I moved to Houston from Denton for graduate school with a copy of Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death under one arm, The Routledge Cultural Studies Reader under the other, and my ex-girlfriend Valerie* for security. We had been together four years and loved each other very much, but the passionate side of our relationship had pretty much died. We had both been accepted into the University of Houston’s drawing and painting MFA program. So as we passed the Sam Houston monument just after Huntsville in our U-Haul, we believed that our friendship was strong enough to keep us together as friends and allies. We were scared of the new place we were going to and felt safer together than alone. We moved into a two-bedroom apartment off of Alabama and Montrose near The Proletariat and tried very hard to be roommates.
After a semester at the University of Houston, the new class of graduates was given their first assignments as teaching aides. This was my first time teaching, and I was terrified of the students. I walked into the studio on the first day and the twenty-two blankly skeptical faces staring at me made me want to throw up. I handed out the syllabi, introduced the course in a cracked voice and told them they could leave. As the class filed away through the door, four or five people formed a line at the table where I was standing. These were the students who wanted to add the course. They smelled blood on me and with a combination of pleading and ultimatums, they demanded I let them in, which I did.
The last person in this line of latecomers would become my guide for the next six months into a part of the art world that has nothing to do with Baudrillard, cultural studies or art. Her name was Andrea, she was about thirty-eight years old, and despite the fact that she was probably only 5’6”, her giant, white flip-flops made her look six feet tall. Her hair was naturally blonde in the same way that strawberry-flavored gum tastes like strawberries and her skin was suntanned in the same way that my Ikea furniture is made of oak. She was clothed from head to toe in a pristine white tracksuit that had the word “Juicy” emblazoned across her ass, from the edge of one taut cheek to the other. Her breasts were enormous and her make-up was thickly but carefully applied. It wasn’t really clear to me at the time, but she was a socialite messing around in an art class. I stared at her with a mixture of fascination, desire and pure dread. At that moment I had one of those premonitions that we all sometimes have; that a person you have just met is going to fuck you up.
A few weeks later, as I leaned in over Andrea’s shoulder to point to her charcoal drawing and tell her to slow down and look carefully (probably the only piece of advice a drawing instructor can ever really offer) she mentioned that she had heard that I had been in a group show at Barbara Davis Gallery and asked if I had any other paintings in my studio that I was interested in selling. I said I did. She went on to tell me that she wanted to buy one of my paintings for her boyfriend Mitchell, who had an “amazing” art collection.
I was excited by the prospect of selling another painting. But I may have been more excited by the fact that this strange woman was talking to me. From her carefully constructed and outrageous appearance to her expensive and flashy jewelry, she was completely alien to me and seemed clearly the opposite of many of the values I liked to think I believed in. I grew up in a lower middle class family with parents deep in debt. Every Christmas was a compromise between what I wanted and what my parents could afford to buy. Since my liberal arts education had stripped me of every “ism” except classism, it was with a kind of repulsion that I found myself flattered.
She said that she would bring Mitchell’s mother, Maria, to my studio that week so that they could pick something out together.
The following Saturday I found myself sitting on one of the rotted couches in the graduate studios, waiting for them to arrive. I was situated just inside a pair of glass doors, from where I could see anyone who got off the elevator walk down the long concrete and brick corridor toward the studios.
The elevator door opened and I watched Andrea and another woman exit and walk toward me. Both were dressed in workout gear; Andrea in a black tracksuit unzipped to reveal a white tank top that strained to cross the great expanse of her chest, Maria in an orange tracksuit with an intricate floral print accented by sequins. Both wore gleaming white track shoes. Maria had shoulder length black hair, gold earrings, ice on her neck and the angular face of a predator. As I let them in I could smell sweat and strong perfume.
Once in the studio I had my story down – I explained what I thought I was doing, justified every philosophical and conceptual choice I made in the work and when I ran out of things to say I stopped talking and tried to will the knot out of my stomach. Andrea was draped over my swivel chair, arm over the back, legs open, chewing her lip and looking through me. Maria stood the whole time in the same place as I talked. She smiled, arched one sharp eyebrow and asked me how much it was. I was prepared. I had asked one of my instructors what to say when this question came up since the painting wasn’t in a gallery. I was advised to name the price the painting in the group show had sold for and be prepared to go down 15 percent. I named the price.
She kept smiling and said, “right, but this isn’t in a gallery so shouldn’t it be less?” I skipped ten and instantly dropped down the full 15 percent.
