The art show in the café above the bookstore needed a curator. There was not a lot of money, and the job was more an internship than a real job, but Otto thought that after a year or so, he could put it on his CV and get a job somewhere else doing something better. Taking on the gallery space above the bookstore would also allow him to stay in the Midwest for another year or so, which at the time was important to him because it was cheaper than the alternative—moving to Brooklyn with his boyfriend, a black short story writer who had recently turned his abusive rural childhood into a slim, elegant novel that white people were desperate to read. The boyfriend was flush in cash but anxious about the coming transformation of his life, and Otto wasn’t sure if he had the emotional bandwidth to handle that. His own career prospects were limited. There were no curator jobs in New York City, though there were many galleries and many shows. What you had to do in New York was be born into any of the art families that ruled it, or else do your grunt work, scrape on your belly up through all of the interlocking internships at MoMA or the Guggenheim or the Met, or any of those warehouse galleries down in Brooklyn, or participate in interactive shows in Tribeca. Or know someone who knew someone who knew someone. But Otto was from Seattle. He didn’t know anyone, except for the people from the MFA program in the Midwest, so he said yes to the bookstore job, and he didn’t move to Brooklyn, and three months in, his boyfriend said that it wasn’t working.
The café gallery job mostly entailed answering emails from local artists and clicking through digital slideshows of their work. The artists were dentists and farmers and high school physics teachers and poets out of work. They were sculptors and calligraphers and photographers and acrylicists and ceramicists. None of the work was very good, but that seemed beside the point somehow. After all, no one whose work was good asked to display it in a cafe where people sat hunched over their laptops and notebooks trying to pass organic chemistry or anatomy or whatever. Sometimes, Otto wondered why there was a gallery space in the cafe to begin with. It would have been easier to hang benign prints purchased from Pier 1 or some other home goods store. Something beige with black streaks, vaguely impressionistic. Thinking about the bad art that could have replaced the bad art he was hired to curate, Otto felt something stir, and his old self, the self who painted and thought about painting, lifted in him, and it was like blood returning to a limb that had fallen asleep. But anyway, Otto clicked and emailed and made arrangements to see samples, and he drove out to the suburbs, to the dim and creaky houses that people inhabited, to their damp and cold garages, and he clucked his tongue when he saw how bad people were about preserving their work.
It was a bad habit of his, assuming that other people could sense their own amateurism and feel shame for it. Not everyone wanted to be great. Some people were born with the capacity to want nothing, to be free of great ambition. These people were born with their capabilities matching their imagination for themselves, and so their lives were peaceful, not full of yawning gaps, great chasms of possibility. But still, he sometimes said to them as their neighbors came home in the falling dusk, “Your paintings won’t survive the winter. You need archival quality framing. And climate-controlled storage.”
One woman lived in a house on the edge of a big field next to the highway on the way to Cedar Rapids. He drove over the long, gravel driveway, his car shaking as the wheels struck divots and potholes that had been left by the snow and the rain. To his right, there was a wall of pale, shivering trees that scattered the slanting light of early evening. His car smelled like old cigarettes, left by his boyfriend who had recently appeared on a popular podcast to talk about his novel. Otto clenched the wheel, squinting down through the windshield in case a dog appeared suddenly. He had almost hit the pet of one of the artists in a much more trim and pretty suburb. But here he drove out to the house and its accompanying set of white sheds that faced the slope downward to the road.
The woman greeted him on the porch, shaking his hand and saying, “Thank you so much for coming.”
She smelled like fabric softener, like Downy, and he could hear the roar of some machine in the back of the house, which he now saw was a trailer that had been fitted with siding and made to look like a house. Underneath them, the floor felt thin and flexible, like it would give if he made any sharp or sudden changes to his weight distribution, and so he stayed very still while she talked to him about the art he had come to see.
“It’s really my mom’s, you know. She left it when she died.”
“And it’s a painting, you mentioned?”
“Yeah, by some homosexual from around here. I don’t know much about him.”
Otto nodded, but the way she said homosexual made him acutely aware of the cross hanging above the blue, floral sofa and the pictures of Jesus looking forlorn hanging above a chair near the door. There were other prints, too, but to call them prints was a bit insulting because they were the mass-produced portraits of Jesus and the Apostles that one found in Wal-Mart and Big Lots, the kinds of paintings his grandmother had put up in her own home and that Otto had grown up with. Here they were again, like encountering a relative far from home after many years.
