The Canvas



The Canvas

(c) by the author

It started with a streak of cadmium yellow.
The wind had died just after noon that day, and the heat rose from the dry earth, filling the air with the resinous smell of the rosemary and oleander bushes that surrounded the cottage. Raymond was working with all the doors and windows of his studio opened and latched to the wall in an attempt to catch any breeze. The idea for the painting had come to him in the morning and he was trying to get it down before the inspiration faded. At some point during the afternoon, when the sweat had begun running down his forehead and into his eyes, he had absentmindedly tied a rag around his head. He was wearing only an old, baggy pair of khaki shorts and sandals. His paint-stained T-shirt lay on the floor behind him where he had tossed after pulling it off when it became too hot to wear. He had covered most of the canvas with wet cloths to keep the paint from drying too quickly, before he had a chance to work the next layers of paint in. Only the area he was working on was exposed.
Dell came up from the beach and walked in the open doors on the seaward side. He had been swimming and was towelling his hair dry. He wore only the old flip-flops he had found in the hallway cupboard when they had opened the cottage for the summer, and his passage up the stairs that led to the beach and then across the patio had been heralded by the sound of the heels of the sandals striking the boards of the staircase and then the stones of the patio. He stopped to examine the painting that Dell was working on and then turned to Raymond for a kiss. Raymond put an arm around Dell’s shoulders and drew in him briefly.
‘Hmm, salty.’
‘If you can tear yourself away from this, you should go for a swim. The water is just the right temperature now.’
‘Maybe later.’ Raymond gestured toward the painting to indicate why it was unlikely that he would go for a swim
‘How’s it going? Can I see?’
Raymond reached forward and lifted the cloths and draped them over the top bar of the easel. He stepped back out of Dell’s way. It was then that he saw the mark for the first time. When he had hugged Dell briefly, he had been holding a brush and it had left a smudge of paint on Dell’s back. Just a small streak of cadmium yellow, barely half an inch long. The edges were ragged. The paint glowed against Dell’s tanned skin. In the three weeks they had been at the cottage, Dell’s body had turned a rich golden brown.
‘Oh, just a minute, let me’ Raymond picked up a cloth to wipe off the paint.
‘What?’ Dell turned halfway round to look over his shoulder. The muscles of his back bunched, and the streak of yellow paint rose and fell with the motion. Raymond was transfixed by it.
‘Nothing. Just a stray thought about the painting.’
‘I should let you get back to work. Dinner about nine? It should be cool by then. We can eat on the patio.’ Dell draped the cloths over the painting again and smiled.
‘I’m sorry to leave all the work to you.’ Raymond stepped back to the painting and added a streak of cadmium yellow to the patch of open canvas. It was barely half an inch long and ragged at the edges. But against the mottled greens of the background, it drew the eye.
‘I’ll take my payment later, when we go to bed. For now, just think of it as my tribute to your genius.’ Dell patted Raymond on the buttocks and walked out.
Raymond nodded absently. Dell disappeared from his mind even before he had left the studio. Raymond lifted one of the cloths and began judiciously adding a few streaks of cadmium yellow. He didn’t want too many of them, not enough that they would overwhelm the painting, just enough to convey fugitive motion on the static canvas.
The mark was still there when they ate dinner. Dell sat to Raymond’s left, and every time Dell leaned forward, Raymond saw the yellow patch. It had cracked a bit at the edges as it dried, but it was still there. And it was still there when they made love later that night. As Dell lay atop him, pushing him down into the bed, Raymond gingerly felt with his fingertips until he located the rough patch on Dell’s shoulder. He was careful not to brush it off. In his mind’s eye, he could see the yellow against Dell’s flesh, moving with Dell.
In the morning Raymond awoke early. The light was just beginning to come through the window. Dell lay beside him on his stomach, with the sheet bunched around his waist, his back uncovered. The mark had disappeared during the night. Raymond reached over and gently touched the area where the spot had been. Dell’s flesh was smooth and cool beneath his fingertips. His deeply tanned flesh was almost black in the half light. Raymond eased his body out of the bed, careful not to disturb Dell. Without dressing, he padded through the cottage and across the patio. In his studio, he quickly located the tube of cadmium yellow and squeezed a dab onto his palette. He dipped a brush into it and held it up. The bright yellow colour gleamed in the dawn light. It seemed even brighter than usual. He walked back through the house and into the bedroom.
He held the brush poised over Dell’s back for several seconds, searching for the right spot to paint. In the end, he was drawn to a spot just under the right shoulder blade, an inclined area where the skin was stretched taut. Once he had located the spot, his arm seemed to move without conscious thought. The brush dipped, and a yellow spot appeared on Dell’s body.