They left me with a check and a few minutes later Andrea called and told me that Maria and her husband Roger would very much like to go to an opening and take me to dinner. Was there an opening I thought might be interesting? I mentioned that Mark Flood was having an opening at Mixture. It was arranged that I would meet Roger, Maria, Andrea and her boyfriend Mitchell at Mixture and we would walk across the street to Mark’s afterwards. We met at the opening, Andrea introduced me to her boyfriend, Maria bought one of Mark Flood’s paintings and I talked to Roger about my grandfather, who had also been in Korea. As we walked across Westheimer, passing Shaw’s Tattoo, a drunk, homeless guy called out to Mitchell and Roger.
“Those some pretty ladies, what you guys do to get such pretty girls?” Without a moment’s hesitation Andrea answered, “they’re rich.” There were two other guests at dinner – a ne’er-do-well girlfriend of Andrea’s and a make-up artist named Edouard who I later found out was usually referred to as “Dirty Sanchez.” Andrea sat on her boyfriend’s lap through most of the meal, picking off of my plate while Maria locked me in a smiling gaze out of the left side of her face. There were some jokes about artists being owned by the people who bought their work. I had told Maria earlier in my studio that the cartoon Roman soldiers in my paintings were really just little surrogates for myself, and at one point during the meal she said, “if I own your little men, I own you.” Even now when I drive by Mark’s on my way to Shaw’s to get new work done, I almost always experience a little shudder as I remember Maria on my right, Andrea on my left, and Mitchell and Roger paying no attention as their feline companions batted me around over a meal that was easily as much as a month’s rent on my apartment.
Valerie was becoming disappointed in me. That I was allowing myself to be drawn into a relationship with the sort of people that she and I had never had any use for had begun to diminish me in her eyes. So when Andrea called me a week after the dinner and asked me if I’d like to have a drink, Valerie looked me hard in the eye and said, “do not bring her back to this apartment.” I promised that I wouldn’t and as I walked out the door, she grabbed my arm and said, “Michael, please don’t bring her here.” I promised again and went to meet Andrea at Rudyard’s.
I got to the bar before her and sat in my parked car asking myself if this was really what Valerie believed it was. I thought that there was no way Andrea would jeopardize her relationship with one of the most prominent families in Houston for something as ridiculous as sleeping with a graduate student. I had no idea how it worked, and I had convinced myself that this was a purely social date, that wealthy people just sometimes enjoy hanging out with artist types, when a black Land Rover barreled into Rudyard’s cratered pit of a parking lot. She was wearing all white, as usual, with a high-waisted silver, fur-collared quilted ski jacket. As we walked through the bar door everyone turned and looked at her like Ziggy Stardust had dropped down from space into the middle of Rudz.
Half a dozen drinks later, we left and she said she wanted to show me where she lived. By then I was drunk enough to believe that her goal was to fuck me. I was lonely and so I accepted what had come into my life. I climbed up into the Land Rover and she peeled out and sped toward Shepherd. On the corner of Shepherd and Welch, across from the Taco Bell, there’s a condo complex called “The Renaissance at River Oaks.” This was where she lived. We entered the parking lot and after awhile she stopped and pointed to a window with a dim light glowing behind the drapes.
“That’s where I live, but Mitchell’s there now. He’s sleeping. He stays there sometimes. Why don’t you show me where you live?”
I began to panic. I saw Valerie’s face and I felt that I loved her, and that this was cheating. And I had promised her. I asked myself how long I would feel this way and if it would ever change if I didn’t do something about it. I wanted her back. I wanted the thing we had had in undergrad when we met in a dorm room, when we went to class together, when we talked about each other’s paintings, when we smoked weed in my red Geo Metro and drove around the long, dark back roads that wind around the farms and ranches in Denton, when we were millions of miles away from the art world but very close to the reasons that we had decided to make art.
As we pulled into the covered parking lot of the small complex Valerie and I lived in, I could see her out front putting a load of clothes in the dryer. I couldn’t look at her as I walked past, Andrea behind me. I saw her from the corner of my eye look up and stare in disbelief. I hurried Andrea through the living room and back to my bedroom, closing the door behind me as quickly as I could. She sat down on the edge of the futon Valerie and I had shared for three years and as I turned out the light, she began to lift her shirt over her head.
A few months later Andrea was gone and I had moved into my own place. I’m ashamed of that time in my life, but I don’t regret it. I don’t think Valerie ever forgave me for what I did. I’ve learned that it’s not possible to live in the past and the present at the same time and I’ve learned that there are lots of collectors who love art and use their means to support something they think is important. I’ve met artists who are still looking for their Andrea and I’ve made friends with artists who are trying to make their way honestly through this weird place called the art world.
*All names have been changed.
Michael Bise is an artist living in Houston.
Also by Michael Bise:
Check out the first two articles in our "Art Narc" series:
Dale Stewart’s Art Narc: Battalino over Commerce Street
and Stuart Rose’s Art Narc: Behind the Scenes at Art Basel Miami
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