The Image of a Storm Cloud

The following is a fictionalized account of the opening of Jon Rafman's You Are Standing in an Open Field, which was on view from Sept 12 - Oct 26, 2013 at Zach Feuer Gallery in New York. 

"Zach Feuer's on 22nd Street," said Thor. He looked up from his iPhone and pointed downtown.

"That sounds right," said Zoe. "A really even number. I can picture it on their website." Zoe nodded and then coughed.

I shrugged and joined them—Thor, Zoe, and my girlfriend Ann. Thor leaned over his phone.

Thor was a tall man, handsome with thick eyebrows. At twenty-two, he was a decade younger than me. Zoe, meanwhile, had sparkly eyes. I think she was Ann's age, twenty-eight. "I haven't seen anything new by Jon in a long time," she said. "I don't even know what this is going to be like."

"I haven't seen anything, either," said Ann. "It should be good, though; Jon's really good." I looked over to Ann. Where Zoe's eyes were sparkly, Ann's eyes were windows. She smiled at me. That was nice. It helped propel me forward, into the surge of eccentric old rich people and hipsters that negotiated their way in our direction up 10th avenue. Thor ran his finger down his phone.

I peeked over to see what he was doing. Thunder rippled in the distance. I thought maybe he was looking at the Facebook page for the Jon Rafman opening we were all walking to or maybe at Google Maps for Zach Feuer Gallery's address, but he wasn't; all I saw was the image of a dark storm cloud on a weather app.

Drips. Raindrops. I looked up. It wouldn't rain tonight, I thought; it wouldn't rain on all of these rich people.

I looked around to see if anyone else noticed the raindrops.

But no one seemed to; Thor was nodding at his phone with a half-smile while Ann was busy making Zoe laugh about boys they knew from the internet. "Oh my God, I love Brian Droitcour so much," said Ann. We caught each other's eyes. I tried to funnel psychic energy through the middle of my forehead—from my "third eye"—to Ann. In the middle of my trying to do this, I bumped into a man with a manicured beard. "I'm so sorry," I said, speaking into his beard. I could see that its black color was dyed. We tried to get out of each other's way. There was cigarette smoke billowing out from his nostrils and beard. "It's fine," he said through his beard. Once he passed, I coughed. I reached down for my phone. I felt like I had to touch my phone. I did it even though I knew that it was still just as dead as it had been when I'd checked one hour earlier. I couldn't help myself, I wanted to touch the frame, just do something, just hold my phone, just do something. I clasped it, flipped it around a few times in my pocket. One second later, I pulled it out and tried to turn it on. When that didn't happen, I looked at my reflection in the blank screen.

There I was: a prematurely bald man with splotchy skin and a somewhat off-putting gaze. In the background of my reflection, I saw red clouds spread out like a torso behind the angled buildings of the neighborhood.

A strong breeze rolled up 10th Avenue. A couple more rain drops fell. It wasn't going to rain that night. Or maybe just a little bit. Not much, I thought. The force of the breeze increased, blowing something to my shoe. I looked down. It was a newspaper. Someone had circled a picture of the Empire State Building in red. Looking up, I saw this girl Monica.

Monica...I couldn't tell if Monica was an artist or just an artsy person that hung around at the same sort of things that I went to. I had once asked her to contribute to something I was organizing on the internet—it was all writing. I liked when people wrote. Monica told me that she wanted to write something about how capitalism and technological progress had unequivocally won in their struggle against the natural environment. She wanted to write about how there was now nothing to do to stop the Earth's ecology from rapidly winding down and all life on "Gaia"—her term—from perishing. I agreed in spirit, but worried that she might not be able to make a strong argument. It didn't matter; she never ended up sending me anything. I watched Monica pass me by and then I turned back, but I didn't see Ann, Zoe, and Thor. Oh no, I realized, there they were. They had turned onto 22nd street, angling toward Zach Feuer.

I caught up to them and we walked through a crowd of smokers who were standing outside of the gallery's storefront windows. I recognized Janet, a curator that I liked.

