Failure’s Art

by: Richard Leise

Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

Kevin tipping his vial of morphine and then, swallowing, capping the bottle.  His legs loose, not quite a part of him, apart from himself he looks at his legs, his loafers, and his feet register nothing, no pressure from the floor, no weight applied to wood, his feet just tingle, light airy tremors loose as clothing a couple sizes too big.  A feeling he knows many people chase, are after, consider pleasurable. His mind is clear.  All is still.  And Kevin looks.  He sees how even his memory is here, now, up in this attic, his studio.  Right over there, in the corner, his final painting, what will forever remain unnamed (but what he calls #2) propped, just like he left it, still as a stopped heart.  And bright and warm like a nest of light.  And his legs.

Kevin’s legs are limbs used for walking and he makes to finish the morphine, is surprised to find the glass bottle stopped, and then, after opening the bottle, and drinking his drugs, he tosses the glass in the trash.  Sound not mirroring action, the thud arriving a beat—or two—late.  He smiles. The effort almost reaches his eyes.              

            Walking to his painting and the image resolving, the image becoming visage and this—a concept—no more a product of Kevin, of Man, than Jacob (his son, his subject) was borne only from his wife, Mallory, a woman. But, at least in a way, and Kevin sips wine from his glass, no less, either.  

The brain having two means of processing reality, the verbal and the analytic, the visual and the perceptual—or maybe too the visceral—and yes, suppress the former, engage the latter, front lobe or back (one or the other) and disregard what the object should look like to see edge, line, relationships, light, shadow, and then go ahead and combine them, make something whole, some unholy space, that which surrounds (in this instance) a modern sort of ephebus, the locus, the genius (genus) of the painting—like so many of his others—that being that which distracts from the subject, from Jacob (two Jacobs, really; one as he appeared, and one as he would have been had his twin sister been born alive), and this arriving not so much as face or feature but, like some matter of music, of Mathematics, some manner of attitude—  Of tone— Of triangles.  

Ah—and Kevin sips wine from his glass—triangles.  

Kevin with a cloth shrouding the painting (what, in lieu of a letter, he is leaving for Mallory, and, eventually, Jacob) and withdrawing, reaching (there it is, next to the computer) for a tumbler of vodka, and taking a sip, whetting his whistle, and feeling like a warm color the liquid paint some organ or other and how even through the cloth he sees his creation.  


Two Jacobs, actually.  

Jacob at fifteen months old. (His son—his subject—as he once appeared.)  And another, his boy made feminine, no doubt a precise facsimile of how the boy would look were he born a girl, that girl—his sister—lost, born dead, and Jacob’s imagined twin sitting (resting, really), this little girl imagined (only real) and leaning to rest upon her brother’s shoulder but, more than less, the siblings sitting side by side atop Kevin’s mother’s rocking chair.  

And look.  See.  

See how the arms (other appendages) all but reach off the canvas, bevels shining with dimension and the padding affixed to wood carefully carved and polished, a galaxy of swirling, raised textures.  A little miracle, this pattern.  

And see the twins.  

Both—Jacob and his sister (her name is Alexandra)—dressed in satin white baptismal gowns.  Jacob’s cut for a boy and his twin’s (she would have been called Alex) designed for a girl.  And the gowns flowing, overlapping, waves white undulating with shadow although no clear sense of distinction so when considering the painting’s bottom it is not possible to discern where one gown ends and the other begins.  The waves are horizontal, yes, but within this pattern a random sense of order, and look, see how this leads your eye up, up, up, up, up to land upon ornate stitchwork making something of midsections, Jacob’s pudgy forearm descending from a cuff scalloped, a play of white on white while on the side of the painting the sister’s arm in mirrored pantomime falling from a cuff bonneted ….  

All this (and more) while Jacob’s hand rests on the side of his leg and his twin’s hand is raised, its index finger curling—unlike most of Kevin’s work this painting has, in fact, a clear point of focus:  the young girl’s face—and Jacob’s face, which rests upon a plain cotton collar, upon which sits a thin golden crucifix askew; the chain tangled and the cross upside-down; the base of the cross leading your eye off the page and all but tucked into an incidental fold this symbol of symbols and the gold as bright as blood is red upon freshly scratched skin, and Jacob’s face is incredibly round, absent pore or blemish, his features—they of course have changed but slowly, and gradually, until he became a young boy, late, at eleven (out now, away from home, shopping with his mother)—at times difficult to discern so pure their beauty; the bright, wide eyes; the ephemeral, translucent lashes; the pursed, pink lips; only the suggestion of cheek and brow—and this the result of no particular line or crease, more the effort of the individual looking upon the face to find one, to validate that they are, indeed, looking at a boy.    
A boy, this child.  A face far more photograph than painting (Kevin, even now, is that good), a canvas, like Communion, made through some substantive act far more flesh than acrylic – a face, a life contained to prove, indeed, like some sign from God that here is a face, a likeness to obtest life’s principle virtue upon all who witness so that they may not only feel but feel compelled to bear witness to Love, that Love exists, and so that we must exist in the face of—the sister?—the twin, that feature of the painting which, like love, warms you, pulls you in.    