The woman watched him look at her pictures of Jesus and Matthew and Luke. She watched him take inventory of the cross and the bible that lay open on the kitchen table. There was a light burning in the living room. Everything else was dim with coming dusk light, and Otto could only make out the vague shapes of her kitchen furniture.
“I mean, I don’t have nothing against them kind of people, you know. It’s nothing like that. They just as friendly as anybody far as I can say.”
Otto hummed and wondered if he had given himself away, but then, she probably thought that everyone who dealt in art was gay. He shrugged and said, “I’d like to see the painting, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, sure,” she said. “You want something to drink?”
“No thank you,” he said.
She took him back onto the porch and then around the long front of the house. They went to one of the nearby sheds whose broad, white doors were secured with a chain and lock. She walked with a slight limp, and when they reached the shed, she was breathing harder, in shallow, gasping breaths. Otto almost said that she didn’t need to put herself out for him, that if it was an inconvenience he could come back another time. It felt rude somehow, watching her exert herself for something that was ultimately unimportant. Because Otto didn’t expect that he would take what was behind the shed doors. He didn’t anticipate that there would be anything of use to him or the café gallery. Anything that had been left in someone’s old shed through the cold and the damp, through summer and winter, for who knew how many years, was certainly degraded.
But she persisted and undid the lock with a key from her house coat. It was cool, trending toward cold in the later part of the fall, and the grass was scabbed with ice and snow from a sudden and swift snow shower earlier in the week. On the highway at the base of the hill, the lights were beautiful as they swam against the current of dark. On the other side of the road, in a field of amber grass, were a bank and a dialysis center, and further still, a crescent of dark trees sickling along the river. Otto thought of homesteaders, pioneers. He thought of farms. He thought of the Native Americans who had lived here long before white people had come. He thought of the way the land turned over through the generations handed off and sometimes violently snapped away—the long, perniciously violent game of tag and capture the castle that was settlement. She got the shed door open, and she pulled on a light once or twice, hard, and it came on.
The light was soft, and it seemed to struggle against the dusty dark. Hardly anything was illuminated. Just the shadowy shapes of old furniture, some tools, what looked like a bunch of wooden rectangles stacked together against a far wall. The shed smelled like grease and dirt. Like filth. She stepped into the narrow band of light cast by the bulb, breathing hard, and she made her way in a series of shuffling steps to the wall where the rectangles lay together. He saw that they were headboards and folded chairs and picture frames. She shuffled them like flicking through posters at a mall, and Otto repressed a hum of displeasure.
They were standing in all of the stuff of her life for which she had no immediate use, he thought. She kept muttering things to herself. Not this one. No. No. Not that. Refusals, and the wood clacked and scraped across the floor as she moved the pieces back and forth. She landed at last on a thin, mid-sized frame and extracted it.
“Here it is,” she said, and rotated the frame around so that he could see it. The light was a little fuller by then, but still dim, still inadequate, so he took out his phone and turned on the light and pointed the beam at the painting. It was a landscape, a depiction of what might have been the fields across the highway, except hills rose and fell in the painting, designated by different shades of paint. Varying degrees of green and yellow. Set front to back like waves. And on top of each of the hills, a little house. It seemed to move, the churn of the land. It was flat, a little surreal in its intensity. Something like Grant Wood or Andrew Wyeth in sensibility and style—pastoral and Gothic, in a way that made it feel a little cliché to see it now.
“Do you know who the artist is?” Otto asked.
“No. Like I said. Some homosexual. My mom left this when she died. If you give me fifty dollars, you can have it.”
Otto squinted and said, “It doesn’t really work that way. I mean, we would display it in our gallery. And some people could buy it that way. You know. But we don’t usually buy it ourselves, it’s not like that.”
“You don’t buy art? People pay good money for it. What do you mean?”
“No, yes. Art is bought, handed off, you know. Stuff like that. But this is a small gallery in a café—”
“You live in the city, don’t you? In the university. They have money there. Why can’t you buy it?”
Otto put his phone away and squared his shoulders. The woman clutched at the top of the frame. But her expression was not malicious. It was not angry. She looked perplexed but firm. It was a fair enough question, he thought. But he had already told her the answer. It was merely that he was too far inside of one world, and she too far inside of another, to make themselves understood by each other.
