Chapter 2: Homes and Self-Portraits

Sabine hated the glad-handing of big gallery shows. They hadn’t sold a piece in over a month, and their rent was due in two weeks. Sabine was happy to have one of their works at Terre for the 2018 Pittsburgh Art Crawl. They had begged and pleaded with Severin for a spot. They were not, under any circumstances, asking their mother to help cover the rent… again. Sabine was a grown ass adult. They were a working artist. Their work could pay the bills.

Or, at least, that’s what Sabine told themself each day as they pushed aside the rational impulse to find a job with benefits and a salary.


Orchid

Vol. 1: Overture

By Dawn Saas and Nic Frankenberry

Powered by the Apocalypse and the work of D. Vincent Baker

as well as

Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman

Microscope by Ben Robbins


Sabine never knew what to say to the other artists at these exhibitions. They would read Artist Statements and wonder if some of their peers would have been better served pursuing careers as essayists (or, occasionally, as novelists) instead of visual artists.

Look around you, and you see the base and superstructure. The McDonald Financial Building and Rosen Chemicals. Across town, we have the Hazelwood projects. Across the bridge, there’s Southside. It isn’t enough to say there are rich people. There are poor people. What holds the megarich up and holds the infinite poor down? What keeps the working class from rising up en masse to take back this city? Each of these five columns represents…

Sabine couldn’t help but make the jerk off motion as they walked by Colin’s installation, a series of five papier-mache columns in the center of Terre‘s main show floor. The erections were modeled after classical Greek columns, and the papier-mache might have been mistaken for actual marble if you didn’t know what to look for. Colin’s work always had a hyper-realistic look, even if it was ultimately as hollow and empty as his prose.

Sabine agreed with everything Colin’s artist statement said. Of course, the evils of capitalism were more complex than Rich People Bad, Poor People Good… although those were both certainly mostly true statements. But who the fuck was this piece supposed to be for? Did Colin think he was going to inspire some genuine Bolshie revolt with a PoMo commentary on bourgeois collaboration. The proletariat already knew this shit and didn’t need a trust fund case like Colin to remind them.

Sabine knew they were a terrible hypocrite. They didn’t have a trust fund, but their mother, Paulina Almeida, was the top prosecutor in Alleghany County. Also, Sabine’s favorite evening at Terre had been the night of the centennial of the October Revolution. There had been installations celebrating Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Severin had given into counter-revolutionary demands and not placed any explicitly pro-Stalinist art in the gallery, although everyone knew that Severin had their sympathies with the Georgian Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. Someone had built a desk with a realistically detailed model cat that you could sit next to and pet like Lenin in his famous post-revolution photograph. There were Tsars and Tsarinas and their children that you could hang. The patrons of Terre that evening had sung the Internationale… Severin included.

Nazi punks had tried to sneak in, and Sabine had helped beat their asses out the door. Sabine wore steel toes that evening, and they heard the satisfying crack of their boot against a fascist’s jaw in an alley outside the gallery. Sabine hooked up with a comrade from out of state that night who gave them the best head they’d ever had.

All in all, it was a good evening.

Sabine understood, however, that there was a difference between a night for comrades who knew the argot and running something like these columns as the centerpiece on Art Crawl night when half the crowd in Terre were tourists from the Burgh ‘burbs who had never heard the phrase “material dialectics” in their life. Terre was the space for experimental art in Pittsburgh. Sabine knew getting a spot on the Terre floor during the Art Crawl was the biggest opportunity they’d have this side of Tracy finally getting Sabine that spot at a Hodges Exhibition that Tracy had been promising them for years now. However, Sabine couldn’t stomach the inflated self-importance of art bros like Colin and the utter, unapologetic inaccessibility of their “radical” and “political” art.

Steel built the Pittsburgh we know, but where has it gone now? What has replaced it? Circuit boards and information technology. Dance clubs and themed bars? Picture the Hodges Refinery. The roaring ovens and the molten steel. The workers drenched in sweat. The roads and railways and buildings that transformed 20th century America from this town? What has ever been given back to us?

Sabine actually liked this piece. It was a garish, brutalist conglomeration of steel. Girders and railings arrayed in chaotic precision. The instillation was in one of Terre‘s cramped, skewed corners. If you stepped beneath the haphazard steel edifice, pressure pads on the floor bathed you in reds and oranges and blinding whites and blues. Snatches of early 20th century folk music played from hidden speakers, and based on your position, the tracks would warp and hiss and rewind and scratch. Sabine closed their eyes and imagined the steel mills and felt with their feet around this immaculately nauseating piece. Sabine thought of Virgil.

They wondered how she was doing. It had been nine years since Sabine had seen Virgil. What must it have been like to be one of the women in those mills? How different was the city with so many of the men gone? How much better was it? Sabine thought they could handle the backbreaking labor as long as there were fewer men around that could harass or abuse them. Sabine supposed they would have been just as happy in Europe killing Nazis. Either option worked.

Self-portrait.

Severin’s piece stood in a lonely corner of the gallery. It was ignored for the more high-concept and interactive pieces that sprinkled Terre. Sabine wondered if anyone in the gallery besides they and Melika knew how literal the piece’s title was.

