As much as they had anticipated this moment, thrilled to it by grand expectation, they daren’t approach him, as if he were a white stag or other skittish mythical beast ready to dash away at the hint of intrusion. Or if they were to approach him, to hear him talk in his famously whimsical manner, too intimidating it would be, too anxious they were of being judged as of convention, or worse, abstract averse. Instead they would silently revel with him in his aloofness, squinting into the glare of his distracted genius, leaning in to hear his latest utterance when it came, pretending not to be listening: “Predicting a wintry mix covers every scenario, wintry and not wintery. Trolls and bots, bolls and trots, the. Dog breath. Dog treat. Sit. Stay. Shake. Speak. Shitake. Souvlaki. Are there no more French strays? Eau Claire, eclair au chocolat.”
Renowned avant-garde artist Dewey Cozenerat Norway, almost across the street from the gallery’s opening exhibition reception. Outside people arriving by taxi or limousine or approaching by sidewalk, laughter ricocheting off the urban canyon walls. Dewey Cozener drinking red wine, liberally so, to deaden the pain of an abscessed molar. Binging on blue moon ice cream following years of neglect, the starving artist aesthete without a subsidized dental plan, too engrossed in his creations to bother with routine check-ups or teeth-cleanings.
Upscale Norway, reception night tradition for exhibit openings at the city’s most prominent avant-garde gallery, convenient diversion if opening night turnout underwhelmed. The featured artist or artists languishing at Norway with Gish the curator, Dragan and Sasa the gallery owners, and whatever interested patrons had chosen to attend, desirous of rubbing elbows with the featured artist or artists, the disappointing attendance an irrelevance. Gish would cede administration of the reception to staff (a full-time assistant and two part-timers who didn’t need the work but did need something to do) and volunteers (interns, art history majors).
Not that this was in any way conceivable for the unveiling of the latest Cozener chef d’oeuvre, one of the more anticipated events in the metropolitan art community in the last decade, after the striking success of his first piece: Oak Street Beach Paraphernalia. Things he had gathered up at Oak Street Beach, dented or crumpled aluminum cans, broken bottle glass pieces green and brown, plastic hypodermic needles, used condoms, cigarette butts, flayed bits of transparent baggies and gray-tipped seagull feathers, all affixed to a broken-off slab of Oak Street and atop a layer of sand the color and texture of ground cumin, feathers and colored glass thoughtfully interspersed, butts affixed vertically, round filter ends nicotine-stained points of reference, so that the sculpture was disturbing and beautiful and intriguing, together soft and sharp in texture. Widely lauded for its duality, for transforming societal refuse into an objet d’art, interpreted by critics as a clever statement about how wasteful humanity was predisposed to being, oblivious to the collective worth of the things it discarded and the overlooked aesthetic of that collective worth, something only an artistic genius like Dewey Cozener could encapsulate. An excerpt from one of the plaudits:
“An early morning turn at Oak Street Beach cannot help but discourage the sunniest optimist, the ideal place to escape one’s daily rigors, the beach, hopelessly sullied with cans and bottles and cigarettes, used condoms and needles washing up at the shoreline where there would be colorful mollusk shells at the edge of a pristine ocean. To be able to take this sad, depressing scene and see something beautiful in it, to be able to capture that beauty and share it with we philistines who see only humanity’s carelessly profligate, self-destructive ways, is to glimpse the world through the eyes of a Godsend. Bless you, Mr. Dewey Cozener, for sharing your vision. It is exquisite.”
The piece sold for $275,000 and was now bolted to a wall above a Primanti sectional in the Gold Coast penthouse of a commodities hedge fund manager. And with that Dewey Cozener disappeared. Nothing heard from him for almost five years, speculation ranging from his being so entirely engrossed in his art, substance abuse, sidetracking stints in rehab, to entanglements in various trysts or nothing morethan his indecipherable eccentricity. During this hiatus, wondering aloud if Cozener would go down as aone-hit wonder.
The avant-garde gallery was the first to learn of Cozener’s next impending masterpiece, a date settled upon for the exhibition night reception and unveiling, teasingly disseminated to the art community by leaks to art-minded media, a large black banner affixed in the gallery’s front bay window, COZENER in huge white gothic font, August in much smaller font beneath. Dewey Cozener, the second coming. And so began the mounting anticipation to see what he would come up with for his long-awaited encore.
When it was fashionably past time to cross the street and coronate the reception they gathered at the entrance of Norway, preparing to make their choreographed entry as the It Crowd. By then Dewey Cozener’s dead molar relegated to dull ache, chasing down his fourth glass of Cabernet as they began to assemble. Someone would want to glide in on his arm. Gish made the initial approach, standing against him and he had only to crook his elbow, smiling up at him with her large brown eyes, but then Margaux Sailor pulled rank, stepping forward and taking his hand, bending his arm and wrapping hers around his, the Sailors among the gallery’s most generous benefactors and Margaux one of the gallery’s more notorious trustees. Tall and angular, long-legged faded exotic, her swan’s neck beginning to wattle, lightly colored, unnatural-hued hair cut to taper perfectly along her jaw line. They crossed the street as a sauntering procession, regal Clydesdales stepping across the pony and mule rank and file, Dewey delightfully barefoot, in a charcoal suit and white open-collar shirtcrossing Abbey Road.
