. Blocks of colour were laid together, two or three at a time, both vertically and horizontally. The pigment was thick, the edges and rectangular corners sharp. Sometimes the colours touched, at others they were separated by strips of various thicknesses of primed base canvas. They showed a mastery of colour-contrast, juxtaposition, and combination, and their shades were never mundane. Although the titles or subtitles were clearly designed to give the viewer a steer — words like ‘Anxiety’, ‘Joy’, ‘Suspicion’ — they conveyed remarkably a sense of those emotions. Although none of the canvases was too large to fit above most upper middle-class American fireplaces of the era in which they had been painted, they were not merely decorative, as so much abstraction and colour field painting later became. They were serious work.

They also were the ground for my speculations about the later paintings. But now I was hungry. I made for the gallery restaurant.

It was cafeteria-style, but the food was always good, and my VIP pass entitled me to avoid payment altogether. The dining room was packed, it being the show’s first day open to the public, but miraculously yalova escort bayan there was a two-person table unoccupied near the entrance. As I sat, a female voice behind me said “Oh shit!” as a knife and fork clattered to the floor and skidded under my chair.

“Sorry — I tripped.” The young woman put her tray down quickly next to mine and bent over to pick up her cutlery. She was dressed in the standard staff uniform of the gallery, which Paul claimed to have designed personally as part of its rebranding when he took over: an ultramarine blue polo shirt with the single-word logo of the place embroidered in yellow on the right of the chest, and black chino trousers with the same logo on the right hand pocket. I registered this immediately, at the same time as her lacy black knickers rose above her trouser waistband and exposed beneath them two inches of taut, pale bum.

She grabbed the offending ironmongery, and turned to face me. I had a good view into the shadow of cleavage down her open-buttoned polo shirt. Her breasts weren’t large, but they weren’t negligible either. She had an open, pale face, steady brown eyes, and sharp cheekbones. Her hair was dark brown, tied back. She smiled when I invited her to join me, and didn’t demur.

“I heard your talk last night” she said. “Can I ask you some questions about it?”

“Please do.”

I wasn’t used to being taken seriously by accidentally-met girls. She must have been about twenty-five, but what she said then showed an extraordinary grasp not only of what I’d previously written and said, but also of what I was thinking about writing in the future.

“You talked about how he achieved the sense of emotional depth, movement, and spiritual profundity in the late work. And how different that was from the simpler, more packaged statements of emotion or philosophical position in the early phase?”

I had. In the later phase of his ‘colour-block’ late period our artist had discovered methods of layering his oil pigments in several kinds of thin washes, one on top of another, drying at different rates to make some areas show through the paint above them, creating a depth and vibrancy that some found disturbing, others — myself included — moving and philosophically involving. His use of edges had also become less defined, as though acknowledging a lack of control. In one of my essays on the subject, I had quoted Nietzsche: “If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

“I get that” said my interlocutor. “But have you ever wondered why?”

That was a bloody good question. One I’d also asked myself for many years, without expecting that anyone other than another obsessive art historian would have bothered themselves with. Why indeed had he, within the space of a few months, moved from strong, single colour-based

panels to a new style which was not only more ambitious, but also less certain to communicate and, hubristically, so much larger that its only possible home could be on the walls of large galleries? And why, within five years of his discovery of this extraordinary new technique, and the success and critical acclaim it had won him, did he take his own life?

Trying to unravel this mystery had been one of my intentions when planning my new book. Now this kid — this attractive kid in lace knickers with a clumsy approach to self-service cutlery — had spectacularly second-guessed me. I gazed at her in admiration.

“Look” she continued “You’ve described in general terms how he produced those effects, like the one of being interrogated or even physically pulled into some of those late, big canvases. Technically that’s clever, but what process led him to consider, then experiment, then endlessly practise the means to achieve it? Why did he even want to do it? What was he trying to prove?”

She’d continued eating throughout her battery of questions, and had now nearly finished her meal. I just sat there amazed, my plate hardly touched.

“Sorry” she said. “I talk too much.”

She didn’t look remotely apologetic.

“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this” I said, hearing myself speak before I was even aware of opening my mouth, “But I’ve just got the go-ahead from the Foundation to examine his notebooks as part of my work toward my next book. They’ve never let any other critic or writer touch them. Apparently they’re largely written in a code, but I think they might offer clues both to his methods and to his reasons for adopting them.”

I looked across at her, certain she’d be impressed at my erudition and good luck, but all I could see was the profile of her tits in the blue polo shirt, combined with the memory of her lace pants riding up out of her trousers across her shapely round bottom. I fancied I could pick up a faint tang of sweat from her, with a delicious light urinous top note.

