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Portraiture in the Twenty-First Century by Sacha Siskonen


They drove in from the suburbs against rush hour traffic, making good time with the windows rolled down, the radio on, humming along. They took the train from the outskirts into the center as the sun set behind them. They walked eleven blocks from their offices and high-rise apartments to converge in the dimming light. The buildings clicked on around them. First one lighted window, then six, then thirty-six, then twelve hundred or so. In new shoes and old sports coats, they circled the block, overpaid for parking. They slowed themselves down or sped up. They didn’t want to arrive early or late.
     The collection of portraits hung on the gallery’s white white walls. For months the artist had been inviting them to the show: her mother, her coworkers, her father, her cousins, her aunt, her ex-boyfriends, her hairstylist, her third grade teacher, her stepmother, her plumber, her dog, her grandmother’s neighbor, her landlord, her former babysitter, all of her friends, her mentor, her pharmacist, her favorite bartender, her sister, her boss, the lady from her laundromat.
     Some of the portraits she had done from memory, some from snapshots, some she had people sit for, and for some she needed no referent. They took different forms. Multimedia. A painting, a sculpture, an art object, all titled with a first name: Maureen, Alan, Keith, Shondra, Elise, Lauren, Kate, Philip, June, Ida, Mark, Mike, Mick, Ellen, Reginald, Olive, Lou, Fenton, Mackenzie, Daniel, Dan, Danny, Don, Li, Sue, Will, Alyssa, Chris, Ping, Betty, Jim, Rachel, Rachael, Emily, Paul, Emily, Cheryl, Nan, Clinton, Kyle, Tarik, Selena, Sariah, Jessica, Jessica, Jessica.
     They shuffled into the gallery, invitations in hand, shined shoes clicking on the cement floor. They held their breath. They could not wait.
     “Where am I?”
     “Which is me?” they whispered to husbands, wives, friends, strangers.
     “One of these is me.”
     On a white block stand, a spoon under a spotlight. Gilt. Gleaming. Shapely. “I’m a spoon?” she said. “What does that mean?”
     “It’s a good thing,” her husband said.
     “Is it?”
     Next to them, a guy wearing his only suit said, “Look.” On the wall, stuck with Scotch tape, were sixteen Polaroids of him asleep. Curled up fetal, drooling, naked, the covers kicked off in a dream. “This is not cool.”
     Across the room, a man saw his portrait—a red neon sign that read, “Nebulous”—and laughed, and couldn’t stop. “I get it,” he said to no one in particular. The people nearest him took one step away.
     The artist surveyed the room. In one corner, an eight-second video of her sister saying, “Turn that off” played in a loop. Someone stormed out, but she didn’t see who. It was her hairdresser. Furious. Her next dye job would be brassy.
     Three critics circled the gallery, scribbling words on notepads: “riveting,” “contrived,” “callous,” “nonpareil.”
     “Someone just bought me, Harold,” the spoon said.
     “Well, that’s a compliment, isn’t it?” Harold said.
     “No. What will they do with me? Display me in their china cabinet? Hang me in their kitchen? What if they use me?”
     “I’m sure you’re much too expensive to be used, dear. They’ll just look at you. And show you to their friends. They’ll probably have you insured. Maybe loan you out to a museum?”
     “I don’t find this funny. That’s a portrait of me. I don’t think strangers should own a portrait of me.”
     The artist’s stepmother saw her portrait hung on the wall and began to cry. First quietly into her sleeve and then loudly. Her husband, the artist’s father, put his arm around her and said, “I’m sure it doesn’t mean what you think.”
     Collectors, people with money and space on their walls, munched hors d’oeuvres, sipped wine and speculated. Should they take home the portrait done in pale yellow Post-It notes, or the one in crushed Coke cans? “Does this look like me?” someone asked.
     “I don’t think it’s supposed to,” one of the collectors said.
     “But it’s a portrait.”
     “Yes, I think that’s the point.”
     On a stand in the center of the gallery was a sculpture labeled, “Self-Portrait.” A perfect plaster cast of the artist’s left forearm, life line, heart line, fate line, etched into the palm, fingernails polished, blue veins snaking across the wrist, freckles dotting the fingers, wisps of light hair on the back of the arm. This was the part of herself she knew most. Perhaps the only part of herself she could see.
     The portraits hung staring on the walls. Her family, her friends, her acquaintances—still and silenced. Across the gallery people whispered, “I don’t get it.”
     “I don’t like it.”
     “I don’t know.”
     
     
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Sacha Siskonen is currently dropping out of graduate school to pursue her dream of attending graduate school. Her fiction can be found in Alice Blue, Word Riot, Qwerty, and The Mississippi Review online (now Blip Magazine). Her poetry chapbook, Turbulence, is forthcoming from dancing girl press. Her weblog, The Saskatchewan Review, is neither a review, nor based in Canada, but can be read here.