As they mingled with patrons already gathered heads turned and scanned anxiously for Dewey Cozener, not everyone knowing what he looked like, in fact few, and even to those who had never seen him he was identifiable within a high degree of certainty. He looked like one’s expectation of an elegant, famous artist, tall but just so and not overly, tan, leathery (more cured than worn), long black hair to his collar getting grey in sublime streaks, his smiling eyes implicative of diluted Asian heritage, sharp, pointed chin. He spoke slowly, thoughtfully, with the trace of a lisp, his shared thoughts fresh angles, perceptions that wouldn’t have been considered by anyone but him, dreamily esoteric if enigmatic bordering on incoherent.
“Effervescence on the tip of her tongue, tip of her nose fizzing fizzy. Battlefield sushi, suicide bomber sashimi,Afghan Roll, pap smear of butter, tea withhomogenized milk and finely-ground quartz, some schpilkis in my genectagozoink if you please, Mr. Pullings.”
In choosing to wait with Cozener and be part of the grand entrance the gallery’s aristocracy would not be among the first to espy the new Cozener creation, a concession, although losing a few to the makeshift bar as they made their way out of the great room and its mainstay of paintings toward the back where the exhibitions interchanged. More of a hall than a back room, embedded lighting, low ceiling, brick walls painted white and rectangular pillars interspersed, wiring piped along the ceiling painted to blend, blonde Pergo flooring that groaned beneath each step or clattering beneath heels. The room smelled dimly of feces, as if the trusty sewer pipes beneath this and any of the neighboring buildings might have backed up, finally having it with the staggering quantities of excrement deposited into them each day from the squatting denizens of the city proper. Cozener drifted toward the outskirts with Margaux Sailor, she letting go of his arm as if reluctantly, her fingers drifting lightly across his exposed wrist.
Each new arrival was given a device like opera glasses with small telescopic protrusions from each eye piece similar to binocular lenses, custom-made for scrutinizing every feature of the diminutive sculpture from a comfortable distance. The exhibit was on the floor and roped off and surrounded outside the ropeline, people staring fixatedly at it, enough of a crowd so that anyone wanting to see had to wait patiently or contort between or nudge past people in front. Peering through the opera glasses with the binocular lenses to study it carefully and there it was, the very latest from Dewey Cozener: Scheisse. Coiled and piled human feces, turquoise surfaced with cracks of natural fecal brown and intermittent streaks of dark blue, resting on a screen over a varnished wood box of smoldering dry ice, steam rising from around the pile of feces, or as if the colorful pile was until very recently ablaze.
With a confident smile Gish weaved in and out of the crowd’s periphery where people were beginning to opine, listening to theseejaculations of wonder and praise:
“One has to marvel at the consistency of theme. It’s the same in context as his last piece, only it takes that context to a whole new level: finding beauty in waste. Who would have ever thought that could be beautiful?”
“I’d go a step further and say Scheisse demands to know if we’ve been paying attention, chiding us to consider what we might have overlooked.”
“I can’t decide if it’s relentlessly optimistic or wickedly pessimistic.”
“It’s the United States. A more appropriate name for it, if I can be so presumptuous.”
“The use of color is astounding, like it’s baked in.”
“And the smoke from the dry ice brings it to life in a way, as if the…the shit…is sentient.”
“The smoke or steam gives it majesty, as if that steaming pile of shit is iconic, something with a deep and rich history…”
“…or deeply conflicted…”
“…yes, yes, yes.”
“Haunting, really, as if it’s something unpleasant from a dream emerging into consciousness.”
“I can’t get over the color. It’s really quite extraordinary.”
Gish was prepared for the first offer when it came, looking blankly-attentively as if not expecting it, from a wealthy patron for whom money was no object. It was brilliantly conceived, all offers and acceptance of the offers fielded by the gallery. Of the artists she’d worked with she’d never known them to be interested in marketing their work or thinking about what they created in terms of what it wouldfetch on the open market, envisioning themselves as purists, artists creating art for art’s sake. Gish explaining that of course the feces wouldn’t keep, that Scheissewas regularly cleaned up and disposed of and perpetually recreated by the artist. Rather, for $10,000, Dewey Cozener himself would come to your place of residence or other of your choosing and recreate and leave you with your very own signature Scheisse. Of course you wouldn’t want to leave Scheisse on display indefinitely. The dry ice would expire and the inevitable fortuitous discovery by flies. As part of the package the gallery would provide a digital photographer to immortalize one’s own, personalized Scheisse, deposited by the very artist himself. Cozener could be invited to a pre-creation meal the night before if the patron desired, with the stipulation that dinner had to be eaten between 7-8 p.m. and the dietary requirements were greens, a modest serving of meat, blueberries (the dark streaks), and blue moon ice cream for dessert (the turquoise). Cozener would defecate at the buyer’s preferred location prior to 9 a.m. the following morning, providing the wood box and screen with dry ice for the steaming effect.
