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Neon; Regret:
Lucio Fontana’s “Walking the Space” photo

I am writing you now from a city we scored with nomadic walking fourteen months ago. During that trip I had been ill. It was cold for LA and there was a cloud cover and it was close to Christmas. Maybe it was Christmas. It was Christmas Eve Day. The clouds dissolved while we coursed through the Arts District, where everything was closed. Later we walked to Pershing Square with its Ricardo Legoretta bell tower sharp as lemon in the high sun. The color and shape pulsed but I was so ill then, that it is only when I focus, now, that I remember this trip. As if I had traveled to illness, and not California! The John Portman hotel room in San Francisco where I sat too sick to eat soup. The moldy inn near the ocean, south, where the air conditioning accused my throat. A rare vacation, fettered by pain. Now I am here, and you’re eating a much-labored-over lamb barbacoa in winter Chicago: an omnivorous celebration while the household vegetarian has flown the coop.

This morning, leaving Katya and David’s in Highland Park, David gifted me three passion fruit from the neighbor’s vines. I will bring these home for you. They’re ripe once they’re wrinkly. When I arrived to the Arts District there was still a chill on. A complex of galleries, a restaurant, chickens in the side yard. I found JoAnna and Thomas at a courtyard table with the baby, Nova, near sleep in a carrier. JoAnna’s hair had been dyed the color of their dog’s fur. I thought I had never seen anything so perfect. We drank coffee and tea and I ordered sugar snap peas with, I think, ricotta and quinoa and tahini and dates. The specificty of the dish, the warm beauty of the company, was a personal height of luxury. I was cos-playing as a certain kind of white, wealthy Angelino; if you’d been here you’d have ordered the popover benedict or the venison burger because you are mostly or nearly midwestern wherever you go. While ordering Thomas asked the server if all the ingredients in the aguachile were listed on the menu. He was specific or perhaps had allergies, and in retrospect I should have been this way also. The restaurant was one quarter full and no one had their phones out. 

On the peas, on their green jackets, there were studs of red pepper flake and this was a warning. The way I had been ill before I was still ill; now I understood the spring-trap of my guts. Yet I was shy about my ensuing specificity. I scraped the red from the green, or did my best. I let JoAnna and Thomas say nice things about my work. It was like standing in a stream of water calibrated to my own body’s temperature. A focus, an enjoyment of the water’s liquidity only. (A thing I love: water’s watery.) We spoke about the baby and about writing and about their summer trip to Taos, a place—I reminded them, though they remembered—I had wanted to go since researching Mabel Dodge Luhan in undergrad. The red pepper flakes were doing their sparking labor. Katya had asked yesterday, as we’d traded reflux tales: “Don’t you just feel like you’re a fire breather?”

They had to leave quickly after the meal—baby, work—and so I left my suitcase at the hostess stand and crossed the complex to see a show the busser had labeled “very, very good.” In regards to art I am specific as Thomas was about the ingredients. Though I do not like to talk about it in mixed company, I do not always trust a stranger’s “very, very good.” But in not trusting a stranger’s art-reaction, there is a lack of empathy, a lack of teaming; this measures one of my drawbacks as a person, but there it is. I am always measuring these drawbacks and sometimes that does good. An accounting prepares a person for action.

I am writing to you now, a few hours later, because I regret that you are not with me. I regret that you have not seen the show—not wish, but regret. Yesterday I did that interview with a man who made a lot of claims about the way he wanted to be in the world and occasionally I agreed but mostly I did not; I really did not; one of the things he said was that having regrets was a sign of being thoughtful. A regret is not the only symptom of self-awareness; it should not be. Rather I think the idea of regret should be reserved for that deep pang when you remember that there is only one chance to move through linear time; that life is not a videogame or controlled scientific trial, and that in this manner even a videogame, or a controlled scientific trial, is not a videogame or a controlled scientific trial, for neither can be truly perfectly duplicated or triplicated or so on: The prompt cannot ever be the same. We cannot make the same decision several ways ever. This is not deep, only a thing I myself claim.