"Hey, Jan-Jan, how's it going?" said Ann. "What've you been up to tonight?"

"Annie Poo!" said Janet. "It's gooooooooood, how are you guys? Where you coming from?"

"Lonely Ladies," said Thor, referring to the show we'd just been to, Lonely Girl. The show was all young female artists whose work is their internet personas. Thor made an over-the-top frown-y face and Janet reciprocated with an even more frown-y face.

She recomposed herself and said, "Oh yeah, I wanted to see that…I think. What was it like inside? I couldn't tell what it actually was."

"Ya know, said Zoe. "Art. Paintings. Sculptures. It was okay."

"Wait, I thought it was internet stuff."

"No, I don't know, that part was confusing. There was one computer, I think. I liked it, I think. I liked this one piece that was a drippy mop. It's nice that it was all women."

"But, yeah, the way he's presenting the women. I don't know, it just—whatever."

More raindrops. We all looked to the clouds—they were a deeper shade of red—vermillion.

"Well," said Ann, "if it ends up raining as hard as I think it will tonight, Lonely Girl is going to need that drippy mop—those floors are going to get filthy!"

I laughed a dumb laugh at that. Hearing the sound of it, I made a serious face. "How's Jon's show?" I asked, changing the subject.

"I don't know," said Janet. "I haven't really had a chance to see it honestly, I'll have to come back another day. There are too many people in there."

I looked in through the windows. There were indeed a lot of people. Maybe two hundred. More? I don't know. I can't tell numbers. The crowd was a mixture of young people, many dressed in athletic gear with a techno-future style, and older art world people in designer glasses. I noticed large vinyl letters on the wall—JON RAFMAN: YOU ARE STANDING IN AN OPEN FIELD. I scratched some stubble on my face. Good for Jon, I thought; he'd gotten off of the internet. Me, not so much. A few years before, there was a moment where I was writing about artists, including Jon, that made work about internet culture and I was getting some attention from the art world. If I would have capitalized on that, I could have gone somewhere, spoken on panel discussions, stuff like that, I don't know. But instead my work became more hermetic and I haven't really recovered my footing. GENE MCHUGH: YOU ARE STANDING UNSURE OF YOURSELF.

"Alright, I wanna go inside and see what the deal is," I announced. Ann, Zoe, and Thor nodded.

When I opened the door, a low rumbling noise caught my attention. I looked ahead to see if I could tell what it was, but the pathway to the main gallery was bottle-necked with small groups of people greeting each other and looking at their phones. I pushed my way through, past DVD sales racks, each of which displayed brightly-colored DVD cases. This was one of Jon's pieces—not the individual DVDs, but the whole installation of display racks. Some people were asking their friends whether or not you were supposed to take one of the DVDs, as, like, a thank you for coming to the opening.

I walked into the main gallery—a huge open space. I'd forgotten how big Zach Feuer was. Without walls to break up the room, the visual sweep of the place, along with the din of several hundred voices echoing twenty, thirty feet above the work, took on a collective buzz. The work—sculptures, videos, prints, and wall reliefs—all seemed inspired by video games and the apocalypse. One of the centerpieces was a long row of body pillows with anime-style drawings of naked Asian women in sexually explicit poses. I knew what these pillows were —they were a real product in Japan for people too shy to interact socially. They function as surrogates for real bodies. Near those were these three busts that looked like human beings morphed into digital abstractions, characters, I imagined, from an artsy, sci-fi video game.  The color of each of the busts was too intense for nature; it could only have come from a lab . And past those was the other centerpiece of the room, a hyper-kinetic video. The video had extremely poppy, violent imagery, much of which was also in an anime style.  Taken together, these references and themes infected the physical space of the gallery with a virtualized feel, as if it was a three-dimensional video game space. Perhaps, I thought, the objective of this game was to accrue more and more professional and social capital in order to advance to the next level of your art career. Okay, here's my first chance: a curator wearing a leather jacket that I'd always wanted to meet was wandering around by herself, reading the press release. If I went up and talked to her and made a good impression, I would have gotten ten points. If she thought that I was awkward, I'd lose ten. By doing nothing, I'd just lose one point. She seemed like she was pretty deep in thought; I wasn't going to bother her. So minus one point. I can deal with that.

