Primitive Looking

An excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos

This is an excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos, published by Splice on April 28 and available for pre-order now.

I’d seen Contra’s white neon sign more than a few times before, dangling low over the bar’s entrance; I nearly clipped my head on it as I came in. The lettering was unusually serifed—something transitional, a Baskerville knockoff—which cut against whatever vintage fussiness neon conjures. I’d only ever regarded the bar’s signage in the evening, when it made sense for it to be illuminated, punching a hole in the thick industrial dark of Queens. This time, though, it was just past noon, yet the neon was still flaring. It must have never gone out.

I’d already stepped off the seven train at Vernon Boulevard when Karen called to say she’d be late meeting me. My trips to LIC always had a single purpose: to connect with Cosquer, generally at the collective’s headquarters a few blocks from Contra. But her delay had given me the chance to visit this bar marked in my memory, not to mention scan through my work of the past week. My iced bourbon finally landed beside me with apologies. I downed it in one go: why shouldn’t my form have been as poor as the barman’s? Fashionable venues anyway tended to bring out the boor in me. My eyes searched the room for someone to disassemble and reconstruct in the sketchbook’s last blank pages, just where my Bronx pictures left off. Eventually I found a thirtyish woman sitting in the wide bay window, dressed in jeans and a wispy pink slub T-shirt, the everydayness of which offset the bits of jewelry subtly dotting her body. Her ears twinkled, just barely, with studs of false modesty: though the diamonds themselves were slight, they glowed with the purity of only the best stones. (Without at all trying, Karen and Claire had trained my eye for this sort of thing.) The woman’s chest carried an abstract slither of a pendant in rose gold, and her hand sported both a single sapphire and what I would have called a wedding band, except that she wore it on her middle finger. Her sandals, which I could see just beneath the table, with their baroque yellow straps and exaggerated arches, were nothing that could really have been bred in Queens. They would have come in right along with the luxury towers now dominating Hunters Point and increasingly much of the territory stretching north up to Dutch Kills, which had once been a purely industrial land of metal reclamation centers and taxi garages.

A heavily bearded waiter who was jaunty all the same had just brought the woman sangria in a silver server. He poured the drink from a rising height, and in the shadows created by the puffy awning outside, the liquid looked almost black, or the color of burnt cherries, as it descended from the lip of the jug. Closer to the glass below, it turned rust-red as it fell into the field of sunlight reaching through the window, a light that also made the lime green tablecloth dazzle. The woman took up the glass, swept it out of this field; the drink turned near-black again by the time it reached her lips. Just before she drank, though, she tipped it slightly away from her, in an air-clink.

She wasn’t alone: a girl at least a decade younger, with only water for a drink, sat across from her, in the corner where the window didn’t reach, and hence in deeper shadow than even the drink. It had taken me a minute to see her, actually, the place was kept quite dark, and what I noticed first were her hands gesticulating over the table, cutting into the light. Although I couldn’t make out her words, the younger one did most of the talking, while the sunlit woman mostly emoted: a soft sigh audible just beneath the clatter of cutlery; an eye roll that was anything but dismissive; a smile that appeared all at once, reaching its peak curvature instantly, with no intermediary stages; and a benevolent look that came over her now and then yet seemed to have nothing to do with anything going on around her.

Her midday freedom, I thought, differed in kind from the one found in the bars of my adopted neighborhood. It flowed from wealth, not poverty. Not unfathomable wealth, otherwise the flight from Manhattan wouldn’t have been necessary, however nice the view might be from here. She could, of course, have had some connection to the arts. It might have been worth something to her to live near MoMA PS1 and the slew of graffiti artists who continually repainted these streets. Yet whatever its precise extent and origin, her freedom had a quality of enforcedness, too. The money that fed it felt extrinsic. She wasn’t the source. It flowed from higher country, from a spouse, or a former one; perhaps this was what displaced the wedding band. Or it was family money, and the girl sitting across from her might well have been a part of it. A not-quite-next generation. Their inner lives appeared easily within my reach, not as in the South Bronx, where they were only smudges or smears on the horizon, mere theoretical spaces that might variously be filled in. And this, I suppose, was simply down to what I was: a bourgeois. However unpleasant the thought, the distance between these two women and me was not very great in the end.