“If you want, I can maybe arrange to have it looked at by someone in the art department. Someone who knows more than I do. And then, maybe I can try to help you find someone to get it off your hands,” he said. “But without documentation, without provenance, it’s hard in these cases. This could just be a knock off, a print.”
The woman’s face hardened, and she drew up tall among all of her trash. She said, “I am not a liar.”
“That wasn’t my intention, ma’am.”
“A knockoff. This is real. It’s right here, ain’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is. Yes. Of course,” he said. “I only meant to say that if you want to sell, then the people who might buy it would want to know it’s real.”
“Iowans are honest,” she said. “We don’t lie. We don’t cheat.”
Otto didn’t say anything. They stood there with the ticking of the lightbulb above them, the kind of fizzy whine of electricity being dispensed into it. The hushed roar of cars on the highway was distant.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said.
“People like you. Come here from somewhere else and think you can squint down at us.”
“No, ma’am, that’s not really the case.” Otto looked away from her because he couldn’t face her head-on. Certainly he could understand why she felt that way. In graduate school, Otto and his friends would sometimes go to the bars downtown, filled as they were with what they called real people. Stopping off on their way home from work. Wearing paint-splattered clothes or smelling like dust, their skin baked deep brown, brows knit with frustration or tension. And here they would come, Otto and his friends, wearing loose flannels and open jackets, laughing and taking up the booths in the back. Laughing loudly over the radio, looking askance at them. It was true that there was sometimes tension running between the people who lived in the city and had for their entire lives and those who were only passing through on their way to something else, presumably better, but sometimes worse. In this way, Otto felt that he was a part of an occupying force.
Here was this woman who was just trying to off-load something her mother had left her.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said again, but her eyes grew cold and distant.
“That’ll be it,” she said.
The woman’s chin jutted out as she slid the painting back into the row of woodwork. She turned to him. They were silent a little longer and then she reached up, pulled on the light, and they dropped down into darkness. Behind him, the blue wall of evening. The dark trees. He could hear her breathing, its steady labor. And then her steps scraping across the floor, coming closer to him. He shivered when the smell of Downy was thick and close. And the warmth of her human self passed him. She went out into the dark, and he followed, but she did not secure the door behind him. She did not look at him. She climbed the stairs slowly, and he waited until she was in the house. He waited to see if the lights would come on. But they did not. And he drove away.
“When are you getting back to your real work?” Nan asked Otto in the café a week later.
Nan was Otto’s painting instructor. She had supervised his thesis show the previous fall. They were having coffee in the café above the bookstore. To catch up, she said. But he sensed that her real motive was to nag.
“This is my real work. I have the stipend to prove it,” he said.
“You were born to paint, not push paper.”
“Paint is a dreary medium,” he said. “And besides, no one is painting anymore. It’s so dead.”
“It is not dead. What a thing to say. You’re so young.”
“And you’re nostalgic,” he replied dryly, but it felt good to have someone to argue with. His classmates had scattered to the wind—to San Francisco, to Portland, to Santa Fe, to Montreal, to Chile, to Norway, to New York. They had gone, and all that remained were the old places they used to go to be together, and of course Otto, who had nowhere else to be.
But even in the fine arts program, Otto had been an outlier. His classmates worked in textiles, in printmaking, in multimedia. They made experimental short films. They made tone poems and soundscapes. They constructed from the many glinting surfaces of modern life an art of the present, of the moment, something that reflected the way they lived and thought and felt. But Otto painted. Not the process-heavy abstract impressionism that was coming back into vogue. Not the new figurative painting of the black artists like Kehinde Wiley or Amy Sherald. No, Otto’s favorite artist was Agnes Martin. He wanted to be a kind of Ellen Gallagher. For his thesis presentation, he had constructed three canvases, one small, one medium-sized, one large. At the center of each canvas was a single dot. It grew progressively larger as one moved from the small to the larger canvases. He had rotated the largest canvas to landscape. The void took up more space, but the proportion of white space to black was the same in each canvas, so that there was also a sense of constancy. Like a chord of music. It was, in some way, an allusion to Ebbinghaus illusions. The play of size, the deception of the eye a way of making one think they were seeing something they weren’t.
