Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Mango

I was going to submit something for the latest edition of bloc (the theme of which was Art), but it ended up being late and too long. As you can probably guess from the title, it ran into a few difficulties. They haven't been entirely ironed out yet - there are few bits that don't quite flow, the odd paragraph that doesn't smoothly transition to the next - and I'm still not sure about the ending. Or the beginning. Or the bits in between. Still, I'm going to be off-blog for the next week, and the piece seemed long, rambling and nonsensical enough to represent a week's worth of my blogposts, so here it is (in fact, what with rather belated responses to comments as well, it'll be like I haven't even gone away)¬


It was a brief spell in his life, one of which most people were none the wiser, one that passed largely without incident. That is if any period of time in which one lives as a mango can be described as passing largely without incident. In truth, it can't. Not that Kermit Lansbury can be persuaded to share this view.

"No, it passed largely without incident," he told me once, quite firmly. It was September 1977, the first time I'd heard about it - the Mango Period. I tried to argue, but to no avail; each time my mouth opened so did his: "Uh-uh," it would say, as he raised both an eyebrow and a forbidding finger, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. I have tried many times since to get to the bottom of it all, this mango mystery; that time, though, I gave up. Sometimes there's no point arguing with him.

Already Kermit was a highly regarded artist, even back then in 1977 - perhaps you recognised the name? In fact, you probably know some of his more famous works: Untitled #111; Untitled #40; and perhaps his best work yet Untitled #86. Or maybe you would if he'd given them proper titles. Or even created them; at least in the conventional sense. You see, Kermit's reputation has been founded on taking abstract conceptual art to audacious and previously unimagined new levels (new depths, his critics have said): his works exist only in his imagination; only as concepts. As he puts it: "To make the concept concrete is merely to make concrete. And what fun is concrete?"

It goes almost without saying, then, that his works are quite unusually brilliant. No-one has been able to say otherwise. Indeed, Kermit himself has assured me of their brilliance on many occasions.

"Oh, they're brilliant!" he tells me, rolling his eyes in apparent rapture. For my part, I tell him that I wish I could somehow walk around that internal gallery of his; that everyone could. "But that's just it, there is no need," he enthuses, all expansive hand gestures and wide animated eyes. "Of course my works could not possibly be more personal, yet what could be more universal than subjectivity? We all have that in common. The simultaneously personal and universal - a beautiful paradox! Already they are somewhere inside of you. Inside of everyone. People need only look."

Then what makes you so talented, I asked him once, if your works are just lying around inside of everyone, waiting to be found. "Me? I just found them first, of course," he laughed. Perhaps, that is something that all great artists can say of their works.

But to anyone unfamiliar with the world of Kermit Lansbury no doubt this all sounds much like the Emperor and his new clothes, and his claims to have lived as a mango perhaps sound to you no more than a self-conscious eccentricity. Let me describe, then, one of the pieces he once described to me; it is not something he is in the habit of doing, and took much persuasion on my part, but I'm sure he will forgive me for sharing it with whoever might read this. After all, it has already been exhibited all around the world. The piece in question is very simple, and like all Kermit's work unnamed: it consists only of a huge black expanse and in the bottom right-hand corner a tiny white dot. It is in the interpretation that complexity arises:

"To you, a pessimist," he told me, "it will mean optimism, perhaps, this dot. And from moment to moment you will see a different dot: smaller, larger, in a different position, maybe even sometimes no dot. Everyone will see it differently. Me, I see a negative of the image - I call the dot pessimism. But, of course, I am blessed with innate optimism. Someone else may call the image Solitude; another, Hope. How to name it, then? It is much that way with all my work."

How to name it, indeed, this image? But even more so, as we have already touched on, how to render it? How to render any of his works? Ever changing, endlessly interpretable, so personal as to be universal: the only possible medium, the only possible gallery space for Kermit's works, indeed the only place that would not rob them of their essential subjectivity is certainly in his head; and at the same time, perhaps, in all our heads. To commit such works to canvas would not only compromise them, it would be impossible.

Needless to say, exhibiting Kermit Lansbury is not without its challenges.

The stunned expression of the woman who first opened a gallery to Kermit's works was itself a picture to behold. After many weeks of assuring her not to worry, that everything would arrive in time, just go ahead with the invites, he had turned up an hour before the opening entirely empty-handed. "But where are they?" she had asked. "Your works. We can't open to an empty gallery."

"Why not? It's a perfectly lovely gallery. All the more so for the lack of clutter," he had deadpanned. The poor woman was frantic. It was her first exhibition. A directionless young heiress, at this stage merely dabbling in the arts, Portia Teversham had never owned a gallery before. Which is not to say that she wasn't taking the whole thing very seriously.

"We have Press coming! We can't…"

"For an unknown? You've done me a great service then."


"Don't worry. I'm here. That's all you need. Every one of my pieces, even some I have yet to create - they are all here," he had smiled, tapping his temple. I remember her just staring at the madman, open-mouthed. "I was once a mango, you know," he had then whispered in her ear, as she would tell me many years later. I don't think he could resist. It is to her eternal credit, then, that she finally went ahead with the event.

