FRAMING

You could break into this old theatre by going up the fire stairs on the alley to the emergency exit doors. They were heavy and you needed a tool like a crowbar or at least a big screwdriver. Once in, only a few steps away was the high balcony which had no seats now. Someone must have bought the seats for a church or school or some other place where people sit in rows. The wide stairs down to the main floor were easy to find, though the carpet was moldy and some of it was torn away. Many of the main seats were broken, but most of them were at least still there. Light came in from a hole rotted in the roof.

He was sitting there in the back staring at the empty proscenium — it wasn’t the first time, because he thought quite a lot about “frames” and “framing” and what the concept meant in terms of experiencing the real and the unreal . . . and a lot of other philosophical stuff. What did the Greek practice of putting a frame “pro” in front of the “skene” — scene. Did it have to do with the religious dimension? He wasn’t an actor but an artist. He was squatting in a nearby loft where he had been long enough that he now considered it “his” studio.

Then he realized that someone else was sitting up towards the front. A man with close-cropped hair, someone dressed like an ascetic European intellectual in a black turtleneck, gray hoodie, heavy glasses with round black frames. His arms were extended out to each side on the backs of the seats. His feet, in high-tops, were propped up on the row of seats in front of him. The man didn’t even turn around, but seemed to sense him.

“Well, what’s your guess?”

“What?”

“What play was the last performed here? Were plays still realistic or had they already become surreal?”

The young man went up and sat in the same row, but several seats over. “Maybe it was music. The acoustics are pretty good.”

“Are you a musician?”

“No. Painter.”

“Figurative?”

“Yeah. Nudes.”

“Lucian Freud?”

“Yeah, but not fat people. What about you?”

“Photographer.”

“Street?”

“Ah, hah.”

The man was associated with a small troupe of dancers. They were often his subject matter and he, who had access to money, supported them and publicized them. The dancers were all male, fewer than a half-dozen, all on the cusp of twenty, only a few with classical training. They explored what a strong human body could do in a startling way. Some called it “hip-hop.”

He had explored the building pretty thoroughly and in the foyer of the ladies’ room he had found a huge mirror, maybe ten feet by twelve feet. It had a baroque gilt frame. He badly wanted to get that mirror to his loft, partly so he could pose for himself when no one else was available, but had not figured out how until he saw the muscle and control of these young men. “If you can get that mirror over to my place, I will paint your portrait, en masse or as individuals.” They smiled and did it.

After that when they came to the loft, as they often did, they loved the mirror — not out of narcissism but to work on technique. They seemed able to summon up almost any movement they wanted, many surprise lifts and caught falls and synchronized sequences, but what they wanted was very focused, no more than needed. Not just whirling and thrashing.

One young man was not a dancer. Japanese, he knelt on the floor with an ink block and thick paper. His flexible soft brush wrote fluently vertical poems, both pictures and images. Ideographs. He did not explain what they said. Sometimes he left with the older photographer and they were gone several days.

The painter was like the dancers in his aesthetic methods. The best oil paint, not many colors. A massive oak easel. A simple daybed for sleep. It was curtained off. The young dancers sometimes used it, but not for sleep. He had rigged a shower which they used. None of them paid much attention to where the water drained. They didn’t bother with towels, simply walking around naked until they air-dried.
For a while he painted studies of parts of them. The complex of structures from whorled ear, down along the jaw, the neck muscles and sinews, and the smooth curve out to the point of the shoulder. The lower back, the lumbar triangle, with its bilateral geometry of parallelogram muscles to the cleft globes of buttocks, the hip crests to the sides. He used paint so thick it was practically encaustic, playing warm off cool, gray off pink, yellow off purple.

One day someone sent the artist a roll of paper from a massive newspaper printing press. He clamped long sections of it onto a sheet of plywood so it would be supported while it was wet with the ink, not printed but brushed, not with the long flexible soft bristles of the Japanese poet but with an inch-wide almond round filbert. Sometimes he went to a “bright” square bristle shape. He mostly used black India ink but with sepia sometimes and opaque China white highlights. The lines were long and fluent. With such big paper he was able to paint — or was it drawing? — life-size.

One night — or was it very early morning — he woke. Moonlight and streetlights were streaming through the big loft windows. The young men were dancing, their arms curved overhead, their supple waists bending, their feet like drums. Their number was doubled by reflection in the mirror. Moving lightly through both the real and the reflected were the life-sized drawings, which had left the paper and sometimes rose high in the air in a way a human body made of flesh could never manage. Each had a calligraphy poem on it. The photographer was at work — clickclick clickclick. He must have had exceptionally sensitive film.

In a while the artist went back to his bed, thinking maybe he was dreaming anyway. But the next day the photographer’s images were tucked into the frame of the mirror like party snapshots in a bedroom mirror. The paper dancers with poems on them were clearly present.

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