A week ago, while at the beach in northern Florida, I watched an adult seagull feed something red and wriggling to a juvenile seagull. At first, I thought, “oh that’s a shrimp,” but then become overwhelmed with a kind of horror as I wondered if it in fact was a piece of plastic, a piece of plastic that would join other pieces of plastic in its stomach, accumulated slowly until it ended up on the beach dead, cut in half to reveal a belly full of plastic, like an albatross in the Midway Islands. In the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, the protagonist’s muse, her Brilliant Friend, so to speak, suffers from a horror of “dissolving margins.” In one scene, watching her brother go mad with fireworks, he “lost the features he had had as long as she could remember….something violated [his] organic structure…exercising over him a pressure so strong that it broke down his outlines.” Abstraction, for me, for Lila, for any Westerner, is serious stuff, the stuff of horror, the stuff—for CIA-promoted Abstract Expressionists—of a brooding, narcissistic masculinity that has no room for other people, especially not women.
Initially I walked right past the Gallery of Mexican Art. There is no signage. I rang the doorbell and waited. I texted my boyfriend: “I think it’s closed.” I began to think I had come to the wrong place, that I wouldn’t be able to see the show, that, because it was Monday, I wouldn’t be able to see anything that I could write about, that I was single-handedly wrecking my own project with my own lack of care and research. The door opened, finally. I walked across the gallery, ignoring the show downstairs, past the heavy cement indoor ashtray still smelling of cigarettes, up a brief staircase, into a dark room. I glanced around, seeing paintings and ceramics and the name of another artist, Olga Costa, under one of the paintings. I kept going upstairs, to another dark room, this one with a wall text and a catalog announcing it as “Night at Day,” a mostly-solo exhibition of work by Lucía Vidales. I turned on the lights and flipped through the catalog, taking pictures of everything because I almost never write about what I think I’m going to write about and having the entire catalog handy helps. I walked around the show, marveling at the horror and humor intertwined in Vidales’s work.
I found myself in front of a painting of a little two legged, three-antennaed ant person in a blue dress, with blue and red eyes and a yellow kind of nose or mouth squints out from beneath an grey umbrella. They are being rained on thundered on by two grossly-painted heavy clouds whose thick brushstrokes leer out of the canvas. Beside the clouds, a cracked chalice painted in pallid grey, looking like something out of a zombie tarot deck—the cracked page of cups, cracked curiosity and cracked possibility. Above the chalice, cartoonish spotted legs stick out of the upper lefthand corner of the canvas like Pippi Longstocking’s feet curling up under a bed. In the background, green and blue blocks on the righthand side dissolve as they head left, losing their margins until they become puddles bleeding into each other. I knew somehow that this was a painting whose title I had noticed while flipping through the catalog, a title indicative of something I do out of anxiety: Leave in a Hurry (2019). I checked the catalog, smiling when I saw my intuition had been correct. I left the room, turning off the light like the polite guest I am.
In her recording Sings Duke Ellington, Nina Simone occasionally leaves the happy-go-lucky swing of her band and the Malcolm Dodds Singers to embark on weirdly arrhythmic manic outbursts, hammering mostly major clusters with the percussive violence of Cecil Taylor. I was thinking of them originally as evidence of the smoldering anger that drove Simone throughout her life, but then I remembered how much she laughs during my favorite interview with her, when she tells the incredulous, patronizing host of BBC’s Hardtalk how she got a gun—“it was a gun, not a knife!” she reprimands him—and tried to kill a record executive who had stolen money from her. How she tells him, when he asks her if she is angry, that she doesn’t sing from anger so much as from a place of knowing her white, privileged audience’s implicit and explicit place in oppressing people like her throughout the world—“I don’t want them to think that I don’t know who they are, darling,” she smiles. Vidales knows what Simone knew: losing control isn’t the stuff of terror nor horror nor masculine self-obsession. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s hilarious, darling.