The Mark of the Nazarene – J.W. Wood

for Raghu and Cyrille


Douglas Stewart was neither talented, beautiful or witty; not obviously creative nor an enfant terrible. Yet I always remembered him from our student days and, until now, I couldn’t tell you why.
It’s not like I’m jealous. Why should I be? Jealous of some faceless corporate whore who calls himself “creative” because he worked in graphic design? Noooo. I, on the other hand, am the real deal. I live the life. I teach at an Art college, wear leather, plus I’m queer. And controversial with it, bitch.
But more about Douglas Stewart. Would you believe it, he’s only gone and made a mark on modern Art – with a capital A – in recent weeks. You see, Douggie-boy paints. Oh, don’t we all, darling? The difference is, I can paint. Stewart, on the other hand, is no good. I mean, we graduated ten years ago and I’ve heard his name about twice since. Once when he sold at some exhibition where the public get to pretend they’re pro for a day, and once when he donated to a college fundraiser. I think it fetched a paltry sum from some well-meaning person devoid of taste. Wasn’t worth more, I can tell you.
Of late, though, I’ve noticed this grey suit and his daubs have started garnering press. And that, in turn, has got him a solo show in Albemarle Street. Mayfair, London. The absolute pinnacle. I’m invited to the vernissage – not because I know The Artist, as they call him – but because I write for Modern Art. And because I’m a Professor.
I decide to attend – in full leather, cologne and codpiece. My mission? To burst the overchewed bubblegum of Douggie’s unmerited fame. I’ll wear my Nazi peaked cap, too – just for shock value.
Breakfast on the day of Douggie’s show finds me amping up with fat, sugar and caffeine. I start drinking a little Chivas after lunch, then snort some coke just to make sure I’m sharp before marching up to the gallery fifteen minutes after the party starts. As promised, I’m wearing the works: German military cap. Wrap-around shades. Cherry red leather trousers with a Prince Albert chain that leads to my crotch. Sleeveless T-shirt to show off my guns, which I’ve spent two weeks sculpting at a gym in Covent Garden.
A pretty little thing with a clip-board hands me the programme and I perch a few feet away from the front door, chains jangling and drawing attention as I sashay across the room. I peer at the programme even though I can hardly see through my sunglasses, picking out Douggie’s bio on the back cover of the show guide. So Douglas Stewart has lost some weight, judging by the photo. Must have splashed out for a professional photographer. Bitch that I am, I dismember the specious claims of his bio: “held in private collections around the world” (some drunk CEO bought a piece to evade tax), “renowned for its subtle use of light and shade” (not by anyone I know), and so on. I mean, who really believes these things?
And I notice he lives in the Scottish Borders these days. Of course he does – Britain’s Vermont. Home to no-talent breeders, their wives, dogs and Volvos.
Excited murmurs from the door suggest “the Artist” is arriving. I move away from the hangers-on and get closer to the bar as I plan on getting drunk. Then Douglas comes in. Hair thin and going grey already, though he can’t be more than early thirties. Looks more like an off-duty schoolteacher than l’artiste au travail. As the bankers’ wives clap him in, I remember how he’d turned up in my room at college once. I’d been eating ripe strawberries and thinking about sodomy when he arrived, half-drunk.
He knocked over my cello, his body already running to fat and hung over from the night before. Stewart apologised for his clumsiness, then left with the tube of indigo, or paintbrush, or whatever he wanted. That meeting persuaded me he was a talentless irrelevance, destined to labour unknown as a commercial artist. So who could have foreseen this – little Douggie getting famous? Not me.
Stewart accepts a drink from a PR person as the applause fades. He raises his glass in homage to the freaks, media and hedge fund wives who litter such events. His agent, Martha Briggs – not one of the best – steps up in soft woolens to introduce Stewart. Soft woolens are a good choice for a woman of her age and eating habits, let me tell you.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for joining us at this first solo exhibition by Douglas Stewart. Mr. Stewart will dedicate his works for buyers. We have a number of critics with us this evening, so please understand if the artist does not have time to speak personally.”
Mr. Stewart. The Artist. Honestly, for God’s sake. A drunken middle-class oaf playing at art. I’m the real thing, why can’t they see it? I turn to look at “the artist’s” work: there, a landscape in charcoal, executed without éclat; here, a still life with some hints of a medieval (I mean wrong) approach to proportion. The sheer inanity, the lack of form – it makes me wonder who Stewart had to pleasure, and how, to get here. This was full filth territory, a mere blow job wouldn’t have cut it.
Then Martha the agent says: “We are fortunate that Douglas has agreed to say a few words before we get the chance to appreciate his work fully for ourselves.”
