Chicago, IL. Detective Lubbock, formerly of the City of Chicago Police Department, seated himself at the booth across from Julian. He smiled as he sat, but his smile was more a grimace, the wince of an old man sitting. He sought out the waitress with his eyes. “Coffee, Dear,” he said to her as she came over.
“What was that,” he said, “a few years ago? The artist who poisoned himself.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific than that, Detective.” Julian drank his tea and set the teacup gently back on its saucer with a small clink, watching as the waitress brought over a carafe and filled Detective Lubbock’s mug.
“Right.” The detective wasn’t looking at him, but was shaking the contents of three sugar packets, and then emptying them into his coffee. “This would have been the early eighties,” he said. “Buddy of mine who was working homicide at the time gets a call to an artist’s studio in Uptown, some kind of sculptor. And his studio, his loft, is full of the things, sculptures. Nothing weird, mind you, just regular people standing in regular ways. Nothing more shocking than the manikins you’d see in a store window—which, as my buddy tells it, almost made the whole thing more weird, if that makes any sense, especially as more of the details of the case became revealed.
“But before all that, before he even gets in the door, before he even sees this room full of sculptures that look like manikins or people frozen in the act of being normal, my buddy is met with the sight of one of the patrolmen out front, puking his guts out onto the sidewalk. Okay. This isn’t really all that unfamiliar a sight to see. No matter now many fouled-up murder scenes you go to, how many women or kids or old people you see brutalized, you never really get used to it. I mean, you do. It gets easier, and there’s something horrible about that fact when you think about it, but sometimes one will just hit you, will just take you by complete surprise. And you never know what it’s going to be. And besides, with the shear volume of alcohol consumed by members of the Chicago Pee Dee, it’s not at all uncommon, either, that cops should be grappling with the most earth-shattering hangovers in the first couple hours of their shifts.”
The detective noticed Julian now, smiling faintly, consumed by his narrative. “But I digress,” the detective said. “My buddy asks the patrolman what kind of situation they had on their hands. Don’t know, Detective, he says. Some kind of gas I think. Finney and I were in there two, three minutes tops, and we just started getting fucking sick. Here my buddy looks past the first patrolman, and sees the second, his partner, the aforementioned Finney, sitting on the sidewalk with his back against the building, his legs splayed out before him, white as a sheet, sweaty, eyes glassy like the eyes of a dying fish. Right away, my buddy calls Hazmat. And, after a few hours, once they actually show up, they check the place out and it turns out the air inside the loft is some kind of toxic. We’re talking off the charts. The two patrolmen are lucky to be alive. The artist, meanwhile, naked and pink-fleshed on the floor of his own studio, it appears has died from inhaling the fumes, or gas, or what have you—whatever it is that made the two patrolmen sick. A not unpainful death. An apparent suicide—the only question being whether his suicide was intentional or unintentional. And from my buddy’s perspective it’s a question really of Does it matter either way? But, a suspicious death is a suspicious death, and the facts being obvious or not, it’s my buddy’s job to investigate.”
The detective drank from his coffee, followed one of the waitresses with his eyes. “A few days go by,” he said, “the evidence is processed, the artist’s studio is gone through and cleared out, and so the artist’s things, then, start coming across my buddy’s desk. Of particular interest are these notebooks. Stacks and stacks of notebooks. Most are full of sketches, a couple pages here and there where he’s written out his ideas for some project or other. But there’s one book that stands out right away as different. A thick tablet of graph paper, full of what look like tiny scientific notations. This strikes my buddy as out of the ordinary. It’s probably nothing, but you never know. Maybe this notebook is going to reveal something about the case. So my buddy starts showing it around to some guys. Forensic guys. He takes it to a professor he knows at Roosevelt College. They all tell him that what this book contains is gibberish. Is essentially nonsense. But one of them, the professor, asks him if he can hold onto the book for a little while, for whatever reason. Sure, why not, the case has got no legs, and what is my buddy going to do with this lunatic’s notebook anyway?
“So, my buddy moves on to other things. Other cases. It’s the eighties, and it’s Chicago, Cabrini Green and everything else, so there’s plenty of homicides to go around. A week goes by, ten days or so, and he gets this phone call. The professor has had some time to look at the artist’s notebook, and there’s two things about this book that my friend might find interesting. One, the chemical mixtures that this book describes, would, without doubt, bring about a chemical reaction that would produce some kind of noxious, almost certainly toxic gas. Okay, case closed, thinks my buddy. The artist was fucking around with some shit he shouldn’t have and got himself gassed. But there’s something else, says the professor. Alongside all the chemical and scientific stuff, there’s all these notes, and this may sound weird, the professor says, but as near as I can tell, the artist was working on a chemical compound intended to animate his sculptures. He was trying to bring them to life.”
“Yes,” Julian said. “Alex Loghrim. I am familiar with his work.”
“Alex Loghrim. Right. I’m thinking of him because he was in the news again recently. One of those sculptures sold for something ridiculous.”
“Nearly a million dollars, eight-hundred fifty thousand if I’m not mistaken, to the Museum of Modern Art in Toronto.”
