World-renowned artist Tetsuya Noda (b. 1940) makes prints of such commonplace objects as dishes drying in a drainer, a tomato plant, a pile of laundry, and an ashtray stuffed with cigarette butts. The butts because he worries about his son being a chronic smoker. What father-artist wouldn’t worry unless, a smoker too, he’s inured to the risks associated with tobacco? Then he should have his vice without bringing his son into it. Anything else suggests a level of codependency some see as a sign of parental neglect and others as the artist-father and his son stepping out into the backyard to breathe in and blow out smoke, look absently at each other’s hands and mouths, smother butts under rubber soles to sweep up later, gaze skyward past birds on wires into the mood of the sky, listen for incidental sounds of neighborhood. But this is a construction. Everyone knows it’s the son alone who smokes and not the artist-father, whose dirty prints double as anti-smoking propaganda.
Tom’s friend Susan wants to know what his habit of arriving early reveals about his personality. What’s he supposed to say? That when he’s waiting outside the museum and she’s late, he experiences a dreamlike understanding that he’s living in the wrong time and place while looking in every direction to see if she’s coming? That the stakes are high even if to the naked eye he’s not suffering? She’ll be here soon, and it will be fine, and they will see the Noda exhibition and part ways at five. On his way home, he’ll do some grocery shopping.
What’s a mimeograph machine anyway? Can a mimeograph smell good like cigarette smoke smells good or are chemical odors off-putting to almost everyone these days? Unless his sense of smell is compromised, Noda must catch a whiff mimeographing his photographs to make his stencils. He must breathe it in while affixing stencils to silkscreens to transpose everyday images onto fine Japanese paper (washi). Defamiliarizing an image with woodblock accents may at last make something old new again: see how the artist-father’s wife slouches in a Bergère chair. She undoes her trousers. She sits beside the husband. They sit on their knees with one of their children peeking out from behind them. A child kicking up into a headstand. Translucent daughter rises from dining chair ghostlike. When Tom asks Susan if the Noda process is overwrought and a little gimmicky, she thinks for a second before advising him, when he sees the prints for himself, to get out of the way of his emotions.
It’s around here somewhere. Speaking of a ‘deeply-engrained aesthetic consciousness’ in the prints of Noda, Susan shows Tom something one must not miss: the lower half of a daikon looks like the lower half of a pale lady, and the top, torso-like half, stark greens. Susan calls this biomorphic as she exposes him to a print of two walnuts, a dry pair hung on wood, husks split naturally without revealing the fruit inside. See next one yonic peach, next a pose in human frailty, now a scene from a race riot in America, now the temple where the artist-father converts, now an apartment building blurred in passing, now the long road ahead, now whose bellybutton. Tom blushes not because he’s inexperienced, but because he doesn’t always understand the relevance of what he’s looking at. He calls the picture fading in his mind “Nervous Youth On First Date,” in which he is one of the subjects.
It’s around here somewhere: A childhood snapshot of Tom weeping used to make him laugh because he has no recollection of what upset him. Overexposed, it looks as if he has the sun at his back and is in a sense being born from it. He won’t share this with Susan for fear she’ll think he claims for himself a special solar status. Instead, he imagines the print he’d make if he had the power of a Noda to share his personality with everyone: a panorama on an overcast day contains long gray clouds, waterways carved into peninsulas, canal barges drawn by horses, and channel locks. But why channel locks? What rueful technology now? And why low-lying houses with flat roofs sitting in bunches up from the the water? Where are the people anyhow? These are family dwellings, for sure, but with no outward signs of good sons around and never again a thing, as concerns the Toms the world, like a phoenix.
At seven, Trudi will this time or next time refuse on principle to get out of the water. She never likes to go. Already, she needs someone to take her seriously. The struggle grows less muted. Trudi’s mother is one of five parents, men and women sitting poolside, watching the children swim. Talking about a drowning not in this pool but down along the shoreline, they’re tense to dive in suddenly. Only Trudi’s mother’s bathing suit strap has broken, and the suit hangs on by diaper pins dug from another mother’s tote bag. She listens to the other parents discuss a dead boy’s body as rumor would have it, as she listens to Trudi explain to the other kids treading water the rules of underwater tea parties: Before you run out of air, come up for air and blow air out to sink back down again. Talk with your eyes and hands only. Avoid too hard laughter. Sit cross-legged and don’t mind levitating. Pinkies up to pantomime fine china. Her hair billowing up like forests of kelp, Trudi ignores her pacing mother refracted overhead. But whose point of view is this anyway, who suddenly says stuff about kelp while Trudi, as if she were in another state, chooses ignorance? Something could go terribly wrong. She could cry out without a soul to hear her. Years ago, when she was a nursing student, green, childless, her mother was called from the break room into an emergency situation. Soon, an obstetrician was instructing a birthing woman to push while she, at twenty, leaned her shoulder into the flat of the laboring mother’s foot in place of a broken stirrup. She was all but a bystander there. The blood took her breath as the good news of a fetal monitor gave it back, as the mother’s mouth strained upwards and the mouth of the preceptor performed knowing smiles and the doctor’s mouth blurred as it coaxed. “Breathe,” someone said. But bloody the gloves of the attendants there, blood on metal, blood on the blades of the episiotomy scissors snipping a perineum. The new mother gulped as she heaved, or the body heaved as she was simultaneously elsewhere and yelling and not stopping yelling. “Breathe.” Then it was time. Time to push up from the wavy blue bottom, swim to the side, climb the ladder single file, sudden goosebumps, peeling noses, fall into thick towels, flip-flop down cobblestones pathways, curse in waves rising off molten asphalt. When Trudi burns the backs of legs on the beige seat of a suffocating auto and says, “We should stay at least until it’s dark out,” her mother recalls not her own daughter’s birth but the inner thighs of a stranger terminating to the head of a crowning child a long time ago on a cold, bright morning in Columbus, Ohio.
Brendan draws a straight line but not straight but knocks the art cart down in frustration. What to practice first? Picking art carts up? Drawing lines straight? Calling it straight? Accepting failure? Mixing sounds and smells into a composition let alone compulsion? Critical cacophony theory? Executive textures? Ode to color? When we were young and drew action figures with nubby pencils, we formed fists for them to push down deep into their pockets and raise out again, open in exuberance, while outside in the chill air, amid a spirit world reaching far beyond the Milky Way, anyone you could possibly know oscillated between eternity and a perpetual state of longing-after on holy and, let us say, not-so-holy afternoons.