Initially critical reaction to Scheisse was conspicuously mute but as popularity for Cozener’s follow-up creation grew compelled to comment critics were, cautiously laudatory they were as well.
“To be able to take a theme and create a genre out of it is prodigious. Creating a sculpture from human waste is quintessentially avant-garde, indicative of a mind that operates on a creative plane ascendant to the rest of us. Without the foundation of Oak Street Beach Paraphernalia and without the steam or its whimsical color Scheisse would be just another pile of scheisse. Hats off to Dewey Cozener for reminding us it’s the little things in life, or art. And to be conscious of what we waste, for we might be wasting a lot more than we realize, maybe even our very lives that seem to pass by with such expediency.”
For the avant-garde crowd Dewey Cozener defecating on their living room floors was cachet, validation they were at the extreme edge of avant-garde,most opting to have Scheissephotographed and framed and autographed by the man himself.
Not long after the unveiling Margaux Sailor called Gish to inquire about bookings and Gish happily reported bookings were brisk, Scheisse was a hit, thirty weeks of bookings at two to three per week. Gish misunderstanding that this wasn’t necessarily the news Margaux Sailor was hoping for, Gish accepting as genuine the pretense of enthusiasm on the other end of the line. The Margaux Sailors of the art world cherished exclusivity above all else, to be among the privileged few to have had Dewey Cozener recreate his art in their luxuriant homes. The Margaux Sailors of the art world would rather have paid exorbitantly to be in the exclusive minority, one percent or less of any critical mass, preferring to deny this opportunity to the street-level aficionado. Whereas Gish was singularly pleased for the gallery, for Dragan and Sasa, since with each booking the gallery received a commission, and with each booking the greater the notoriety of Scheisse and the gallery by association.
Scheisse embodied other significances as well. For quirky millennials exploring life’s nooks and crannies for all things unique, a shared joint awakening the commonsense perception that while some would insist this was cutting edge art, a strange man had come into their home and shat in their living room, had been paid $10,000 to do so. And suddenly: What the hell had they been thinking? Never tell anyone about this, and in later years, when it would become okay to have done embarrassing things when they were younger, a moment so ridiculous they would laugh until their cheeks hurt.
To the affluent husband returning from work at the end of another long day Scheissewas exculpatory evidence that the wife’s avant-garde art preoccupation was as absurd as he’d long contended. Gently teasing to begin with, becoming something to thrash her with when she openly lamented his idiosyncrasies, finally as resentment in the form of angry thoughts silently articulated inside his head or praps not, praps muttered aloud, he couldn’t be sure, vociferous as these resentments were inside his head, as absolutely maddening as she was. Coming home to a pile of shit in his living room was another whatthefuck moment, even if an oddly-colored, smoldering pile of shit that had the effect of confusing him, initially, as to what it was. The erect penis mold salt and pepper shakers, he’d said not a word. The framed black and white still, hanging in the bathroom, of a man’s ass (and not a muscle-y athlete’s ass, an overweight, middle-aged desk jockey’s flat hairy ass) beneath a tutu, suffered in silence. This time he needed to say something, even if it led them to the roots of their mutual discontentment.
It could have been something so innovative as to escape larger notice, or too wretched or bizarre or ahead of its time for convention to acknowledge. The net effectwas to bring in large amounts of money, enough that Dragan and Sasa gaveGish a minority stake in the thriving gallery, the rest of the art community aware of her innovation andnose for turning a profit, a rarity among curators.
With Dewey Cozener gone and time distancing the past she found herself thinking of him, often enough as to border on obsession. She’d always enjoyed his company for the simple reason that she felt he was taking her somewhere uncharted. It was okay if she didn’t understand (and she didn’t), she suspected she would one day or that he had Asperger’s. The last time they’d been together, sitting outside at a street-side café in late summer. Against the twilight sky she counted the lights of nine planes inbound for O’Hare, in a sky alley made by the uneven and shadowy edges of building-tops on either side of the street. They could sit for long stretches of time without communicating and she sensed that this was his measure of anyone he would tolerate in modest helpings or more, to be able to silently commune together. They had been enjoying this contemplation time when he said,reflexively, “whereupon the foreclosure of my physical self, I am escorted to a warehouse where there are two huge piles, organic and inorganic, dross I leave behind in this mortal realm, a hill of feces, the organic, and a hill of things I used and discarded or lost or startling evidence of the extent of my self-indulgence, these two space-eating piles my legacy, my most significant contributions to this life of ours. Or theirs. Someone’s. Whose? What’s your returns policy?”
These were his last words to her, his final utterance unless she were to chase him to the ends of the earth or in his case the red state he’d exiled to (last she’d heard). Her life would not be complete without a third act, but more than that she yearned for an opportunity to collaborate with him again, her marketing management and his artistic genius a creative synergy akin to Page-Plant, Lennon-McCartney. It might have been that she felt she owed him, or she saw herself as his salvation, that without his art he was adrift and without her there would be no more art from him, such a towering, monumental waste. She would brave the red state if it came to that.
Steve Biersdorf is a writer of absurdist fiction and various styles of experimental writing. He has written professionally as a general assignment reporter, editorial writer, contributing editor and freelance grant writer.