Where's the bar, I thought. I looked around the room. Ann, Zoe, and Thor were each talking to other people, getting those points. I walked over to the other side of the room. There was a crowd there, maybe that's where the bar was. Before I got there, I saw this piece that I liked a lot—it was a sculpture of a laptop that had been coated over with green reptilian skin as though the skin was a spreading organic growth. It was uncanny. Once a year or so, I have a nightmare about alligators. I think of them as a distilled form of evil or something. I read St. Augustine on evil in high school. When I was a senior, I spent an entire Computer Literacy class searching "st augustine evil." I found pictures of alligator claws.

I heard a low, rumbling noise in the gallery.

I spotted the bar, but before I could reach it, I ran into my friends Josh and Dan. "Hey, guys," I said. I already knew them pretty well, but maybe I could still get a few points.

"Hey," they replied. Dan was tall; Josh was average size with a wispy blonde beard. They wore shirts with the top button buttoned—Dan's shirt was colorful; Josh's was gray. Their eyes darted around.

"Hey," I said, "Which piece makes that low, rumbling noise?" They didn't know what I was talking about, which must have meant that I was confused about having heard any noise like that. And they would know—while Jon made his videos and came up with the ideas for the sculptures, it was Josh and Dan who fabricated them into actual objects. Hardly anyone knew, but they were completely integral to the show.

"Everything looks really great," I told them. "I especially liked that computer that's covered with reptile skin." Their eyes brightened and they nodded to me.

"Yeah," said Dan, grinning, "It has a really weird feeling." I looked over at the sculpture again and turned back to him, nodding in conspiratorial agreement.

"It's nature overwhelming technology," I said. I grinned an intentionally evil grin.

Josh scanned the room. "You know, I'm actually really happy with how it all turned out in the end. I have to say. It's a good turn out, too, which is nice. For Jon."

I followed Josh's eye. People were packed near the front. Through the storefront windows I could see that it was dark outside and I tried to remember if it had been dark when we arrived. I looked closer. There was a red tint to the darkness.

"What are you guys doing after this?" I asked.

"I think we're going to that bar in the East Village with everyone else," said Dan.

"Yeah, that's where we're going, too," I said. "Wait, why is it in the East Village?" A flash from someone's phone caught the corner of my eye, sort of stinging it.

Before they could answer, a woman in a wife beater and tilted baseball cap came up to Josh and Dan. She told them that everything looked great and that the turnout was really great. I kind of wanted to leave and go home with Ann. I was tired of trying to get more points. But Ann was busy. She was talking to this couple that I vaguely knew. The couple was older and their faces were wrinkly.

Jon Rafman walked by me. He was talking to an important looking person, maybe a collector. He acknowledged me with a wave, which was nice of him, and then stopped and we chatted a little bit. Twenty points, at least. The points popped up with a colorful on-screen graphic—glistening gold. He introduced to me to the collector (it might not have been a collector) and Jon told him that he still quotes this one thing I had written about his work a long time ago. It was about his series Brand New Paint Job. I had said something about how…never mind, it's kind of complicated and not worth going into. The point is, every time I see Jon he tells me about how he still quotes this one thing from several years ago. It's nice of him. I just wish I had something else going on in my life worth talking about. We joked around a little bit and he said goodbye to me with a good-natured bro-hug.

As soon as he went away, I noticed that the lights in the gallery were too bright. It had been nice to talk to Jon, but after he left I felt like I didn't have any points. I wanted to unbutton my shirt, but decided not to. I saw this artist named Claudia that I had hung out with a few times. She was in a hurry; she shot past me and disappeared into a crowd. I thought of texting her and telling her to come and find me because I was bored. But, of course, my phone…If I would have just had my phone I could have been communicating with people and getting points, but I wasn't. I was just losing more and more points.