And how, like love, this projects (like her brother) life’s true beauty, life’s running Faultline inured with green (and gold) like a fisherman’s lure and how this casts, calls us, only the soft fall of her hair parting right—like Kevin’s—her face made feminine only by slight colors graded, the lack of color of a collar intricately laced around the doughy neck, chain unfettered, her crucifix falling from a slender golden chain to rest on her chest, only her eyes (while Jacob’s eyes, slightly unfocused, look down, not in any sense emotional or even directional but simply off, at some object unseen) the girl’s eyes, looking back from the painting, are plaintive, pale beauty rimmed with tears, and a tear, bulbous and glossy, swells from a lid to (never) begin its slow, purposeful, almost-descent, drawing your eye down now, down not quite to the middle of the painting but something like it, the children holding hands—well not so much holding hands as one hand resting on another—and from here or there how it doesn’t matter where you’re standing, the triangles, the space making perspective impossible to discern which hand belongs to which child, boy or girl, born or alive.  And Kevin finishes the vodka.  He tosses the tumbler

in the trash.         

            So yes, then.    


The triangulated points of space negated, prisms of color inverted, something in color—a sip of wine from a different glass—like (maybe?) blood (possibly?) from a broken diamond.  Light rising from the canvas, light dripping from beneath the cloth like carved shards of stained glass broadcast and Kevin, as if thirsty, and drinking water, finishes the wine and tosses the glass into the trash, and yes, it’s only because he painted them—but maybe not—it’s as if the triangles are glowing, color like radiation, like drugs administered from the sides of negative triangles, triangles painted one upon the other scalene and isosceles, scalene and isosceles one upon the other (and another) like scales, and how obvious, how apparent the triangles, how the space makes the subject, how the space—comprised of triangles—like space—informed by particles—defines any of us.     

“a likeness to obtest life’s principle virtue upon all who witness so that they may not only feel but feel compelled to bear witness to Love, that Love exists, and so that we must exist in the face of—the sister?—the twin, that feature of the painting which, like love, warms you, pulls you in.”   

            Kevin steps on a paintbrush (he knows this because stepping on something creates a sound), and maybe more so than God because if not Kevin it was Man who has placed upon God the ability to understand. It was Man (himself) who contemplates (himself) and in so doing becomes aware (of himself).  God, in every aspect or deed, directly corresponds to some element of human nature or human need.  And so Man, if he is to find contentment in God, must find himself in God.  God not entity but object, for if God was anything but object there would be no need to personify, turning God into an object is as necessary as Man contemplating objects and do not these objects conceive externalized Man a creation of the creation?  

And so what—Kevin turning, looking for a drink—am I?    

            And so to lessen this inconsistency, this contradiction facing, say, a Feuerbach—or, perhaps, the atheist irresolute—ask nothing.  Man is capable of finding beauty—of assessing beauty, too—and this painting, while not found, while, in fact, made, is beautiful.  

Kevin lowers to a knee.  Pain, like a taste, ripe, like passion fruit, runs from hip to knee. 

For two decades now.  From at least since he was nineteen Kevin knew he was going to die. 

What he didn’t know was that he would become sick, that he would live to know what dying felt like.  And with great care he tosses, he throws the brush into the trash. Standing, now.  And straightening.  Carefully, then.  He looks around.          

            Yes.  A feeling of finality.  That sense that Kevin has finished, is done, and how this is not weighted but heavy, definite, grave as the pall of a papal enclave and then the arrival, votes cast, the decision made, and the concept, the work of so many days, of weeks, months, years, and seasons conceived and now, suddenly realized, reduced in the face of finished product to idea’s ash, spiraling from mind to sky like smoke from the funeral pyre’s slow-burning straw.  

