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The Essence of Art
by Phil Geusz and Heather Whiteside
Phil Geusz and Heather Whiteside-- all rights reserved
 

"Look at the technique!" Clover gushed. "See how the artist has used short, broken brushmarks to create a sensation of angst?"

I nodded, fascinated. Fine art was something largely new to me.

"And the use of color, Phil! See how the canvas seems to live?"

It did seem to live, I had to admit. But in such a horrid way! Everything was twisted and distorted. Which was not surprising; the name of this work was simply "SCABS".

"God, I wish I could paint like that!" Clover continued. "Marcus makes it look so easy and natural. And I hear he painted this work in just a single sleepless night. It's so rare for a realist painter like Marcus to produce an abstract as well. Almost unheard-of, in fact. Leave it to a genius like him!"

That didn't surprise me. Or at least the sleepless part didn't. Just looking at the thing made me uneasy. Distorted humans and various fragments thereof floated around and merged with a great rotten-looking... blob. Our friend Ken Bronski, who was spending the afternoon with us, had been unable to view the canvas for more than a few seconds before fleeing in tears. He said it reminded it him of something horrible he had once seen. It was must have been pretty ugly, whatever it was. Being a homicide detective looked to me like an awfully tough way to make a living, but Ken thrived on it. Personally, I would never care to run into anything in the least resembling "SCABS". Still, the bilious greens and rotten yellows somehow spoke directly to my own soul as well. A thousand broken dreams, the painting whispered of, and a million bright and shiny-new nightmares. Evil, nasty stuff. I shivered, again. How appropriately titled this work was!

Clover was going on and on in her enthusiasm, so that I merely nodded in the appropriate places and mimicked understanding of the esoteric art terms. It was rare to see her get so worked up about anything. I wanted her to enjoy it while she could instead of continually interrupting her with questions in midstream.

We wandered about the gallery for a time, spending a pleasant Sunday afternoon together among the canvasses. Marcus's work was on show, and I became rather a fan myself that day. Which surprised me. First I had learned to appreciate plays, and now paintings. Rabbithood was expanding my artistic horizons, if nothing else.

"Come on!" Clover exclaimed excitedly as worked our way down the rows of paintings. "I want to get a good seat for the unveiling." The high point of the show, of course, was to be the first public viewing of a new Marcus work, one that the critics were already speaking about in hushed voices. Given the quality of what had come before, even I was a bit excited at the prospect.

Normally I like to sit inconspicuously in the back of the room at group events, near the exit. But Clover was so excited that she got us a front-row seat and I resigned myself to her choice; I would not spoil the moment for her over irrational fears. Besides, Marcus always saved the best seats for SCABS like us. We had not even paid admission. When I protested that I wasn't broke, the usher had simply explained that my money was no good.

Ken joined back up with us just before the big event; Clover had been thoughtful enough to get us seats right next to a cushion suitable for him. He was courteous but still a bit distracted, and his feathers were uncharacteristically rumpled. Even worse, I scented vomit on his breath. But he seemed fine, if a bit weak. So I refrained from being nosy. If he wanted to talk about it, I was his counselor and friend. If not, it was his business.

Someone struck a glass with a spoon then, which I had seen done in movies but never in real life before. It made a clean, clear and beautiful sound, one that seemed right at home in an art gallery. And once there was silence the Great Artiste himself eased up to the mike. Much to my surprise he appeared to be a Norm, slightly built and about thirty-five. Though one never knew, of course.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," he began, licking his lips nervously. I got the idea that he was uncomfortable around people. "Norms and scabs. I welcome you to this showing of my latest works. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for taking time out of your lives to share this moment with me. Behind me, still under wraps, is my newest canvas. Without further ado, I dedicate it to each and every human being suffering from the effects of the Martian Flu. It is in fact entitled 'Victims'."

The silky blue cover came off then. Clover leaned forward in eager anticipation. And so did I.

The canvas was huge, as befitted the size and scope of the subject matter. It was dark as well, filled with angry oranges and the sick rotten greens that seemed to feature so strongly in Marcus's work. And the Victims, oh dear God...

