By: J.R. Allen
Six canvases—each 26’ x 12’—black sheets draped over them. Thin slivers that might create a single unified image when seen together.
But that’s not how this exhibit was to work.
Most of us went for the free wine and charcuterie.
We arrived at seven; the exhibit would start in an hour. We each grabbed what would be the first of several glasses of wine and stood in front of the paintings. The rules were such that we were allowed to touch them, so long as we didn’t pull back the curtains draped over them. A bulky man with a pistol on his hip stood next to each painting, and some of us wondered if they, too, were part of the exhibit.
We pressed our hands against the curtain, feeling for thick brushstrokes. We felt what we thought might’ve been bumps or streaks of paint, but unless we saw the pieces themselves, all we could gather was abstract splotches and globs of paint. Like a Pollock or a Pousette-Dart.
Two glasses of wine in: we tried peeking behind the curtains when we thought the men weren’t looking. Small glimpses, just a taste. Something tart and dry to slosh around our tongues.
But, of course, the men were always looking.
We speculated about the paintings over our third glass of wine: “It’s always a nude,” we said, the confidence and the wine both turning our cheeks rosy. Some of us twirled the stems of our glasses and postulated that, perhaps, it was a political statement, but we quickly reminded ourselves that everything is a political statement. “The size of these paintings? They’ve got to be landscapes,” we said, gesturing at their mass with a jerk of our thumbs. “You know that Duchamp piece? L.H.O.O.Q.? I bet it’s like that,” some of us joked, and the rest imagined Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights where each of the figures had tiny handlebar mustaches. We all giggled and leaned on one another, a little dizzy.
“Of course,” we said, our glasses empty, “these could all just be blank canvases.” There was a brief moment where we paused and thought about that possibility. Of course, it could be nothing—who wouldn’t expect that? We washed the thought down with red.
We felt hot and the room spun in slow, delightful anticipation. No curator came to speak, no announcement came over the PA.
Each of us made last guesses to ourselves as to what the works would be—Klee-esque sketches in the style of the Lascaux cave paintings, multimedia works upcycling garbage to make a statement on climate change, steampunk nightmares that were half-human, half-clockwork. We cautioned guesses as though we might will the work into being.
Gasps as the curtain dropped and all went dark. Some of us thought we saw a corner of the piece in the last flash of light. “Beautiful,” “wow,” we shouted, but none of us could agree as to what we saw. A wing? A tree? A spider’s web?
Some of us took a step forward in the dark and stumbled into another person and apologized.
Then all went silent. A voice came over the sound system and started to describe the piece, but none of us were listening. We couldn’t even make out a word.
We were taken by how dark the exhibit was. Pure, infinite black. We stretched out our arms and couldn’t tell where the skin stopped and the darkness began. We all drowned in an ocean of darkness.
Then, the painting was covered again and the lights turned on.
J.R. Allen (he/him/his) is an MFA student at Miami University in Ohio. His favorite horror movies are The Babadook and The VVitch, and he thinks everyone should watch Over the Garden Wall. He is a fiction editor at Great Lakes Review, and his work can be found in Daily Drunk Magazine, Chaotic Merge Magazine, No Contact Magazine, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @JRAllenwrites and on Instagram @jrallenwrites.