Kermit had talked her round, of course:

"If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then let them come and behold beauty. What need have they of artworks? Interpretation too. Is that not the critical thing? If that is of their own making - the public, the critics - then my work need not be involved.

"Don't misunderstand me, there are, of course, artworks in my mind, many of them - I have spent countless hours over each - but how can I render them as I see them? Only in my mind are they as I see them. The instant they leave my mind they have failed. Were I instead to describe them it would be just the same.

"Nevertheless, they are undoubtedly worthy of exhibition. And so, here we are. I have my twenty works and each of the audience will be asked to leave with their twenty interpretations. Would that not also be the case if my works had simply been placed on the walls? When you think about it, where is the problem?" The poor girl hadn't been sure, although she'd been quite sure that there was one. But it was too late. And not just to cancel the show: she had fallen for him.

More or less the same speech Kermit later gave to the assembled Press and public. Some critics enthused wildly, if inaccurately, about the event as "a profound and unique comment on the impossibility of Art." Others decried Kermit as a "charlatan" pulling a "cheap stunt." While others were merely curious to see what he might do next. The reviews of that first show were decidedly mixed. But one in particular pleased him enormously:

"The images I saw ranged from the oddly comforting and vaguely pastoral, to ones so perverted and disturbing I can't even begin to describe them. Whether these in fact corresponded in any way whatsoever to the twenty that Lansbury had brought to the gallery, I have no idea. But, why not? Kermit Lansbury's images are subjective, as were mine. And what do we all have in common? Our subjectivity. Thus, as subjective images are they not universal? Frankly, I don't know, and it's making my head hurt. But that's no reason to suppose that tonight I didn't meet a genius." It was nice, Kermit told me, that at least one person had understood.

Of course, it might seem odd to think nowadays, when Lansburys quite regularly change hands for many thousands of pounds, that Kermit was unable to sell a single piece at that first show. But bear in mind, back then, his particular brand of conceptual art was unheard of; much less, widely understood. Collectors were baffled. Whilst it's never been unusual not to be able to touch great works of art - museum guards are generally quite insistent on the matter - in 1969 not even to be able to see what you were buying, that was unheard of.

How times have changed!

We have Kermit to thank for that. For it was he who first pointed out the obvious: many art collections already go unseen, gracing only the bank vaults of the rich. To these people, that they will never see what they have purchased is - aptly enough where Kermit's work is concerned - entirely immaterial: all that matters is ownership. To Kermit, then, the works may as well remain in his head.

Still, acceptance that all collectors need possess of any of Kermit's works were signed deeds of ownership was far from instantaneous. So it was perhaps fortunate that a certain young heiress fell for my dear friend when she did (in the career of which successful artist, though, has luck not played a hand?).

Within months the pair were engaged, the ring of course a stunning Lansbury creation: quite unique, and near impossible to copy, and thus the envy of all Portia's friends. Indeed, at the party, it also caused quite a stir amongst her parents' friends. And it was perhaps this buzz that later led to Kermit's first sales; though, obviously, we shouldn't discount the undoubted quality of the works themselves.

Neither was marriage long in coming; a union that has not been without its difficulties - Kermit's frequent alcoholic excesses are well documented, and thus not recounted here, ditto the incident with the sturgeon and the dentist - but I know for certain neither he nor Portia have regrets. Something that is comforting to know as Kermit's life nears its end.

Indeed, even in death Kermit Lansbury will blaze a unique trail: perhaps the only artist to take his every work to the grave (how this will affect the collectors market, goodness knows). I say 'perhaps', for here a contradiction lies: are Kermit's works not, though, as he has often suggested, just waiting to be found in all our heads? To Kermit there is no problem: "So both things are true. What can I say? I didn't create the world!"

No, he didn't, he has just made it that much more interesting.

But let us go back to the beginning of this piece, what of that little documented period before his great artistic success? I recently asked him again - had it informed his work? "How could it?" he replied. "I was a mango! I was not conscious. My work has thus been informed entirely by not being a mango." As he was of course aware, that wasn't really what I wanted to know. He sighed. "People buy things that exist only in my head, yet that they have problems with? OK, I will tell you what happened when I was a mango." What, I asked, thinking finally I might get to the bottom of it. "Nothing. I was a mango!"

Like I said, sometimes there's no arguing with him.


miss-cellany said...

I do love your stories...please write more :)

Taiga the Fox said...

>>but it ended up being late<<

So sorry, it was completely my fault, wasn't it?
Anyway, the whole Mango period thing made me chuckle. Brilliant :)

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

>>So sorry, it was completely my fault, wasn't it?<<

No, no, if I'd got it finished that weekend it would still have been accepted. But I didn't. Can't remember why. Probably there was a nice day. And then some alcohol. Well, who knows - I generally struggle to remember yesterday never mind back... erm, whenever that was.

Hmm, you know, maybe I was a mango for a while? I mean, I don't remember being a mango, but that would be entirely consistent with being a mango...

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

Anyway, thanks to both of you :)