The “very, very good” show was by Lucio Fontana, an Argentine-Italian artist in the mid-century who had been a sculptor and a neon worker and an installation artist and who had, throughout his life, made a series of “spatial environments”—Ambienti spaziali—including two for Umberto Eco and Vittorio Greggotti’s 1964 Italian Triennale under the banner of FREE TIME. I will offer now an account of this “very, very good” show, which was—I agree and so I’ll drop the quotation—very, very good. I will switch to the “you,” now, an “I” in disguise, to ameliorate my regret regarding your absence. Also: present tense, so you can pretend to feel it with some immediacy.

In the first gallery—small as a coat closet, on the wall a set of prints of circular forms, saturated in single colors. A couple employing a kind of minimalist-monk aesthetic titters; one, tall in a mustard collarless blazer and miniature Lennon glasses and wide white shoes, says: “So very seventies.” You do not think it is particularly seventies; in fact the artist died in 1968. A contrapuntal argument here about the way culture laps at art, the way corporate design regurgitates both proximately and nostalgically ad nauseum, i.e. (recently) the geometric pastel-o-rama Memphis decor of CBD-cocktail bars and popsicle parlors. Sure. The minimalist monks continue and you let them. In the prints the forms are loose, sweet: blank cartoons, circles with just perceptible shoulders, a wan pink loop, one oval in another. They are elegant gestures, but don’t quite pique.

The corridor from the first gallery to the next is a dark volume with a high ceiling, black-lighted as a nineties headshop. A sculpture is suspended from the ceiling: vaguely runelike in form, but chubby, interlocking with others, in ecstatic muppet colors. You stand beneath it and it is more about sensation than object: a big friendly glowing thing occupying the vertical space above you. It is, what, constellar? The space is resultantly spacey, astro-chic, warmth among the stars.

There is a corridor with more prints, and then a very large room with closed garage doors. The gallery is brick and wood and the piece itself, suspended, is a looping cosmic doodle of bright, white neon. It is a bit like the looping shape that burns into a photo when a person waves a sparkler. With the brick and the wood and the garage doors, the gallery feels like a third wave coffee shop that has neglected to install a counter, a barista. You are ungenerous. The context in which the work was made should render it impressive, if nothing else. The room is so big, it swallows the bigness of the work. Later, in the bookstore, you’ll learn: 100 meters of neon tube! You imagine me swimming four lengths of a pool. You will look at the documentation and wonder: Is it light and dance and monumental, after all?

Next a gallery with Eco quotes on the wall, documentation of the pavilions at the Italian Triennale, FREE TIME translated into a serious, groovy rumpus. A shingled acorn-shaped thing. So very seventies. The Triennale had been organized under the twin protocols of barrage and escapism, you’ll read later. The protocols are familiar to you, to your everyday life, to our everyday lives. You wonder if we are living the so-very-seventies 60s, all over again. Each era, you’ve heard, has a twin in the past and one in the present. What is it we are living now? From where did we inherit this particular churn and addle?

It’s all fine, up until this point. Fine only. You don’t know yet whether or how the Ambienti spaziali will exert their control upon you. You design spaces for a living (a simplification): spaces with programs. And even though you are the spaziali maker, I wonder if my own work is more similar: tightly controlled language to create ambienti reading. It is messier than that, perhaps. You can see. A blonde woman and her partner and their grown son—you hear “Mom”; you hear “Dad”—go on ahead beyond a black curtain dividing the gallery with documentation and the next. The security guard asks you to wait. Narrow spaces. Best to titrate. 

Then it is your turn to enter. All of these, quickly; do not tarry; you careen through them like a pinball, launched!

The first room is lit dim red and carpeted with tan shag, a series of mirrored planes framing each end, and a hilling ramp, a living room and a chandelier and a skate park and an opium den at once. The demand in the low light to traverse both x and y axes is funny and chilling, an unexpected game. The ramp motion has goosed you into a different mood. Is it ambient? Not like the musical genre. Like the definition of the word. Like what is around you, what is on the wall, what is underfoot. An ambiance that requires an inventory of looking and moving. The dim makes you squint a bit. The ambiance controls.