But the problem was that none of his work throughout his years in graduate school conformed to what was expected of him. Not in terms of technique or his ability to generate meaningless words to describe what it was he wanted to do. No. Instead, it was that his work was neither radical nor conservative. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t focused on abstracted ideas of race or class. It wasn’t predicated on the plight of the slaves or suffering of Jim Crow. Otto’s work was about experience, the way people perceived the world. But when he had to stand by while his classmates critiqued and engaged his work, he always found that he didn’t recognize himself in the ways they talked about him.
They said things like, It’s not political enough. And, But like, how does race come in here? And, It’s so white.
They weren’t trying to be mean. They weren’t trying to coerce him into doing something he did not want to do. They were just confused. They had assumed something about him and his interests, his art, his way of being in the world and were baffled by what they encountered. But he missed them now. Even in their misapprehension of him, he missed them. Because as it was, he had no one to argue with. No one to talk about painting with. Even though they weren’t interested in painting.
“Nostalgia is a dirty word for an artist,” Nan said.
“I guess that’s true.” Otto laughed, but he flinched at the word artist.
“All that looking back. You stop seeing things how they really are.”
“You are perilously close to proselytization,” Otto said. “I’m going to barf if you start talking about our true mission.”
Nan frowned. The café was emptier than usual. Outside, there was a light dusting of snow coming down. It scratched at the windows like it wanted to be let in. The walls were empty, and their bare beigeness cast accusations at Otto, who had broken down the most recent show yesterday with nothing to replace it. He had hung up the glossy, irritatingly oversaturated photography of a local dentist for approximately two weeks. What surprised him was that three people had purchased prints—one of an impossibly close shot of a tulip’s interior, another of a frog resting on a leaf, and another of one of the painted benches downtown, which had been recently replaced by steel, uncomfortably tilting benches. They were the sorts of shots that you could download from a stock photo site if you wanted. You could have had them printed up in the print shop and framed in the mall. Sure, someone somewhere had taken all the stock photos in the world, but no one said they were art. No one pretended they were what they weren’t. So then why had people paid good money, almost as much as Otto’s rent, for prints that were not very good. He hated the thought of it. It depressed him, and so he hadn’t put anything else up to replace the dentist’s work. The smug, pleased look on the man’s face haunted Otto. He’d been so pleased with himself. So happy, so contented.
“Anyway, so this lady out by the highway,” he said. “She doesn’t have any paperwork for this thing. And I know this isn’t a real gallery or anything like that, but it might be something, you know?”
Nan squinted when he said that the gallery was not a real gallery, and she hummed to herself as if deep in thought.
“I have no idea about it, but maybe someone in the department could help, you know? I just feel bad. She was really set on it.”
“Sure, I can ask around,” Nan said, and Otto sighed in relief that he did not know he had been hoping to feel. Because it was a relief to think that he might have something to offer the woman after insulting her that way.
“It wouldn’t need to be a big deal or anything. Just. Maybe look at it? See if we can find out who painted it?”
“It’s not my first rodeo,” Nan said. “Besides, there were a lot of painters around here in the 50s and 60s. Hard to believe, but this was once a real place. With real art.”
Otto was familiar with the tone Nan adopted when she perched on the cusp of an art history lecture. He knew that she was fiercely passionate about the work of the forgotten Midwestern artists, particularly the gay men who had come back from San Francisco and New York to die of AIDS or to live their lives quietly, burrowing underground like cicadas. She was interested in divesting the myth of the coastal preoccupation, that is, the set of assumptions that led people to think that art only lived in the cities as people coursed from their small towns into the great vast ocean of New York or Boston or any of the smaller cities clustered along the Eastern Seaboard. It was an unfortunate result of power concentrating in the hands of a few tastemakers and scholars. They had deprived us of the work of great masters who were unknown in the larger context of American painting. It was this, Nan thought, that led to the decline of painting as a predominant form. Not the rise of technology or mixed media, not the proliferation of images and cameras of increasing quality. No, it was the fact that painting had come to be defined as a single thing as made by a single class of person. All of the originality and vibrancy had been defined out of it. And so it had come to stand still just at a time when it was, in actual life, speeding up, replicating and mutating and becoming stranger and more beautiful than anyone knew. It was the tyranny of a single way of seeing. Myopia in its most brutal and tyrannical form.
Her eyes filled with light and she wet her lips, but Otto said quickly, “Yeah, yeah, Pollock is from Wyoming, O’Keeffe is from Wisconsin, and—”
“Voulkos came from Montana,” Nan said, laughing at him. “Heard this one before, have you?”