I turned the sketchbook sideways and brought the older one’s face into view across two sheets, with quick, jabbing strokes, leaving the contours open and natural, before I got into the details with the finer hatching, little xs conjuring light and volume, trading the outline drawings of cartoons for the volumetric ambiguity of life itself. I kept at this right until the point she reconvened with the waiter and committed to more sangria (she didn’t take much persuading). I got myself another drink, capped my pen, and studied the picture in progress before looking back at her. Though she was drinking more and listening less than someone genuinely happy in her own skin, she seemed already less foolish, or risible, or trivial, than I’d originally assumed, as a function of my own background: the intellectually minded artist examining the unrepentant bourgeoise. In fact, my picture, to which I returned my eyes, showed that she carried something more than mere vice, qualities I would have passed over if someone had asked me to put this woman into words. The image, though, effortlessly gave the lie to any such verbal reconstruction. That was a brute difference between the modalities of vision and speech. You could choose what you said, but rather less what you saw.

Examining her again in the flesh, I could see the care with which her nails and makeup were done; and it may only have been my depiction of her that was able to alert me to this quality. Not because I’d rendered it in terrific detail. I hadn’t. Yet even in embryo, the drawing illuminated certain of her facets: the articulacy of her clasped hands, the delicate tilt of her head, the unforced expression, the gleaming heft of her hair, worn at just less than shoulder length. All of it pointed toward other facts of the same nature. Looking again at her, you could see, without too much contemplation, that all this was a mark of a certain sort of virtue, even if it sounded slightly ridiculous to say so of this particular woman. Partly this stemmed from her not being made-up in a way that smacked of the salon. There was always a fulsome sheen to that kind of work, an overstatement of life and body. Hers was DIY work of the highest order, the nails finished in a discreet lavender, but with a thick, gel-like polish that gave them a plasticity and shape without undue gloss. Similarly, her face, which you could easily mistake for being free of cosmetics, participated in the most gentle illusionism, the sort that intensifies, by a degree or two, no more, what is already there in plain sight—the sharp cheeks, the whisper of a nose, the extravagant eyes that, I believe, had been left entirely alone—without introducing foreign elements or entering into the sweeping exaggerations, the almost masklike quality, that judging by any stroll down a Manhattan street, so many women, even the ones in Margiela dresses, believed was the essence of being made-up.

There was a sort of quiet bypass of the spectacle in this woman that you had to credit her with, even if it stood in a context that was less than saintly. It wasn’t mere empty-headedness that she signaled with her unfocused gaze, as I’d thought on observing her exchange with the girl—before, that is, I’d actually been moved to compose my picture. I turned from her to the drawing and back again, ricocheting between my representation of her and her representation of her, studying her face in the light of my rendering, as if she were merely a sculpture assembled from my sketch, her neck touched by light and sky, and framed by those industrial buildings beyond the window. Her detached expression struck me as self-protective, a sign that if she were to peer at things any more closely—the blight she saw around her, as this neighborhood had scaled up in cost and people like her had arrived—well, it might hurt her heart.

Escapism didn’t make her good, of course. But it did suggest she was capable of feeling. Why would escape be attractive otherwise? There was a life within her that wasn’t dead yet; there were things she still couldn’t bear to confront in the world. Whereas with many others I knew—well-educated others; they dominated the city now—they’d simply stopped averting their eyes. Not because they were artists who had to look, to do their job; not because they declined bad faith, whatever the difficulties incurred; not even because they were possessed of a compassion that demanded being in touch with others’ pain, but simply because they’d stopped hurting. The sufferings of strangers no longer terrorized or unnerved them. Wasn’t my dear Immo among this sort? Was he obviously superior to her, however much sharper he may have been?

That is what fifteen minutes of sketching gave me of this woman. We would never speak, she and I. But I’d had enough experience of rendering figures, even of people I barely knew, to know that dialogue, while it could certainly embroider my understanding, could never refute what manifested directly in appearances. They weren’t inferences, I mean, the things I perceived, deductions from something outer and visible to something inner and therefore only indirectly known. There was no ghost in this machine. It was possible for me, for anyone, to see the one in the other, without mediation.

Now, doubtless what I saw could be refuted. It was always possible to be wrong; it had to be so, if there was something called being right. But if anything was going to overturn my impressions, only further probing with the eyes, rendering with the hand, would identify it. You would be seeing, then, that you hadn’t really seen—that you’d missed details that set the others in a fresh light—rather than discovering that what was available to vision was somehow insufficient, that appearances were mere appearances. No, I knew it to be true, not a priori but through the act of drawing itself: looking was primitive, unanalyzable, followed its own logic; it yielded a proprietary knowledge, one that couldn’t be reduced to, nor made wholly answerable to, the deliverances of any other faculty of the mind. Any artist knows this, though only some know they do.