Raymond stepped back a few feet and looked at Dell. A painting took shape in his mind. He could see the colours he would use and the shapes he would create. How they would flow together on the living canvas of Dell’s body. A flat canvas on stretchers wouldn’t do for the images flowing through his mind. And oil paints would be too stiff. They would have too much texture of their own. He needed something that would flow onto the skin and look like a second skin. The brush trembled in his hand. He wanted to move forward and make another mark on Dell. He knew the exact spot the brush should touch. Dell rolled onto his side, and the images in Raymond’s mind shifted and flowed.
*
‘What are these? I’ve never seen these names before.’ Dell held up the list of painting supplies that Raymond had just handed him through the open window of the van.
‘I have something new in mind. I wasn’t sure what will work best. So I want to try various paints.’
Dell smiled and tucked the list into his shirt pocket, along with the grocery list and the other reminders of things he needed to buy and do in Genoa. He manoeuvred the van carefully through the narrow gate. Just before he drove off, he lifted a forearm out the window and waved goodbye.
For Raymond, one of Dell’s more endearing qualities was his lack of comment about Raymond’s work. Dell never wanted to discuss the paintings. He never felt a need to chatter on about their meaning or significance. He just accepted that painting was Raymond’s life and incidentally his livelihood. In response to a polite question early in their relationship, Raymond has told Dell that if he could find the words to say what he said with painting, then he wouldn’t need to paint. Dell had nodded and never mentioned the subject again.
Dell took care of the daily tasks that would have overwhelmed Raymond. He did the shopping and the housekeeping. He put the food on the table and made sure that Raymond ate it. He dealt with the plumbers and the carpenters. When his school let out for the summer, he organised the move to the cottage on the Ligurian coast. He arranged for the boxing and shipping of the paintings and saw to it that Raymond’s agent was kept happy with a steady flow of them. He drove Raymond where he needed to be, when he needed to be there. And several times a week, he made love to Raymond. If Raymond never lacked for anything, it was because of Dell’s foresight. Raymond took it for granted that there would be clean clothes in his bureau and closet, that there would always be hot coffee in the thermos and milk in the fridge, that the dentist would see him twice a year.
It never occurred to Raymond to ask himself if Dell was happy. He didn’t think about Dell’s existence in those terms. Dell was simply Dell. He was there. Raymond was quite satisfied with the arrangements. He knew he was fortunate that Dell was willing to manage his life. There were so many tasks that were beyond his interests and hence beyond his abilities. But the question of Dell’s satisfaction never arose in Raymond’s mind. He simply assumed, without devoting much thought to the question, that Dell would not do all the things he did if he were not satisfied with their life.
Raymond stood motionless in the driveway for several minutes after Dell drove off on the weekly trip into Genoa. He was staring out the open gate. A passer-by might have thought he was studying the rock wall opposite the gate. But Raymond’s vision was filled with images of the body of his lover, its surface completely painted. A human-shaped canvas, a canvas that shifted and moved, a canvas whose images were ever-changing and never the same. A canvas that could be wiped clean and repainted as often as he liked.
*
‘You want to paint me? But you never do portraits.’ Dell looked up from the work table in the kitchen and smiled. ‘This must be your first. I’m rather chuffed that you’ve asked me to sit for you.’
‘Not a portrait.’ It hadn’t occurred to Raymond until that moment that what he was about to propose might strike Dell as strange. The idea had been so present in his mind for the past few days that he thought that Dell would understand what he wanted. ‘I want to paint your back. At least that’s the first painting. It’s just a trial, to see what paints will stick to the surface. When I find the method that works best, then I want to paint your entire body. You’ll have to shave all your hair off, of course.’ The words rushed out. Raymond was never sure that language would bend to his meaning. Paint was much easier to manage than was speech. He looked around the kitchen for help. Everywhere shiny metallic surfaces reflected distorted images of himself and Dell. It was a domain he identified as Dell’s part of their living space, both here at the cottage and at the house in Norfolk.
‘You want to paint my body?’
Raymond nodded and held up the tube of yellow body paint he had brought with it. He handed it to Dell as if its very existence explained and justified what he wanted to do. The colours of the Cryolan paints were brighter, more lurid, than he liked, but he had experimented a bit and found that he could tone them down. He wasn’t sure what they would look like on Dell’s tanned skin or what would happen to the colour and lustre when they dried.
Dell turned the tube of paint over and over, reading all the labels. Neither man said anything for a few moments. Raymond tried not to disturb Dell’s thoughts. He was certain it was only a matter of letting Dell grow used to the idea.
‘It says to use face cream to remove the paints.’ Dell indicated the directions on the back of the tube.
‘For this kind. It will also come off with hot water and soap. I checked. The latex paints that you bought the other day will peel off. But they will take the hair with them. That’s why we need to shave your body first.’
‘But why?’
