A Japanese “maneki neko,” or beckoning-cat good-luck charm, appears on the cover of As Things Appear and is linked to one of the Japan-related tales in this new book (photo by Ballena Studio)

The arts journalist, critic, graphic designer, author and Hyperallergic contributor Edward M. Gómez has written a collection of stories, As Things Appear, which has just been published in a limited first edition by Ballena Studio, a New York-based small press.

“The Curator,” which appears in the collection, begins with an early-morning freakout by the esteemed curator of a major New York museum. Here are some exclusive excerpts from the story for Hyperallergic readers. — The Editors

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The cover of Gómez’s collection of stories, “As Things Appear” (photo by Bill Westmoreland) (click to enlarge)

The Curator woke up one morning to the alarming realization that she understood nothing about art and that it was possible that she would never understand anything about art. More precisely, she realized that she understood nothing about painting and that it was possible that she would never understand anything about painting. Since she was currently putting the finishing touches on a big, costly exhibition of modern abstract paintings, which were to be shown alongside an impressive selection of medieval and Renaissance masterworks with which they supposedly shared important technical and thematic affinities — it would be her job to explain to viewers exactly what those relationships were — the morning’s unsettling discovery threw her into a fit of suffocating, immobilizing panic. […]

[D]espite her valuable education and years of diligent studying, suddenly she doubted that she had ever really grasped the essential spirit of any work of art, and when it came to painting, she could not recall ever having been instinctively, not merely intellectually, moved by any artist’s creation. Struck in the gut. Knocked off her feet. Warmed in her heart.

She could not answer this question: Had she ever really been seduced by art’s ineffable language of the soul?

Some of the story’s characters are composites based on real-life, art-world figures. For example, the following scene featuring “The Critic” and “The Painter” is based on a comment the author once heard when he visited an older, accomplished New York artist at his studio.

The Critic and the Painter’s conversation turned to the subject of the soon-to-open museum extravaganza, whose organizers were hoping for nothing less than an international blockbuster’s success.

Referring to the Curator, the Critic said, “So, I understand that she stopped by here recently to look at your latest work and choose something for the exhibition.”

“Yes,” the artist replied, sounding an unusual note of disappointment…. “She came, stayed about fifteen minutes and chose an older canvas, even though I had made it clear that I preferred my most recent works.”

“Oh, that’s unfortunate,” the Critic interjected. “I agree with you. Your newest works are very substantial.”

Now the Painter interrupted. Without hesitation and with a bluntness the Critic had never before noticed in his remarks, he said, “The fact is, she knows nothing about painting. I’ve never said that to you before but I’ve sensed it for a long time. I’ll say it again: She knows nothing about painting.”

In a subsequent scene, the Curator’s Mexican housekeeper notices that her employer is stressed-out and behaving strangely.

Concepción was aware that, in practical terms, her still-limited ability to command the language of Shakespeare, Jefferson, Mickey Mouse and Oprah Winfrey meant that, at least with this gringa who employed her, she enjoyed a certain liberty in the way she could express herself — and, most important, still be understood. […] “Señora,” the Mexican woman inquired, “do you need to see a priest? Maybe a doctor? Are you going through — ¿cómo se dice? — ‘the change’?”

The Curator pushed back her chair. Then she paused, leaned forward, covered her face with her hands and began to cry.

“¡Señora, pobrecita! ¿Qué pasa? Concepción demanded. […] “Señora, you no see priest, you no see doctor — what you gonna do? You running out of menu options.”

At the museum, the Curator dares to tell her boss about her intellectual-spiritual crisis — and he is not amused. Trying to calm him down, she asks, “Haven’t you always said that, in the face of unexpected challenges, we must strive to be nimble and ready to turn on a dime?” He replies:

“Yes. I said a dime. A single dime. I didn’t say 100 million dimes. This exhibition is going to cost at least $10 million, as you know. I’m still trying to raise the money. We’re renovating part of the building just for this show.” The Museum Director swallowed a thick piece of bagel crust. “Now tell me, please, exactly what has provoked this sudden change of — of what? Of heart? Of mind? Of your critical vision vis-à-vis the goddamned subject matter of the goddamned $10 million exhibition? Isn’t this coming, uh, just a little bit late in the game?…”

“Don’t worry,” the Curator said reassuringly. “I can handle it. The wall texts and the press release will require a little tweaking. I’ll use the media preview…to reposition certain critical or thematic aspects of the show. They’re reporters! They can be spoon-fed, and they’ll lap it up.”