Marcus had once again done his subject justice. Rows upon rows of human beings in various states of transformation were spread out on an endless plain that had clearly once been part of the normal world, but which through some artist's magic had somehow subtly been rendered a twisted hell. No matter how bizarre the bodies, magically Marcus had presented every single eye as soulful, human and a complete universe of misery. In the background bloody red Mars stood in the ascendant, evil and triumphant and splotched with bilious green. But in the foreground, in the foreground...

...was what made Marcus a world-renowned Master. A cross stood up on a little knoll, and nailed to it was the very human figure of a young women. She was screaming in her agony, screaming for all the silent ones behind her who could not. Blood and gore was splashed and flecked all over her naked body, looking not at all like the little symbolic ketchup-marks on traditional crucifixes. Her eyes glowed in very human fear and anger. In desperation she had torn free her right hand from the rough and cruel wood; with it she was reaching down towards the deformed baby that lay still and dead at her feet. But already a dark and rotting tentacle was stretching from off-canvas toward the freed limb, and in the background another was grasping a hammer with a double-helix handle. Meanwhile, yet a third sought out a box of wicked-looking barbed nails. Clearly, she would not, could not make her escape.

There was silence in the gallery for a bit, until the sheer power of the canvas had done its work on us. Some of us were crying, especially we scabs up front. But eventually we began to remember where we were, what we were there for, what was real. And then came the applause.

I thumped a hindfoot, as my forepaws do not clap well. It was something I'd never done in public before, being too animal-like and undignified for my ego. But then and there it was right. Ken snaked his neck about in a gesture clearly of praise and appreciation, while Clover just stood and wept and applauded. Marcus took his bows and withdrew with the most grace his clear sense of unease would allow, and the session broke up. I knew already that I would never forget it, and that Marcus would someday be ranked alongside the very greatest of Masters. I felt privileged to have met him. But like everyone else I had no idea of what was coming next. Through the still-hushed crowd, I heard a distinctly explosive sound. And instantly I knew what it was. "Ken!" I cried out. "Ken! I heard a gunshot!"

"Where?" he demanded, suddenly all business.

"Back behind the rostrum. Where Marcus went."

"Shit!" he exclaimed with feeling. "Stay here. No, wait. Call me in some backup. You up to making a call?"

"I am!" Clover declared, clearly shaken. "Phil, just stay here under the seat. I'll be right back."

"Okay!" replied Ken as he twirled on his overly-long avian legs and strode through the suddenly anxious crowd. "Police!" he repeated over and over. "Official business! Please, let me through."

So I waited calmly under my seat, just this once utterly unashamed of the twitchy nervous creature I have become. I faced enough SCABS-induced horror every day myself to have a fair idea of what it must have felt like to paint "Victims". No one could long survive that much pain, unless they have means of dealing with it. And Marcus's nervous hesitant manner had suggested that very likely no such outlet existed for him. Which left him only one potential escape.

Yes, I was glad to be a rabbit today. For I had no desire at all to confront the corpse of the man who just minutes before been the greatest artist I would ever know.

Eventually they let us make our statements and leave; the investigators were very nice to us. Cops usually are pretty decent folks when you clearly aren't a suspect, though I figure Bronski must have helped us out some behind the scenes. Clover and I cancelled the festive dinner we had planned and snuggled quietly in her bed for a time. Finally I turned on the news, where quite naturally Marcus's life and death was the lead story. The shot had been indeed been suicide, the newscaster explained, though no note was ever found. Nor had there been any family, it seemed; they had disowned Marcus five years back when she became male, losing her unborn daughter in the process. Her then-husband had demanded he undergo a sex change back to female, but there had been no money and the enraged and humiliated spouse was not prepared to wait. The resulting divorce was short, brutal, and complete. And an act of utter betrayal, in my admittedly prejudiced eyes. It was shortly after developing SCABS, the newscaster continued, that Marcus's paintings first began to attract critical notice. His work was completely different from what it had been before. Far better, as well. There was now feeling there. Deep emotion. Depth. Power. Tragedy.

Dark, twisted, agonized beauty.

As requested in Marcus's will, the announcer concluded, his body would be cremated without any kind of memorial service and the ashes mixed those of his neverborn baby. The royalties from his works were to go various SCABS charities as well as towards the ever-elusive cure. Even in death, he continued his angry war against the virus.

Clover and I snuggled some more that night and grew ever closer. But snuggling didn't help us get past our terrible sense of loss.

Nothing can ever do that, we fear.

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