Someone took a picture of their friend. After the flash, the friend asked to see the picture. When she saw it, she said, "Oh my God, it looks like my skin is falling apart!" There were a bunch of other flashes, bright white ones, from outside the gallery.

Zoe came up to me and said, "What's up, dude?"

"Nothing, homey, what up with you?" I heard that rumbling sound again. I asked Zoe if she knew which piece that rumbling sound was coming from. She shrugged. I asked her if she knew what she was doing after and she said she was feeling sick and, plus, with the weather, and we both looked outside. I tried to spot Ann; I wanted to see if Ann wanted to leave with Zoe. But Ann was still in conversation with the wrinkly couple. Everyone in their triad looked very still. I wondered what time it was.

"Do you want to get a beer?" I asked.

"Yeah, alright…." We went over and waited in line at the bar area. Once I had a beer in my hand, I cracked it open and guzzled back a bunch of it. My cheeks tingled. I looked at the reptile-skin sculpture again. The monitor displayed video from a first person shooter video game. I swallowed a bunch more beer and noticed that I had already had about half of it.

I clinked cans with Zoe and then finished mine in a few more big gulps, burping a little. Zoe said she thought she was just going to go home because she felt sick. I said I understood and hugged her goodbye. Then I went to get another beer. "Oh, hello," I said. I saw Thor. We started saying "Hello" to each other in these low, very slow voices and then we continued to talk about the sculptures and Jon's work in these same low voices. When my voice was at its lowest and slowest, I said, "The turnout's really good, don't you think?"

Jerry Saltz, the critic, walked by. A hundred points easy. No, I realized, it wasn't Jerry Saltz. Zero points. Two points. I didn't know. Negative points. I looked at my phone. Sweat was caked on the screen. I looked up to Thor and asked him if he thought that art collectors would be into this show and he said maybe. Ann came over. "Do you want to leave?" she asked. "I'm ambivalent about going to this after party. I'm kind of exhausted." She looked over to Thor. "What are you thinking?" You wanna go to this thing? I never heard of the place, though. And the East Village is so far, but, still, I don't know, it might be fun."

"Yeah, I'll go," said Thor and I said the same thing.

"Alright I'm going to find Zoe," said Ann. I was going to tell Ann that Zoe had left because she was sick, but, before I could say anything, I saw that Jasmine, an artist that had a really big following on the internet, was drenched. The gallery door slammed behind her and a gust of wind made a woosh. Ann turned back and saw me staring at Jasmine. I looked outside. It was pouring rain—Jasmine had just come from out there. The door swung open again; a few more drenched people dashed inside. They clearly didn't know what show this was. One of them—a girl too wet for me to be able to tell what she looked like—stomped over to the reception desk and grabbed a press release to dry her hair and glasses. The rest of us who had already been in the show were watching, mildly shocked, as the drenched people said, "It just started, one second it wasn't there and then it was there…" We all looked out the window. There were insane amounts of rain. Everyone clutched their phones, glanced at their phones. More drenched people, including Zoe, rushed inside. Their umbrellas were broken; a crack of thunder literally made us all jolt.

I wanted to move around a little bit. A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead. I went back into the show, guzzling down a bunch more beer. Some people in the gallery were looking out front, trying to tell how bad the storm was going to get and comparing their guesses with other people. I looked over to the laptop—the one covered in reptile skin. Just below it, a wet puppy was shivering. The puppy didn't have a leash. I looked around, but it wasn't clear that its owner was nearby. I put my hand in my pocket and touched my phone. I had this idea I wanted to take a picture of the puppy. It looked kind of funny, all wet and shivering. It was suffering. It wasn't funny—the puppy wasn't funny—but maybe it was funny that I had taken the picture? Was it funny to do very mildly evil things? It didn't matter. My phone was dead.