Severin and Sabine had the only watercolors at the show. Colin had once told Sabine how impressed he was that she still worked in watercolor. He loved how quaint of a choice watercolors were. Sabine didn’t know if they wanted to throat punch Colin more because of how condescending his voice was when he said the word “quaint” or because of how many times they’d told Colin their pronouns. He was still misgendering them either through laziness or malice. Sabine didn’t care which it was.

Severin’s painting was nearly ten feet tall and showed a nude figure. The creature wasn’t human although it appeared humanoid. The being was bipedal. There were almost recognizable facial features although the ears were jagged and higher up on the head than a person’s. The nose was convex instead of external, and the eyes were perfectly round with no discernible lids. The skin breathed in and out, colors exhaling into lighter hues, parallel hues, shadows of themselves against shifting, complex geometrical curves. The creature had a perfectly flat chest with no nipples, but it had a recognizable vagina with an oversized clitoral hood. The dominating color scheme of the ever-changing skin were dark, almost midnight blues against small patches of polygonal, bumblebee yellow.

Beneath Severin’s terse artist statement, there was a plaque explaining how this piece was made possible with experimental breakthroughs in the Hodges University chemistry department collaborating with the arts school.

The plaque was total horseshit. Hodges was the legal face of the Divise market and had started to make a massive profit off of the exclusive rights to external distribution of Fae goods. Virgil’s painting had the same plaque. Like Severin, they were able to circumvent Hodges for supply. Also like Severin, they were not able or willing to flaunt where this paint really came from in public.

Home.

Wherever Sabine stood in Terre, they were strategically placed so that they could easily sneak a glance towards their own piece. Two teenage girls holding hands had stopped and stared at the painting for a couple minutes. One of the girls, a portly Persian sixteen year old, kissed her Jewish partner, and then they walked over to the Lynchian horrors of the steel/folk music instillation. No one had looked like a serious buyer all night.

Sabine’s piece was a landscape. Home was the first landscape Terre had featured in seven months, and Severin had only agreed to even consider a landscape when Sabine showed them which landscape they had chosen.

A sea of flowers cascaded towards a crashing, cellular horizon. From a distance, the fiery field was a balletic explosion of reds and oranges. The roses, lilies, and orchids. The sky smoldered. Purples and blacks. The sky seemed to fall inward. At the center of the field, the lone, lilac orchid. Pale as a teardrop.

Closer examinations of the painting revealed surrealist, almost eldritch flourishes. The brick red lily seeping verdant ooze. Its pistil pushing out of the flower like a lolling tongue. The crystalline lavender rose. The pulsing suns in its glass petals. Orchids with vulval tendrils, furiously intertwined with one another. Grass that grew and withdrew in skeletal, silver waves.

Tracy Houston was studying a particularly detailed blade of skeleton grass when Sabine walked silently beside her. Tracy was in her “I’m just a customer” outfit although every featured artist in Terre had spotted Tracy before the doors had shut behind her. They all wanted her to look at their work. Tracy was in an ankle-length, royal purple dress with silver trim that seemed to almost glow against her coffee arms and thighs. She was wearing a light, rose scarf. Sabine wished they had Tracy’s horned rims. Sabine looked down at their jeans and the Mitski tour shirt they were wearing. They hoped they could still nail an ensemble like Tracy’s when they were in their sixties.

Tracy slowly pulled away from the painting and her deep, brown eyes turned, brows raised to Sabine.

“Who is this for?”

“It is for me.”

Severin seemed to materialize on Sabine’s other side. Sabine had often wondered if Severin could teleport, but Sabine was pretty sure they’d seen Severin hobnobbing in their dark red tuxedo with the Cochran family whose donations kept Terre open. Severin’s long, blonde hair bounced as they pretended to laugh at another one of Bobby Cochran’s anecdotes about his great aunt Helen. Severin had at least been in the room.

Tracy looked at Severin over her horned rims.

“You like this?”

Severin studied Sabine’s painting several times before responding.

“It’s kitsch. Sorry… Sabine, but that’s what it is.”

Severin wiped a tear from their eye.

“Still, it is home.”

Tracy sighed loudly.

“When did you get boring, Sabine?”

Tracy wasn’t even deigning to look at them.

Sabine was so short that they had difficult maintaining eye contact with most people. It was a disadvantage of being 4’11”. They were grateful now for the advantage their miniscule height offered. Sabine just stared ahead at their painting and tried to add a playful edge to their voice, but they weren’t sure if they sounded relaxed or menacing.

“First, fuck you. I’m not boring. Second, it’s pretty. People like pretty. Pretty pays the bills.”

Sabine steeled up their nerve and looked up at Tracy who did not break Sabine’s gaze. Sabine tended to have that effect on people. Severin and Arsene too.

“We both know there are some gringas down in Oakland that would eat this shit up if they have some assurances of its authenticity. Which… fuck it. Whatever you need. But those girls would pay through the nose for this.”

Tracy looked back at Sabine’s painting and wrinkled her nose in thinly veiled disdain.

“Yeah… Ansel’s daughter is obsessed with you people. We could probably bleed her for…” Tracy started to do mental calculations and tilted her head with a detached gaze. “Two or three grand. Yeah. I think that’s a mighty fine idea.”

Tracy clapped Sabine on the back.

“I respect the grind, little s… sorry. Little friend. We all have to eat, but try to find a way to get paid and still care. You’re better than this.”

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