‘Stop it, Exeter!’ my conscious mind restrained me.

An electronic hiss rose from the radio handset clipped to her waistband. A crackling woman’s voice.

“Sam to Jenna.”

“Shit.” The girl unclipped the radio. “Jenna receiving.”

“When you’ve escort yalova finished lunch can you come to the Tech Store? I need some help.”

“Got to go” she said, refastening her radio. “Nice to talk to you. Thanks.”

“See you again?” I heard myself say to a woman young enough to be my daughter, if not my granddaughter.

“Hope so” she said.

I did what I’d promised myself I’d do and spent the rest of my time that day in the final two rooms, being spoken to by, and attempting not to fall into, the late-period canvases whose scarily layered surfaces whispered sirenlike to the unsuspecting. But I confess for much of that time I was not thinking about my artist, but rather the girl I now knew was called Jenna. I’d wondered when she started talking with me if she were one of the gallery guides, people of whose training and artistic knowledge Paul was particularly proud, and who he made a point of assuring were capable of coherent interpretation of the work if asked. I knew he employed a lot of Fine Art graduates for the purpose. However, the radio call from the woman called Sam cited the Tech Store, which seemed to imply that she was a member of the gallery’s technical team, responsible for installing and dismounting exhibitions, and ensuring the integrity and conservation of the work when it was on site.

She did seem very young, though.

I woke up at 2am in my comfortable alien bed with the most improbably hard erection I’d had in months and the ghostly vision of Jenna’s lacy pants hovering before me. I ejaculated copiously into one of the hotel’s complimentary tissues.

“Maybe an intern?” Paul said when I asked him the following morning if he had a member of his curatorial or technical teams by Jenna’s name. I’d arranged to have coffee with him to let him know how I’d got on the evening of the opening. He was delighted at my success, and seemed impressed at some of the ideas I set out for how the book might progress. I didn’t mention that the most important of these had also been Jenna’s, but did say I’d had a useful and productive conversation with a member of his staff, in the hope of doing her some good and also finding out more about her. He didn’t seem to know who she was.

I spent the morning in the first room of the late work, being stared into by the void and making notes toward my catalogue essay. Every time a new uniformed member of gallery staff came into the space I hoped it might be her, but it never was. She wasn’t in the restaurant at lunchtime either.

For the afternoon I moved to the final room, the huge vibrating canvases that represented the last year of their maker’s life. He had given them no titles beyond opus numbers. He either no longer cared what their subject was, or trusted his viewer to work it out by himself. Jenna had said, effectively, that she thought the pictures were trying to talk to us, obliquely, in a language or code none of us yet knew. I was increasingly inclined to agree with her, and began fretting to see the notebooks, which I suspected, or rather desperately hoped, might contain the key. And I wanted to talk to my accidental collaborator. And more. However unlikely that more might be.

By half past 4, thirty minutes before closing time, I knew my essay would now write itself as soon as I got back to my laptop. I didn’t even need to stay for the extra day, and would have begun making plans to catch the first train I could back to London if it hadn’t been for one thing. Jenna.

I needed to see her again.

On one level my reasons were, of course, pure common courtesy. In our one brief meeting she’d fed me an idea which had revolutionised my understanding of my next book’s subject, and I wanted to thank her. I would make sure she got an acknowledgement in the introduction. Possibly even a dedication. On another level, it was a matter of professional encouragement. Here was I at the peak of my career, wanting to encourage a young person at the beginning of hers. I could offer to give her references, perhaps correspond with her, become a kind of mentor to her. Then on a third level was the fact that I had no children and she was, as I’ve commented, at least young enough to be my daughter. Perhaps she could compensate for a lack of family in my old age. But below that, there was the level that had driven me to masturbate to the image of her tight little arse in its black lace underwear that morning. Even if I wasn’t quite ready to admit it in words, I knew I wanted to fuck her.

Jenna was right about the layers of paint.

I had no idea how I was going to find her without drawing attention to myself, but realised that the first thing I needed as I walked out of the last room was to pee. It had been a hot day, and although the gallery had low-key air conditioning to maintain a constant temperature and humidity for the protection of its contents, I’d still felt the warmth and had been steadily drinking bottled water between sessions with the paintings. With my cream linen jacket — the marker of all pseudo-Bohemian English middle class men of a certain age — slung over my shoulder, I headed toward the passage where I knew the visitors’ toilets were. It occurred to me that once I’d done I could ask the woman on the information desk if she knew where I could find Jenna. That was information, after all.

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