The puppy ran over to Ann. Ann crouched down and said, "Hi, Mr. Friendly! Hi! Don't you smell like a wet dog?? Yes, you do!" I walked over to Ann and the dog and heard someone ask, "Did this gallery suffer damage during Hurricane Sandy?" Another person asked, "Will I need a a better umbrella if I'm going to stay in New York?" 

Because the rain was coming down so hard, I thought that it would finish quickly. That's what I told Ann and she said, "Don't jinx it. Besides, you don't know. This seems like it might keep going." Ann was smarter than I was and she knew a lot about the weather. I thought maybe she was right. I stepped in a little puddle of water and walked back into the crowd near the entrance. Thor said something about a spiral in the Empire State Building, but I must have misheard that.

"I'm gonna get us a cab," said Thor, pressing things on the screen of his iPhone. "I have this one app that calls cabs…well, it calls town cars, actually. Uber." Everyone thought it was a good idea to use Uber.

"Yeah," I said, "let's just go to the after party."

Thor shook his head and made a clicking noise. "Shit," he said. "The network is down." He looked up at us. "It says the Uber network is down right now." He checked with some other people who were also trying to use Uber and the consensus was that the storm had definitely shut down the network. It wasn't clear if this was because there were so many people trying to use the app at once or if the weather had disrupted the service more directly. I rubbed a hole in a fogged-over window and saw raindrops pelting through ambient street light. More people rushed in and I found myself stepping out through the door and, oh my God, the sensation of passing from a controlled gallery environment to raw, blistering nature made my heart skip and I took a series of deep, watery breaths. A moment before, I had had this compulsion to go outside and try to find a cab, so I just did it. I didn't want to have to rely on the internet to get us a cab; I wanted to go out into the real street and really find one in the real, natural world. It just seemed like something I had to do or I would feel weird all night. And so I did it, I went out. I couldn't see anything; just flickers of light and broken tree branches on the street. Eventually my eyes adjusted and I saw 10th Avenue. I ran in its direction and the rain hurt my face. I saw a cab turning onto 22nd Street, but it wasn't available. None of these cabs would be available, I realized. What was I even doing out there? But, wait, there was another one…that…yes, it was stopping. Yes, its availability light went on. Oh, man, I'm going to get this cab, I thought. I'm really going to get it. And then I'll pick up my friends and they'll be thankful. I ran up to the cab through the rain as children in Transformers t-shirts scurried by me, chittering beneath an enormous blue and white umbrella. I was within twenty feet of this cab. I started to trot. It would feel good to be inside. I imagined the moment when the door would shut and I'd encounter total warm dryness and the comforting blue and yellow light of Taxi TV that would play off the raindrops streaming down the window. I imagined how money would start accumulating and how progress would be happening and how I would have done it all on my own. I waved my arms at the cab. The guy must have seen me. Just a few more feet…The cab's availability light shut off. Oh no, wait…what? The cab drove away. Before it completely passed by, I looked in. It was the wrinkly couple. How did they get in there? Well, it didn't matter; the cab was gone. Rain was streaming into my face and mouth and I swallowed it like I was guzzling beer. I told myself to be Zen about this and just walk at a normal pace and not let the extremity of the situation affect my demeanor, just, if anything, I told myself, enjoy this experience for what it was rather than freaking out. I tried to funnel anxiety through the middle of my forehead. I started feeling very cold, though, and I shivered and my body wasn't allowing me to be Zen about everything. I started to jog back to the gallery and I tripped a little bit on the sidewalk. I looked up and saw Ann, Zoe, and Thor getting into a black town car. Ann was yelling, "Genie, come on!! Get in!!" I ran up, opened the back door, and hopped in. I looked around and they were all gawking at me, thinking it was funny how utterly soaked I was. Ann said that this was the town car from Uber. She said that even though it didn't look like Uber was working, the request had been put through and Thor had just gotten a text from the driver that he was out front. It had all happened just after I left the gallery. I nodded, not knowing what to say, and told the driver, "East Village."

Gene McHugh is a writer based in Brooklyn.