The Back Room


A Body That’s All Surface

Elisabeth Nicula

I am going to describe something that I think is idealistic. Idealism can be practical because the world we want must be drawn upon the world we live in, and also because it necessitates a collaboration — I imagine something different and you imagine something back.

I keep scrap paper and a pencil on a shelf by the shower because my thoughts most often cohere while bathing. It is not possible to carry these ideas out within my body. I’ve attempted to memorize them, but no. I take one of the papers, stick it to the steam-adhesive wall, and write what arrives. The shower seems to be for external maintenance but is more crucially for looking inward. It would be nice if thinking could be done more often while dry. That there are sometimes dry occasions for thought — such as while riding my bicycle in traffic, or kneading dough for my challahs, or not paying perfect attention to someone who is speaking to me — indicates that ideas come best when it is inconvenient to write them down, in the middle of things. I’m grateful that putting a pencil and paper in the bathroom didn’t ruin the shower’s generative properties. Once I’m out I peel my damp notes off the wall and put them in a pile where they dry in rippled waveforms upon which my handwriting looks especially beautiful and illegible. Then I type them into a hopeful cloud document. I have noticed that no matter my purported subject, one of these notes always reads


Last year I became preoccupied with Pablo Picasso, an artist whose background-level omnipresence hadn’t previously seemed to call for additional scrutiny by me. While I was writing about Picasso I wanted to listen to Erik Satie, because they were collaborators and I suppose I was trying to collaborate with Picasso, too. Satie’s compositions are interpreted and recorded by other pianists, and since I don’t know their names I imagined a terrible, infinite array, although to be honest I didn’t imagine them being particularly distinct from each other. Still, not wanting to choose the garbage record for people with bad taste, I asked my friend Jay, who does know, and he pointed me to Tamar Halperin’s angular, player piano-sounding record, Satie. That helped. Many subjects feel infinite upon first approach. Artists and their artworks unfurl continually in relation to each other, and through our own radiating entanglements. We can all play a role in describing their boundaries.

I am texting with my friends Claudia and Anne about art. I mean obviously we are gossiping about art. We are all a little bit cynical about some aspects of being in the art world. If you have ever made a pom-pom you know it’s done by wrapping a lot of string around your fingers, then tying it across the middle — thus secured, the loops are cut at the ends and the pom-pom reveals itself. My feelings about art are idealistic and cynical all bound up together. I don’t know anyone who is an artist or a writer all the time. I am an artist and a deranged kind of housewife with a lot of projects that come and go, peculiar handfuls of expertise, and an ambivalence about what other people enjoy. Most of us have two or many jobs and obligations, materializing within and without our work and connecting us to our surroundings. Our lives complicate what is art and what is not. Our friends and families understand what we’re up to, to varying degrees. We pay attention differently, to different things. We are interesting subjects and capable observers. Maybe not all of this is quite true, but I feel like it could be true.

It bothers me that there is so little usable infrastructure beneath artists and so much baroque architecture built on top of us. I’m sorry to bring him up incessantly but Pablo Picasso wasn’t fucking around with artist statements. He and his buddies were hanging out, inventing new ways to use the senses, collecting poets, starting magazines when they felt like it, painting whatever, showing on the boulevard sometimes, icing out losers, reading, honestly kind of torturing each other, and so on. We should not allow our own artistic practices to be replete with inanities! They want us to describe ourselves in GRANT-WRITING LANGUAGE like we are PROJECT MANAGERS rather than to describe our ideas with the MANY VARIED LANGUAGES OF ART! This is how they make us speak THEIR desires! Participating in their strange bureaucracies is a major concession of our time that we could use for our animal purposes, to observe and make sense of the world, and to describe OUR visions. I propose that we stop playing along. I am imagining a type of degrowth, a disassembly of dominant structures, a refusal.

A shower note that says art is just something to do

Marginalia on my grocery list art just something to do

A text to myself it’s not ambition it’s something to do

It’s good that there are different ways to speak. You either think art is important or you don’t. You think it does something or you don’t. I think it does something so intense that a sort of combat forms around it. Sometimes I think in words and sometimes I think in images. Lately I am thinking more in images and it is making it hard for me to write. The image I’m thinking of now is a body that’s all surface. This body can be passed through. It is a confrontation but not an obstacle. How can I make it so that thinking in images and thinking in words is the same act? Are they already the same act? I no longer want to explain myself. This is the second piece of writing I have titled A Body That’s All Surface. Context changes things. It’s nice how much art is contained within the body. All art is derived from the body. There are interesting notes everywhere.

We don’t yet know what works.

