It was in that moment, standing outside the storefront window of the Argo Tea, contemplating the three small chips in the acrylic painting that I realized, I could never marry him. “That one’s chipping, do you see it?” I asked. “Yeah I know, it was like that when I hung it. No big deal, no one will notice.” He said. “But —” , I silenced myself. What was the point anyway? In high school, acrylics had been my medium of choice. I bought it in jars instead of tubes so I could leave the caps off and let it dry up like paste. Tube acrylic was the consistency of snot, thin, runny and uninteresting. But all dried up and paste-like it could be manipulated into textures. I could layer and mix colors right on the canvas. Portraits of brown people were my favorite. I never mixed complexions on a palette beforehand, nor would I attempt to purchase skin tone paints. I loved to layer white, red, yellow, brown, blue. Everyone’s blood runs blue. Even behind the darkest of skin tones you can see hints of blue pulsing veins. I loved color.
His paintings were abstracts on flat 16×24 boards. They weren’t bad just boring. They weren’t big enough or small enough or bright enough or textured enough to be anything more. Perhaps they were perfectly non-controversial for Argo Tea. The acrylic paint was thin and snot like, and without any canvas to soak it up the paint had begun to chip from the board. The craftsmanship was mediocre at best. I didn’t paint on boards, nor did I use acrylics anymore. A college professor had observed my weird paint thickening trick and suggested I graduate to oils, a naturally thicker, glossier and more interesting medium.
How didn’t he understand that if one painting was chipped, a potential buyer might worry that all three paintings had the potential to chip. How had he unapologetically hung it chipped? How had he signed his name to this?
The summer before, I had dated a photographer. On our second hang out he stopped the car on the side of an overpass. “Get out” he said. I got out reluctantly. He walked around and led me to the edge of the overpass. “You see that,” he said pointing to the wall beneath us. “In high school, me and my boy roped ourselves off the side of the overpass and tagged that wall.” The wall he was referring to was the expressway wall of I-90/94, one of the biggest expressways in Chicago. “You’re fucking crazy”, I said smiling. That summer was my first summer home from college. I was aggressively avoiding any job that required punching in from 9-5 to sit at a desk, but simultaneously desperately in denial of just how difficult it was to break into the arts. I wanted to be a filmmaker, maybe. I had an internship that was only slightly better than Anne Hathaway’s job in The Devil Wears Prada. He was 6 years older than me, and established in his career. His work was anything but boring. It was mesmerizing. I showed him my best paintings. At my small Midwestern college, I had won some art show awards with these pieces. I was proud to share them with him. “These aren’t interesting,” he said abruptly. “You like color and texture, that’s good. Do more.” He said. When I complained about my film internship, he told me to “make some shit”. “Internships are internships, they’re supposed to suck. Deal. If you want to make films, make some shit.” He made everything sound so simple. Of course, his words stung. He was an asshole in many ways, abrupt, insensitive, and too direct, but he was also intense and passionate.
The first time we went to an art show together he asked me what I liked. I pointed. “Why do you like it?” he asked. I responded proudly, identifying the proper manipulation of elements and principles that made the piece interesting and effective. “Hmph,” he grunted, “I like that one.” “Why?”, I asked. “I just fuckin’ like it”. he said moving on to the next piece.
The eventual demise of our relationship, if it even could be called a relationship, was in the grocery store. I can still hear him yelling like a maniac, “Does this fuckin’ onion look good to you? Why the fuck would you choose this? Look at it!” He was too intense for me. He was always boiling or freezing, and it was this intensity that made him both incredibly talented and sexy. He may have been crazy, but he wasn’t boring, he wasn’t mediocre, he didn’t do mediocrity. And he made me not want to ever “do mediocrity”.
In the years that followed I “made some shit”. I eventually decided I didn’t want to be a filmmaker, but only after I “made some shit” could I come to this honest realization. I also made some of my best paintings, full of even more texture and color. Whether they were good or not is both debatable and irrelevant. They weren’t boring or lazy. In some ways, I loved my photographer. In our brief summer of crazy love, he’d imprinted on me a desire to be better, to want more, to stop over-analyzing the process of everything and do more. He’d inspired me to admit to myself when lazy was present. To stop bullshitting myself with false pride in boring mediocrity.
Staring at the snot chipped paintings I felt it, the antagonist of love – mediocrity. How could someone who lacked passion in the very thing they claimed to be passionate about ever show any ounce of intensity or passion in a marriage, a relationship or even a love affair? It wasn’t about the paintings or the chips but rather what they represented. A failure to show up for life. I’m not saying we all need to rope ourselves off the side of I-90/94 and tag a wall to feel passionately engaged in life, but we do have to show up enough to not blindly grab the shittiest moldy onion in the pile.
Mediocrity is truly the antagonist of love.