‘The idea just came to me. It’s it’s an experiment. It will only take me a few hours to finish your back. Then you could show me how to operate the video recorder and I’ll take some pictures and you can remove it.’ It pained Raymond to say that. He didn’t want Dell to destroy his painting.
‘I suppose if it’s only a few hours’ Dell looked Raymond in the face for the first time since he realised what Raymond was asking of him.
Raymond nodded.
‘When do you want to start?’
Raymond didn’t trust himself to speak. He wanted to start now, but he simply raised his hands and shrugged to indicate that Dell could choose the time. He didn’t want to appear to be in a hurry.
Dell looked at the vegetables that he had been chopping. ‘Just let me finish up here. It will only be ten minutes or so. Is my back hairy? Does that have to be shaved now? I’ll need your help if it does.’
The image of what he wanted to do was clear in Raymond’s mind, and Dell’s back was not as large a surface as the canvases he usually painted. The colours of the paints were more intractable, however. They didn’t blend in the same way as oils. Raymond wasn’t wholly satisfied with the results when he finished. But he could see what adjustments he would need to make the next time.
Dell had perched on a stool while Raymond painted his back. He hadn’t said anything and had barely moved the entire time it took Raymond to paint both sides of his back from the shoulders down to the waist.
‘It’s very sensual. It’s as if you were kissing each spot on my back. Tiny kisses with the tip of your tongue. Each kiss is a drop of moisture and then it dries.’
‘Do you want to see it?’
‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t know why. Somehow I think I don’t know. That it would be like seeing a foreign growth on my skin. Are you happy with it?’
‘It is beautiful,’ Raymond whispered to himself. He was entranced by the look of the painting on Dell’s body. It was as if he had created something from the raw material of Dell.
‘I don’t think I have ever heard you use that word about any of your paintings before.’
Raymond set his palette and brushes down. He walked over to Dell and then kissed his back. Raymond inhaled the paint smell slowly and deeply. The odour was different from that of oils, more natural, less processed and chemical. Dell’s usually cool skin felt hot beneath Raymond’s lips. He pressed his fingertips into the painting and felt the familiar flesh give slightly as if the paint had softened Dell’s body, made it more malleable. Dell stood up and undid his shorts. The unpainted portions of his body shocked Raymond with their nakedness. He blocked them out of his mind and focused on the painting as he stepped out of his own shorts. He pressed Dell’s back against his chest, with the painting between them.
The pattern of their coupling was different. During the eight years they had been together, Dell and he had fallen into easy habits, but that afternoon Raymond felt more active. They flowed together but Raymond for once set the rhythm of their movements. Raymond wasn’t dominant or violent, but there was just more energy and intensity.
The painting was ruined. As much of the greasy body paint ended up on Raymond’s chest as on Dell’s back.
Neither of them said anything. Each separately took a shower and washed his body clean. Dell finished cooking the evening meal, and they ate it in their customary silence. Something had changed, but they didn’t want to talk about it yet.
The next day, Raymond returned to his studio and resumed work on the painting on his easel. Dell followed his usual routine of swimming and pottering about the cottage.
The second morning, Raymond rose at his customary early hour and began painting before breakfast. Around nine he heard Dell enter the studio. He half-turned around expecting Dell to call him into the house to eat.
‘I’ve removed all the hair I could.’ Dell stood there naked, his body shaved. The purity of the canvas was an ache in Raymond’s psyche, a void in his mind that called out to him to paint. Several hours later when Dell’s body had been converted into a maze of colours and shapes, Dell made him videotape the painting. The colours swirled and the shapes shifted as he walked about in front of the camera. It was as if some creature had possessed Dell, possessed the both of them. Human, inhuman, Dell, not-Dell. Created yet always already there. They awoke in the morning with the evidence of their lovemaking on their bodies and on the sheets of the bed. The two painters came together again.
That set the pattern for the summer. Every few days Raymond would paint Dell. It became an obsession, to cover Dell’s body with images, to transform the familiar, to free them from the inheritance of form and shape and colour. Dell was scrupulous about recording Raymond’s work before the two of them joyfully set about celebrating the wonder they were discovering. ‘It will be a record,’ he said. ‘You can donate the tapes to a museum.’
One week toward the end of the summer, when Dell returned from the weekly shopping in Genoa, he walked into the studio. He was dressed in his usual summer outfit of jeans and a knit shirt and wearing the wide-brimmed straw hat he favoured. ‘I got a haircut.’ He removed the hat. All the hair on his head had been shaved off. ‘I left the eyebrows. I thought my face would look too strange without them, but we can cover them with petroleum jelly, and then you should be able to paint over them.’
As the critic for the Times wrote later, after the exhibition of the tape recordings at the Tate, Raymond’s first painting of Dell’s body and shaven head was ‘a sublime maelstrom of rapture’.

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