I’m working at Pearl Art & Craft. On a break from stashing brushes and paints in overstock to smuggle out and sell to old art school professors at 25 cents on the dollar, I take a look at the community board by the entrance and see a flier asking for someone to stretch and prime canvases at $100 per. That leads me to a posh old rabbit warren of artist studios in Lincoln Park. The woman who hires me is very nice. The walls of her space are covered with canvas after canvas with nothing but the word ‘LOVE’ scrawled all over in varying styles of penmanship and typeface, punctuated by heart shapes. Not the proportions of an actual heart but the one you’d trace in the air trying to be sweet to your girlfriend. She’d could make emoji rather than waste canvases and paint, I’m thinking. But I don’t say that.
The woman’s stockbroker boyfriend has paid the rent on the studio a couple years in advance with cash. Now she’s hurrying to finish her last few pieces for her upcoming show at something called the Wretched Gallery. I’d never heard of it. I’m not up on the gallery scene. After I stretch five six-footers for her, she hands me an envelope with some crisp c-notes and asks whether I’d help get her work over to the gallery the following week.
This is when I meet Edith. After emptying the U-Haul full of ‘LOVE’, we get to talking. I show her my sketchbook, then she comes by my place a few days later. Soon we’re planning a show.
The Wretched Gallery—not it’s actual name, but close enough that a couple people might know the place I’m talking about—sits a couple doors down from an old movie palace. A succession of fashion boutiques and tchotchke emporia have opened and closed on the block. Each represents a little dream that burns bright and fast and goes out even faster after the initial enthusiasm of novelty fades. The slog of day-in day-out commerce is never visible when plans are made. There’s an image in the mind of a magical gathering place that will also somehow pay the bills.
Fortunately, this is not Edith’s first rodeo. She’s been running an allegedly-successful antiques shop/art gallery in a small Lake Michigan town where Chicago’s rich and bored occasionally summer. I’ve never been there. Not invited. She acts like she knows what she’s doing.
My pictures are all about the place I live. An unkempt apartment with roommates in a gentrifying part of the city. There are mornings when car owners on my block wake to driver’s side windows smashed out but nothing except loose change and CDs missing. Still, property values are rising and longtime home owners are optimistic they’ll be able to cash out and retire soon. My roommates and I know we’ll be priced out any day, so we appreciate the roomy squalor as best we can.
The paintings and drawings range from ten inches square up to five or six feet wide. When I arrive at Wretched for the install, Edith’s new assistant meets me. Edith is back in her resort town headquarters tending to some high-ticket business. He’s an older gent with a haughty manner that rubs me all kinds of wrong. We butt heads throughout the hang. After a time, whatever one of us says is contradicted by the other out of spite. The biggest disagreement is over pricing.
The thing with pricing art is it’s whatever you can get in the moment. A shrewd dealer gauges their mark and gambles on how much to lighten their wallet. The true price of art is right between priceless and worthless. It’s an ever-moving target. What’s the cost of something nobody needs but you can’t live without?
My new enemy doesn’t see it this way. He insists on pricing the pictures according to size. I ask whether he thinks a Persian miniature should cost less than an art school beginner’s colossal monstrosity. He refuses to concede the point. In the end, I get him to admit through gritted teeth, that the gallery policy is to price by the yard. Like wallpaper.
A couple weeks before the opening, Edith calls to tell me to come by to pick up show cards. She’s picked a shitty slide and had it reproduced in reverse, colors completely distorted, image out of focus, part of the black sheet against which the photographer had shot the picture still visible. I want to ask whether this is her asshole assistant’s revenge, but don’t.
The opening comes and I drink all afternoon to get ready. All my Pearl coworkers show up. I pull a sport coat out of the back of the closet. Half the pieces sell. It should feel like a success. Edith seems pleased.
The following year she shutters the gallery. Tell me she can’t run two places and the Chicago one doesn’t even cover the storefront rent with monthly sales. I guess they need to sell many more reams of wallpaper than they managed to. I bet the old guy is heartbroken.
I look into the empty storefront for years after when passing by to see a movie. Nothing that opens there ever lasts more than a year or two. Maybe Edith or her henchman has cursed it by their presence. Last I hear from her is when I ask for a record of what collectors bought my pieces from my one show with her. She writes back regretfully that she’d kept no records during that time.
It’s as if my show never happened.