Why should we understand art as something estranged from all the other things we do and see? The prescriptive forms of the art world, as in the real world, alienate us from ourselves and our neighbors. It’s normal to make art. This is a manifest truth that is obscured by the institutional imperative to contain and monopolize awe. Why should we entertain the conventions built up around art that require it to be fundamentally exceptional, credentialed, and toothless? What would it take to speak the truth through art without that element of plausible deniability engendered by self-othering, self-objectifying practices? Art as we do it within these absurd structures displaces what is real in favor of a controlled reality. Art is muted by being treated like an asset. Isn’t that embarrassing? We know that art has been banged around and tacked together on the floor somewhere on Earth. We could do with less mystification. Of course many artists go along with all this eagerly, but I’m not really thinking of them, I’m thinking about us. (We know we can get awe anywhere.) Art is simpler than all that, and fuller. What an artist’s life is like, what their friends are into, what is available in the area, where it is possible to be together. This is how all human activity is.

I went through a period when I wouldn’t say art was good or bad, only that it resonated or didn’t, but I’m back to saying art is good and bad. It is fantastically good and bad. Criticism is like putting an artwork into a frame — making it more finished, more real (in that it has been beheld), while also protecting it from the elements. When art is bad, criticism can compound the failure by dressing it up. When art is good, criticism can insert the work into the art-historical record by speaking it into the world a second time, in another medium, on behalf of the artist, the artwork, and its theoretical and practical forebearers. This is a type of repetition that formalizes the audience. That good art is often ignored and bad art sometimes enshrined indicates that further experimentation is possible.

We should think of criticism as another form that is bound up with normal life, connecting what you see to what you know. To engage in criticism is to think deeply about someone else’s work in relation to one’s own sensibilities, and then to contextualize it, historicize it, and sometimes to say it’s good or bad. Art and criticism are not in a linear relation. They are interconnected modes of craft, aesthetics, and thought that extend toward an audience. There is external pressure to stay within our perceived modes, but the roles of artist, critic, and audience are overlapping, interchangeable. I am not suggesting we lie about good and bad art. I am suggesting criticism can break out of its structures and draw us closer. That it can be a means of collective demystification, for mutual aid.

I woke up without opening my eyes to a collusion of weather and angle of the sun that projected shifting lime-green and variegated bulbous forms through my eyelids. In a scene from Pride and Prejudice (2005), Keira Knightley rides supine in an open carriage and there is a shot of what she sees — if  “sees” is the right term for the half-sense of shut-eyed looking — composed of flickering salmon hues that resemble an accidental photograph taken in the pocket. I lay there thinking of that and wondering why my footage wasn’t flesh-toned. I somewhat resented that as the sun and curtains and clouds collaborated on a unique composition for me, I was thinking about a camera inside Keira Knightley’s skull. Mine looked more like the blob art people make with Jitter or Blender that seems to mean nothing (I don’t mind that), though sometimes they tell you the blob is a metaphor or a stand-in for the body. Maybe they mean that every Platonic ideal has a Platonic ideal. Is this how they invented topology? I don’t love it when you can tell exactly which tools and methods went into making an artwork and I guess in this case I can’t really, Blender or Jitter or Processing. I didn’t open my eyes until the light had changed, to know what caused the vision.

A friend told me I can say crazy things because I am an artist. Am I an artist? I don’t think I say anything that crazy but do other people need permission? You can call yourself an artist if you need to. Elaine Kahn has titled many of her poems “Romance” and I thank her for the permission.

I have been thinking that it would be nice to pay careful attention to more aspects of human nature, to emphasize that art isn’t a separate nature. If me and my friends felt like starting a magazine we would call it the San Francisco Review of Whatever. It would attend to the idea that normal life deserves beauty in describing, ardent feelings, pleasurable clarity, and true likeness. It would be for elevating art through expansive tactics. It would not have rigid boundaries because we are trying to take care of our minds and bodies. At times its criticism would be unrecognizable. It would not be the first or the last. It would be to facilitate various ways of saying

I want to take you seriously.

This is worth additional scrutiny.

This is a collective telling.

A spider spun and re-spun her web in our kitchen window over the fall and into the winter. When a bee flew into her web she went to it so fast and skillfully. When she caught a butterfly she wrapped it tight in her silk so that only its protruding antennae gave a hint as to the materials of her object. When her web became torn from these activities or from the rain, she had the wherewithal to make it again, although she didn’t have to start from scratch since she had done it many times before and a sort of tracing was in place. One morning I saw that she had released her eggs and was working on a nest to protect them. This seemed like a crisis to me because many of the eggs had fallen down the window in dotted yellow streaks. Had she done it wrong? Had she been surprised? Was all that work for nothing? Yet some eggs made it into the nest, as far as I know a form that she would make only one time in her life. Sometimes boundarylessness means not knowing what is supposed to happen, and whether it has worked. Sometimes it’s useful to be able to read a little bit about what something is going to be like.

Note: My editor wishes to know what type of spider but I don’t know about types of spiders unless they are poisonous (red and black) or suspected of being poisonous (brown). This spider was outdoors so I didn’t care. My husband did a spider identification app on her but I didn’t want to know her that way. I know she was of the category orb spider, so named for their iconic webs, but I don’t believe in that either because an orb is a sphere whereas a web is more of a circle with points, like a child’s drawing of the sun.

The Back Room