Later, at her home, the Curator meets Mr. Chang, a Chinese chef and nutritionist recommended by Concepción, and reveals to him the depth of her gnawing self-doubt. Exhausted, she says:

“Mr. Chang, would you be a doll, mosey over to that liquor cabinet and pour me a vodka on the rocks? That’ll really help the dumplings go down.”

“I have something better for you,” he replied. “This is special tea made with ginger and other natural ingredients. Very powerful. Helps digestion. Cleans soul.”

The Curator raised her body slowly and awkwardly, blew on the hot drink and took a sip. “Excuse me, but did you say this brew can ‘cleanse the soul’? You sure about that? What if what I need isn’t a cleansing but rather some kind of major makeover, maybe a total purging of who I am or of who I’ve become, followed by a whole new education with regard to painting? What is a painting, anyway? What the hell is a painting? And what’s a ‘good painting’? Do you know? Does anybody know? Can somebody please tell me? I’ve been thinking about this all day long.”

“Have to start somewhere,” Mr. Chang replied. “Start with cleansing of soul. Move on to cleansing of mind.”

The Curator’s problems just keep coming. Back at work, the museum’s registrar informs her:

“The morons in U.S. Customs, when they were inspecting […] three late-arriving paintings [on loan to the big exhibition] — you’re not going to believe this, but they sliced right through the surfaces of the stretched canvases with their razor-cutter knives, the kind they use to cut through packing tape and plastic bubble wrap. I’m looking at their handiwork right now. It’s not pretty.”

The Curator let out a scream that prompted several employees seated in their cubicles next to her office to shoot up out of their chairs and look around the large workspace in fright.

With just a few days to go before the big show opens, the museum’s director puts pressure on his star employee, saying:

“I’m not about to squabble with the U.S. government’s customs agency in the current political climate. Of course, we’ll have the best art restorers in the world come and examine the damaged goods. In the meantime, we have an exhibition opening in just four days, and those paintings are going to be in it. It’s now up to you to use every tool in your intellectual-critical kit and […] come up with a […] scholarly explanation or just a damned good, smart-sounding excuse that will allow the public to understand why the damaged paintings are being displayed….You’ll have to acknowledge that something has happened to the artworks at the same time that you make it appear that absolutely nothing has happened at all. Is that possible? Can you come up with something a little ‘post-Duchampian,’ perhaps?”

Shortly thereafter, confiding in one of New York’s most notorious art dealers, the Curator anxiously proposes:

“I have some ideas,” the Curator admitted. “For example, I could say something like this: The customs agents might have unintentionally, physically harmed the paintings, but rather than regard what they did and the results of their actions as, uh, aberrant, instead we can and should regard what occurred as an instance of chance creatively affecting the physical condition — and therefore the overall character, the aesthetic aura — of these works of art…”

The dealer replies:

“‘Creatively,’ you say? Where are you going with this, my dear?”

It’s Mr. Chang, however, who begins to offer the soul-weary curator a way out of her predicament. She asks the gourmand:

“Are you suggesting that looking and seeing are not the same thing, Mr. Chang?”

The chef spoke knowingly. “Looking and seeing not same thing. First you look. Then you must think. Then you see. If you’re lucky, maybe you see.”

“So, ‘seeing’ is understanding?”

“To see is to understand. Do you see?”

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As Things Appear is available at ballenastudio.com.

The writer Edward M. Gómez with copies of his new book of stories, “As Things Appear” (photo by Bill Westmoreland)

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Edward M. Gómez

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...