“A million dollars.” The detective snorted at this. At the sum, or the artist, or the museum, most likely at all three. “A million dollars for some nut’s statues.”
“Loghrim’s instability has a storied history, certainly.”
“I’ve seen the sculptures. There doesn’t seem to be anything special to them really.”
“Like manikins, was how your friend put it. Or was that you?”
The detective shrugged.
“The provenance of a work of art influences the price the market will bear, without a doubt. In the case of Loghrim’s work, that provenance, specifically the bizarre circumstances of their creator’s death, may be the greatest influence on the prices that those sculptures have fetched. But this is nothing new. The artist of a status that we have come to call ‘outsider.’ The recluse. The madman. The peculiarly touched. I suppose, at the time of Loghrim’s death, such things were less common. There weren’t, as there are now, whole museums and institutes dedicated to the work of the outsider, or not near as many. Since then, countless articles have been written on the subject, on Loghrim specifically, and on the outsider in general, and I’m not sure there really is anything behind it, the recent rise to prominence of outsider art, other than the fact that, as a species, human beings seem prone to following trends, and where those trends begin, or how, is still something of a mystery to us all. But I have come across one theory that I like, even if I’m not sure to what extent we can call it ‘true.’
“What this theory begins with is the ancient connection between art and the divine. For a long time, as I’m sure you know Detective, art served as a glorification of the divine, or in some cases a direct representation of the divine. The artist was the conduit for a kind of other-than-human experience, that, through said conduit, was made manifest in the realm of the human. The divine becomes captured in the act of seeing, in the act of touching. What is invisible is made visible. What is intangible is made tangible. The work of art is bigger than the creator of the work of art. It is human in the grandest sense. Human with a capital H if you will. But over the years, this sense of the divine began to escape us—or we began to turn our back on it, depending on your perspective—still somehow art remained important. My very existence, Detective, is testament to the importance of art.
“Still, art seems to have lost some of its luster in the absence of the divine—what the philosopher Walter Benjamin has called its aura. Now the artist, even the artist of great genius, produces art that is only ever an expression of his or her own humanity (small h). And though one might find great connection with a work of art, that connection is given quotation marks now. A ‘connection’ which can only ever be ultimately false, since there is nothing bigger than us, there is nothing outside us, so none of us can ever escape the prison of our own subjectivity. What I see and feel when I look at a Van Gogh has more to do with me than with anything the great Vincent may have intended—‘intended’ being another word we have grown weary of and so put quotation marks around.”
Julian took a drink of his tea. The afternoon was growing hot, and he was beginning to sweat where the plastic of his prosthetic met his skin. He dabbed his face with his handkerchief, intercepting a single bead of sweat as it traveled along the crease at the corner of his mouth. “Then we began to discover the work of outsiders, many of them solitary, cut off from society. Many of them mad—some are in fact quite clinically insane. Untrained in any conventional sense. And so there is a tendency to think of them as men and women who, unlike the artist of the university, or the artist who toils a great many years in obscurity with a certain idea in mind, have simply stumbled upon their own great works, as if by accident. Who have created things of beauty without even intending to do so—and there’s that bothersome word again. Intention. The schizophrenic in the Mojave Desert constructing mobiles out of tinfoil and wire hangers, to intercept the transmissions of malevolent alien beings, can this man really be said to be aware that he is creating art? To be driven by any sort of aesthetic sensibility? Certainly, art is not the first thing on his mind. And yet these mobiles are works of absolute beauty.”
He paused here for a moment, stared off into the middle distance as if recalling to his mind’s eye the work of that desert recluse. To the other detective this appeared in every way like an act. Julian smiled, looked at the detective again. “Let me insert here,” he said, “that this way of thinking, this idea of the outsider as unintentional genius, is for the most part publicly dismissed as condescending.”
“Sure,” said the detective. “It wouldn’t be PC. Even the crazies must be treated with respect.”
Julian continued to smile. “Quite right, Detective. And so we come up with increasingly convoluted ways of describing the aesthetic project of the outsider, of giving credit where we feel credit should be due. But just below the surface there is this feeling, and we all share it, this feeling of disconnect. That the art and the artist who made it, somehow do not synch up. And this theory, this theory that I’ve heard tossed about, which I like though I don’t know if it is really ‘true,’ relies on this very assumption. And further, it relies on each of us holding to this very assumption. If we believe that the damaged, or outsider artist, somehow cannot be responsible for his or her own acts of creation, then we are left with a kind of space, Detective, a spiritual or aesthetic or psychological or philosophical space, where an idea like the divine might be allowed to return. I’m not talking about God, necessarily, but some form or type of experience that is bigger than the individual, one that might be experienced on the individual level, but that might potentially be shared by us all. If art can somehow exist outside the artist once again, and by extension outside the viewer, then the artist and viewer both are dwarfed by this other thing, which can only be contained in and mediated through the work of art. Something comes through the work of art that is bigger than all of us. Call it the divine. Call it Human Experience, capital H, capital E. Call it what you want. But in the end, that thing that was lost is potentially regained, or seems at least to no longer be missing.” He took his napkin from his lap and dabbed at the sweat on his face again and set the napkin on the table. “Anyway,” he said. “It’s an intriguing theory.”