Otto shrugged, but it made him feel good, like he had internalized something that she had tried to teach him.
“You could email them yourself,” she said. “I don’t see why I have to be the one.”
“No one would tell you no. They all hate me over there.” Otto meant in the art department, which was housed in a series of very short, modernist buildings by the river. The actual administration and staff were fine, but the professors and the auxiliary support were less than warm toward him. It had little to do with Otto specifically and more to do with the fact that they felt quite strongly about their role as executors of the various estates of the artists who had lived in Iowa. They perceived everything as a slight—it was the inherently defensive nature of living in the Midwest while working in the art industry. He found them irritatingly formal and unwilling to help—they had refused flat-out to supply students with framing for their thesis shows, and there had recently been a protracted legal battle of who actually owned the work that students generated while in the MFA program there. The legal battle had ended in a way that was fair but unsatisfactory to both sides, and students and former students were viewed with, not quite open hostility, but a frigid suspicion.
“You kids always think we have it out for you,” Nan said.
“I don’t think you have it out for me. I just think, well, it’s complicated, and it means more coming from you than from me. They probably think I don’t even know what a painting is. They’d refuse to even look at it just out of spite.”
“Spite is the invention of a small mind with great aspirations,” she said, which stung Otto and made his toes curl.
“I’m a little hurt, though,” she continued. “That you haven’t asked me yet.”
“Oh, Nan, please,” Otto said, sighing. “Come on. You wouldn’t want to. You’re a real painter.” But when he looked to Nan, he didn’t see a joking expression as he had expected. Nan looked at him with a direct, cool stare. The laughter, the joking mood, dropped away from them then, and Otto felt that they had crossed some invisible line without his noticing. She was serious. God, she was serious. He felt cold at the thought of it. She was serious about this. “Oh.”
“I have work that would fit, I think. I mean. But you didn’t ask.”
“I didn’t think you’d want to. People you know come here.”
Nan’s face colored then. And she swallowed thickly. Otto’s vision swam as if from heat, and he realized that he was blushing, too.
“It’s fine,” she said stiffly. “Forget about it. Just a thought.”
Otto did not know what to say in order to repair the mood, to set things right between them. He had said what he really thought, which was that Nan was a real artist, and that putting her work in the café gallery would have been like displaying it in an airport duty free or in a gift shop at a museum. Worse still, there would have been people she knew every day looking at it as they drank their coffee and gossiped. But what he did not think until later, as he was walking home through the cold dark, was that his perception of Nan’s work was skewed by the years she had spent mentoring him, teaching him, and that it was possible that she was utterly mediocre. This had not always been the case. Nan’s first few shows had been in trendy places in Tribeca, and she’d had a piece selected for the Biennial. She was deft and precise, an abstract painter with real human feeling. She painted lush geometric scapes with the simplicity of children’s blocks, in brilliant, bold colors. But with New Figurative painting coming on, the rise of the collage, of the fractalized human, the vandalization of form, it was true that she had not had a win in quite some time.
Otto felt stupid now, waiting in the gray, vaporous cold for the light to change, thinking about those many hours in Nan’s office where she sat telling him about the way gallerists could be mercurial, capricious, grudgeful. He had thought these were things that people said, common wisdom accumulated through the years and passed down like folk knowledge. But she had been talking with fresh hurt, fresh pain in her eyes as she watched her future foreclose right in front of her, as all possibility drained from her life. Because after a certain point, it didn’t matter what you did. The world had made its mind up about you.
The light changed, and Otto crossed.
There was another apartment complex going up next to an old church. Someone had left a hose running for too long in the cold, and the sidewalk was covered in a slushy film and slick streaks. Apartment buildings were going up all over town with the gray and black facades and tall windows and metallic accents. They were the sort of ready-made, prefab buildings you found in some sectors of Williamsburg or in downtown LA, the kind of buildings that had flocked to Austin and Minneapolis and Birmingham, as though the young, anxious professionals they were meant to house were migrating and setting and breaking down encampments as they priced one another out of affordable living. But why a dumb college town in the Midwest like this one? It seemed a deliriously hopeful thing to do, to put up a building here, like saying the weather was good when it was fifty degrees in December before realizing it means something horrible about the planet. Peop