Hear, then, a bang.  A child’s footsteps, below.  Followed by Mallory’s voice, undoubtedly saying something. Kevin’s PC sleeping awakens, and there on the desktop a study of Jacob, one of Kevin’s sketches (nothing to do but everything to do with the painting, the letter he calls #2) photographed, scanned, and one day this sketch, like the others, will auction for thousands of dollars.  Kevin knows this.  Mallory knows this.  They know that Jacob, if he chooses, will never have to work.  What they can’t know is if he’ll struggle.  If their boy, as man, will suffer.    

            And this is the hardest part.  There, like a made wish, a bottle of wine and Kevin drinking, drinking without thinking, disappointed that he can paint but cannot write, that he knows not what to say if he’s not painting and so there will be no note, there will be misunderstanding, and Kevin—quiet now (as if he were capable of anything other)—finding syntax in this action following creation, language in the act of disposal, placing brushes not upon palette or easel but within the trash, and solvent into the trash, the 32-gallon tomb where so too go water jars and acrylics, all of that which he used to paint #2—tiny cans of specialty paint, aprons, totes, trays, pallets, tubes, palette cups, wells, trays, carts, cups, stencils, wringers, paper, pastels, sketches, markers, pens, glue, ink, oil, tape, knives, foam—Kevin emptying everything, Kevin drinking from another, from an older bottle of morphine now and tossing that into the trash too, eyeing his calendar, something like a God this creation, a month sketched upon a piece of paper, a large rectangle, and the rectangle broken into thirty-five squares—scattered about the black plastic, this attic’s dark well, the parts of Art like a holiday’s carcass, or everything that remains.    

In a wall opposite the painting a built-in bookshelf.  Upon the shelving four rows of votive candles, the candles rising to rest in steps symmetrical as stadium seating.  Housed in narrow blue holders, the candles remain lit.  Their light aligns along that line where the wall and ceiling meet, and it is from this axis that the candles create on the ceiling a semicircle of light, this particular geometry extending a quarter of the way across the ceiling, the candlelight creating a shape as perfect in its symmetry as the setting sun halved by the horizon, the light from this artificial ambit wavering from darkness to lightness in degrees of gentle gradation, like exposed sand beneath the shoreline’s receding surf, a dark penumbra defined within the attic’s many shadows.  Kevin looking not at lightness or darkness but between it.  A habit.  Looking to see what remains.  What is not yet there.              

Lifting his crooked spoon Kevin holds the metal above the point of a candle’s flame so wavering and he cooks the heroin carefully, certain, absolutely positive it’s exactly the right amount, and he draws the drug up through a needle and then turns, looks for his tourniquet, wrapping the rubber around his arm and tying off just like a junkie just above his elbow, wrapping the piece not too tight but tight enough and holding the rubber taut between his teeth and blood (bright blue) begins to collect and with a finger long and slender he palpates the opaque blue, the crescent rise of his median cubital vein, and the tourniquet is dangling from his elbow, the ribbon spiraling towards the floor as if his arm is some terrible present.    

            He doesn’t vomit.  

Yes, it would be nice to sit, but there is no time for that.  Not yet. 

Eyes rolling, he nods but remains standing, he removes the needle from his arm and conceals his kit and tosses this, too, in the trash.  And he unties the tourniquet, feeling unnecessary but knowing to keep his eyes open.  That if he keeps his eyes open he will find himself there.  A place of elegance.  Showering himself in finality.  In, and he looks at his legs, at everything, lightness.  

----About the writer
Richard teaches and writes outside Ithaca, New York.  A recipient of the Perry Morgan Fellowship in Creative Writing from Old Dominion University, his fiction and poetry is featured in numerous publications, and he is at work on his second novel.

Richard can be found on Twitter (@coy_harlingen) 


SUBMISSION by Perla Kantarjian“With the ancestral, almost seraphic brass
incense censer he brings out on the days he feels sentimental, he draws a gentle cross atop my head. “Asdvadz hedet ella bab,” he says softly. May god be with you when you leave. Which leaving is he speaking of?” (Read More)


SUBMISSION by Perla Kantarjian “you see, in Armenian, when someone looks at you too much, your friend will say: ge tchapveyirgor—
you were being measured” (Read More)


SUBMISSION by Anna Nguyen“This idea is in direct contrast to the abstraction of an autonomous science as a mythical global force where it freely travels. After all, science precedes the scientist. The noun (science) becomes an actor, the actor (the scientist) becomes passive. Discovery and its magic are underscored, obscuring colonialism or what the anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan calls genocide or political vivisection” (Read More)


SUBMISSION by Amanda ReCupido“Capitalism demands an endless cycle of products and purchasing. Destruction in order to make and sell you something, whether you need it or not, whether it’s good for our Earth or not. Exponential growth is unsustainable.” (Read More)