The second room is a black prism volume narrowed to points at beginning and end. A green dotted neon on the wall, rolling sinuous as country hills, prepares the viewer for another ramp, one that will not come. Having just found a ramp where you did not expect it, you want for such a ramp again. Realization of this desire is the punchline of a joke about repetition. Orange, orange who? The neon is the only curve. Bereft and chastened and chuckling, you go onward.

At the doorway to the third, a suited security guard directs you to put on booties over your shoes, as if you will be touring an expensive home or working in a clean room. A sign says: no sharp heels. He shows you: “This is the top of the tunnel.” He asks you not to hit your head. There is dim light again and matte black walls; you fold at the waist and travel upward slightly to neon surged chamber with a soft floor with the tensile give of a stress ball. You are a fly traversing pudding skin. You can laugh aloud here. You can take delight, spread it on your open chest, before crossing its chamber, the size of an apartment kitchen, and declining into another brief tunnel, out.

The next room is gum pink and there are people taking selfies in it for a long time. You stand outside, waiting. While waiting, you think this perhaps is an appreciation of color. The pink of it! The people leave and you can be in the gum color alone. It is the color of gum I chew often to dilute the acid splash in my throat. Watermelon, supposedly. At home you see it post-use, gross and spent, in the bathroom trash. The color here is pre-use, hauntingly the same, but formally divergent: There is an ecstatic squiggle of pink neon suspended above you. You don’t have to be in this room for very long until its own pink sinks in. A type of hypercolor tan. What does it mean to be so inside a color. It is much brighter than the other rooms. You can confuse it for gum but not for a body’s interior. Leave when you think of it.

The final spaziali is several partitioned corridors of wan red neon. Here, too, you must wait. An international tourist in a cropped sweater has her portrait made several times by her boyfriend, who is using a digital SLR with an protrusive lens. You simmer a little. You have been so delighted by the art. This is an unwelcome punctuation; can you use it as a prompt to think otherwise? No. “You can go,” the tourist says finally, as if she is the boss.

When you are in, you are presented with a small cubic white room lit minorly red and partitioned partially by five brief walls: six narrow columns to pass through. You stick to the outer channel, to encounter the tourists over and over as if across grocery aisles. They give you funny looks that are also unfriendly. The sharp clarity cheers you, still shaking from the shag ramp and the soft floor and the dim. When the tourists filter themselves away, you take the libtery to zig up and down the aisles. The light red licks at you a little. There are people behind you, with cameras too, so you let the licks dissolve, and leave. A kind of psychic snowmelt.

Outside, back in the courtyard, the chill is entirely gone. The complex is now coursing with people in floppy hats, with people walking small expensive breed puppies. These are the Angelinos I was cosplaying before, when I ate the sugar snap peas with their red warnings. When my careful Instagram curation of architecture, dogs, midwestern smiles, and weirdo artists gets perforated, it is with ads featuring people who look like this, modeling clothing and housewares I can ill afford.

There are more galleries, but I won’t see more art—the very, very good show was too good and I will be bland looking at anything else. But I want to stay in its orbit for just a few minutes longer, so I walk into the gallery shop before collecting my suitcase from the hostess stand. I swallow twice, and locate in my bag a piece of gum. An everyday body catastrophe has been mostly eclipsed by this intoxication, this last gallery art I’ll see for months and months of the pandemic. I will be lucky, then, to have recorded my experience. This I do not regret. You would’ve found great enjoyment, here. This is the kind of thing you would have liked.

In the gallery shop a customer consults the staff about a 165 dollar candle. It is several orb shapes clustered into a pale cartoon cloud. “What will happen when it begins to melt?” “As long as you’re intelligent about burning it,” the staff reports, “it can still be beautiful.”

image: Amanda Goldblatt