Douggie smiles and holds up his hands like a traffic warden in some provincial dump.
“Thank you all so much for coming, thank you” – such false modesty in that reedy voice! – “I am so grateful to Martha as my agent, and of course to the gallery. So many I could thank, so many here tonight – and those who cannot be here…” – and beneath that false modesty, the tacit acknowledgement of his own popularity: so many… as if! So many conned into believing it, little shit that he is! And then, naturally, his masterstroke: “… among whom I number my dear late father, whose encouragement of such talent as I possess being the main reason we are here today.”
I wonder if I’ll retch on the spot. Instead I take a swig of white wine and move through the crowd as the applause rises. I notice one or two of the bankers’ wives are actually welling up at Douggie’s sentimental schtick. Then, just as I’m thinking about heading for the gentlemen’s conveniences to drop a line and speed up my passage through this world of merde, I spot the exhibition’s centrepiece.
Ten feet tall and three feet wide, a canvas hanging from the ceiling. Topped with a field of pure white blurring into grey that deepens to black towards the bottom. At the centre, the Arabic letter ن, painted to look like a smiling emoji. The emoji’s eye has a blood-red tear falling from it. The letter itself painted in the green of the Islamic flag.
God bless Douggie. So this is his cute political statement about Islam, Christianity, violence, the Middle East. Or perhaps it is, in fact, a ham-fisted attempt at art engagée, aborted and dribbling forth like meconium from his petty bourgeois mind. And – naturally – he’s called it “The Mark of the Nazarene”: a blind grasp at seriousness. The man’s a sham – not that you’d know it from the way the bankers’ wives preen and flirt with him.
I could take it if he were actually talented or good-looking, but he looks like a ham sandwich left on a plate too long – grey and curling at the edges, with no obvious taste or substance. I swallow what’s left of the second-rate Pouilly Fumé and slip out the door with every confidence that Douggie’s hour of triumph will be destroyed by the reviews in tomorrow’s blogs and news sites.
The next morning, I start web-searching for reviews as soon as I wake up. Doing so before I have my first cigarette shows my interest: I’m convinced critics will dismiss his work for the shallow daubing it so obviously is. The Guardian is the first to disappoint, but neither the last or least. In fact, their 1,000-word encomium of Stewart’s piffle holds my attention from start to finish. Their writer attains fresh depths, interpreting Stewart’s monochrome landscapes as “a cry from the heart for a simpler era of pastoral,” his wonky efforts at still life as “the ironic juxtaposition of ancient and modern, demonstrating the chasm between our moral uncertainty and the surety of a past forever fled from consciousness.”
Special mention must go to their description of the centrepiece, three hundred words referencing Foucault, Marshall McLuhan and the early Church fathers, among others. Christ: I haven’t even got out of bed yet and already I want to kill myself.
I have to do something to stop this absurdity – and I know what that is.
After coffee, a belt of Chivas Regal and a hit of poppers as a livener, I write to the Dean of my Art College announcing my resignation. My letter gives the impression that I’d just received medical advice saying I have but a few months left to live. That’s not a complete lie: I was either going to best Douglas Stewart, or die trying. I’ll paint like a demon, taking the crown of public approval from this great fakir, bourgeois dilettante and churner of corporate spew.
After more cigarettes, I step out to Denmark Street to buy six canvases, new brushes and a full set of oils. Back at the flat, I toss Kirschbaum’s version of Bach’s Cello Suites on iTunes, smoke a joint to take the edge off, then get painting. In my mind, I’m a cross between Hieronymous Bosch and Jackson Pollock. Long strokes of the brush, graceless primary colours, art brut. Work to kill the very edifice I’m part of – the art establishment. You know, those lying, tasteless pigs who ignored me in favour of that white-collar toothpaste tube, the man they decided to market as a genius. As I work, I’m chanting “Fuck art! Kill beauty!” like a Buddhist mantra. I am God, I will destroy. And vanquish.
I turn up the stereo and take another hit of poppers. Then I light a cigarette (clove, this time: the aromatics inspire me), leaving it smouldering dangerously close to my brush solvents. But I need danger in my work. Danger and lust, risk and terror. I take off my shirt and turn the heating up full. Then I check those fat strokes of orange and yellow I’ve just thrown down, sweat trickling down my honed disco tits. I squeeze black and turquoise on my palette and go at it. The courante from the cello Suite in C Major rages as I spatter my canvas with black.
I pick up a sponge, slap it with turquoise and throw it at my easel, then pick it off the floor and do it again and again and again. I stare at what I had created, barely recognising my work, my self, my expression. At some point, I’ll need some portentous title like Stewart’s “Mark of the Nazarene.” But that can wait.
As the days go by, I stop bathing and shaving. I no longer watch my diet. Meals consist of piles of onion rings topped with cheese. Double hamburgers with pickle and a Chivas Regal chaser with poppers or meth for pudding. I’ve started hoovering cocaine like a windsock and smoking as much as I can. All I want is fame, that egotistical burn dormant for years now reignited by Stewart, the specious charlatan.
I start running out of money. The last cheque from the College comes and goes. My studio apartment fills with canvases, all anathema to Douglas Stewart’s crowd-pleasing puffery. Raw slashes of colour against violent seas; green landscapes wet with the dew; Adam and his maiden on that first day in Eden with a huge cock scrawled across her midriff. No subject forbidden, no statement too outrageous.
Three months pass. Now I can’t paint any more. I can hardly move in my studio, and I need some money – I owe rent, my pusher and the bank (in no particular order). I decide it’s time to sell, time to put a match to my reputation and ignite my path to glory. But it turns out no gallery in London wants me. Likewise, agents appeared underwhelmed. So I start seeking favours from friends, connections. The letters of sympathy and polite refusal pile up in my hallway, the studio itself too crowded with artwork for me to eat or sleep in.
I even have to take my drugs in the bathroom, there are so many canvases, overflowing ashtrays and discarded tubes of paint around the studio.
Then catastrophe happens.
One morning, I’m wearing my thick cotton bathrobe and pyjamas, big chunky slippers some lover gave me years ago because they said I looked hot in them. And I’m poking around my studio, wondering where I’m going to paint, or indeed if I’m ever going to paint again. I’m smoking, of course – as I always do these days. It was early morning, and I’d had my usual two jiggers of Chivas Regal in my coffee, plus a line of coke to bump me up.
I must have left my cigarette someplace when I went to the bathroom to take my hit, because when I came back in I saw a thin plume of smoke rising between two canvases piled in the middle of the room. Well, that thin plume found a friend and that friend was the solvents. Fully two litres of methylated spirits, primed to go off like Napalm.
Which is exactly what they did. Within five minutes, the entire studio was on fire. My work erupting into flame, canvas peeling like flesh, paint running like blood. Funny how, in those moments you never think of saving the work, just how you’re going to escape. Unfortunately I didn’t think fast enough, and found myself running down the staircase to the street outside with my bathrobe on fire, screaming, my hair singed, beating my own arms and legs. Then I fell down the last flight of stairs. And after that, I remember nothing.
Now I’m in rehab. I’ve been here for three months. Eighty percent burns all over my body. Every now and again they take me out in a wheelchair to see the outside world. Needless to say I’m swathed in bandages and I look like a cross between a burnt crisp and the invisible man. So no sex for me. And the lavatory? Darling, I’ll spare you.
Today they’ve promised me a visit someplace my carer tells me I’m going to enjoy. As the fire burned my lips off and I’m fed through a straw, I’m not best placed to comment on what I will and won’t like. They put me in an ambulance for my mystery tour of wherever it’s going to be and a few minutes later it becomes clear we’re heading for the National Gallery in Pall Mall.
Because I can’t speak through my bandages, I can’t tell them that this is the last place I’d want to be. In fact, I wish art had never been invented. If I had my way, we’d scrabble to survive, copulate, then die like May-flies. Preferable to a lifetime of delusion and fantasy, the belief you’re creating something worthwhile only to see it all go up in flames – literally, in my case.
They push my wheelchair inside to view the exhibitions. Motioning with my good hand, I signal I want to view the modern section. Less painful to me, because I hate modern art. Everything modern now seems pointless and artificial, as if that fire in my studio ripped the soul out of me. As if all moderns from Miró to Hockney were just débris flung out from the corpse of art’s ruin.
I’m wheeled past said Mirós and Hockneys and the Picassos and Pollocks. Then my carer stops and puts the brake on my wheelchair. I sit immobilised in my bandages like a living mummy while he goes off to take a leak, and probably a smoke, a drink even. God knows, I would if I could.
It’s at this point I notice the new centrepiece of the Modern collection, perched in the middle of the hall – of course. Douglas Stewart’s The Mark of the Nazarene, lit up from three directions. Two information boards either side, one with his biography in full, the other offering a grossly pretentious interpretation of Stewart’s smudging.
My carer comes back from the toilet and says he thinks Stewart’s piece is “pretty”, and how glad I must be to find myself back in a gallery. And I’m sat there incontinent, unknown to the world and helpless before Douglas Stewart’s success, consumed with envy for a man I believe to be useless. And I feel the tears start to flow from my bandage-muffled eyes. And I don’t know if they’ll ever stop.