Charlotte wiped her brow with her junky, paint-covered t-shirt. She just finished hanging a set of four brightly colored canvases. Four out of... a bunch more to go. She checked her watch. A little before eight. At this pace, she’d be in her gallery until way after midnight and, while the opening didn’t start until 4 p.m. tomorrow, she knew she would be suffering a sleepless night.
Charlotte was taking a big risk, one she hoped would pay off, maybe put the tiny population of Earlsboro, Oklahoma on the map. It had been a month since she had covered the front windows of the Little Galleria with brown butcher paper, promising to the other few occupants of historic Main Street that what she was going to create was going to be well worth their time. What she didn’t include in her spiel at her Rotary Club presentation last week was the fact that it was her most inflammatory exhibit yet.
She was excited to bring that kind of fervor to her gallery tomorrow. She had saved up a lot for this particular exhibit, especially since she was bringing NYC performing artist Jason Carlisle to perform his piece untitled #17 (darkness in a black lake).
DING, followed by a loud droning of the cicadas outside. Shit, she had apparently forgotten to lock the front door.
“We’re closed!” She shouted to the front of the gallery.
No reply, although she could hear the shuffling of feet.
She repeated louder, “We’re closed!” and made her way to the front door.
A striking man was standing at the door – striking for all the wrong reasons. Black hair, short black goatee, glasses with yellow lenses and thick black frames, a maroon turtleneck despite the Oklahoma heat. The corners of his mouth started to curl into a smile that was all too familiar.
“Charlotte, it’s been a while,” he said, gaze meeting hers. Charlotte clenched her jaw.
“Well hello to you too. I just was traveling through, thought I’d stop b-”
“Did Anna tell you to come?” Charlotte demanded.
He sighed. “I’m not seeing you swimming in reporters for Artland out here.”
Charlotte crossed her arms and looked at her paint-splattered sneakers. Quentin, for all his faults and their mutual baggage, was one of the best in the business. She felt him put his hand on her shoulder. She jerked it out of his touch.
“Jesus, Charlotte, do you always have to be this difficult?”
Charlotte mulled it over. Should she let him help again? She had chosen Earlsboro to bring the arts to a small community, sure, but right now only lost tourists and locals would ever see it. He could make it more... even with another bad review.
“Yeah, alright, come on,” she said, ignoring his tiny self-satisfied smile as her stomach churned with anxiety. She beckoned with her head for him to follow her into the gallery portion of the studio. He pulled a small journalist’s pad from his breast pocket.
“I’m not done hanging everything,” she said, indicating some of the open spots on the walls. The room was bisected into two by a small wall. The front half of the room had a ceiling to floor black river painted throughout the small space. Unframed paintings of animal and human faces with black backgrounds sat haphazardly in the flow on the wall. She pulled an artist statement card off the wall to hand it to him. He looked at it with a passing curiosity.
“I’m not really interested in what you think your exhibit is about,” he said, putting it back in the wall pocket.
Charlotte made a big production of rolling her eyes. She turned her back on him to walk through the rest of the gallery.
“The exhibit is called Let Them Drink Oil. It's a critique on drilling and its environmental effects,” she gestured at the tortured-looking faces of the animals and people drowning in the “oil” behind her. She heard a click of his ballpoint pen with some scratchy notes being made on his pad.
After she turned a corner of the short wall, the sea of black replaced with a river of psychedelic colors. She could hear his footsteps behind her.
“This is all the stuff I’m not done hanging yet,” she said. “By the end of the exhibit, I’m making hopeful aspirations about the future of energy. This is done by mimicking some of the pop art styles of the 1960s to channel youthful and radical optimism.”
Silence, then she heard another few scratches of his ballpoint pen.
“The last piece is the live art component which Jason will be performing on the exhibit’s opening and closing dates. “Have you seen it? I have a tape of it lying around here somewhere.”
“No need, I remember when I saw it at MoMA,” he said, looking down at his pad.
Charlotte shoved her hands in her pockets and rocked on from her heels to her toes. “Are we all done here? I’ve still got a few hours to hang all these canvases,” she said, indicating a stack of canvases with prints of solar panels and wind turbines.
Looking up from his notes, he said, “Yeah. Feel free to get back to work, I’ll be going through some of these.” She gave him a short nod, returning to the stack.
When she saw that his back was turned to her, she saw him fumbling with the artist statement cards in the wall pocket. She smirked and returned to the brightly colored canvases that she had left to hang.
Thirty minutes passed. An hour. Charlotte had gotten back into the zone of hanging her paintings and realized she didn’t hear Quintin depart. She poked her head back around the wall to see him examining a painting of a distinctive red soda can pouring out a black viscous liquid, scribbling.
Charlotte approached him quietly. In their years knowing each other, especially when they were together in New York, she had never experienced such a distinctive interest in her work. She softened slightly.
“Opening night is tomorrow,” she said from beside him. He startled a little bit then looked back at her.
“I can’t stay for it.”
Charlotte knew that would be the answer. They turned back to the painting.
Opening night went off without a hitch – it was mostly the residents of Earlsboro and a couple of her art professor friends from a nearby community college, but the turnout was decent.
After that, there was a steady uptick in attendance, and she knew the article must have dropped. She met people from Oklahoma City, Tulsa and even as far as Dallas who had come to see it. She even sold one of the wind turbine paintings to a guy in Ardmore who had just had a couple installed on his acreage.
Charlotte didn’t pick up a copy of Artland after the review was published. She felt ashamed to admit it, but she didn’t know if she could handle another one of his reviews.
Anna showed up and stayed the weekend. She didn’t bring up Quentin’s visit and neither did Charlotte.
And before Charlotte knew it, it was closing night. She darkened the gallery and drove home to her empty 1901 farmhouse. She threw the keys in her tray and grabbed a leftover piece of pizza from the fridge. As she sat down at the table in the kitchen, she found a torn-out piece of a magazine, along with a fluorescent pink sticky note that had a heart drawn on it. Anna.
Charlotte detached the sticky note and put it on the fridge, preparing to read the piece. It was only half a page, with a small (and ancient) headshot of herself and a picture of the black sea in the gallery pulled from the exhibit’s press kit. She began to read and promised to herself she wouldn’t stop until she had completed it.
A Review of “Let Them Drink Oil” by Charlotte Larson
Written by Quentin Butcher-Rottman
Little Galleria, Earlsboro, Oklahoma, July 11, 2019-November 17, 2019
There’s no shying away from what Larson, an experienced 20-year veteran of acrylics and canvas, is trying to do here. Let Them Drink Oil harkens back to the days of her former exhibits like 2016’s ElectHer and even her break-out exhibit Screaming Tree in 1999. People that have had their eye on her work since the beginning know already that her in-your-face political messaging has a tendency to get preachy, especially when the metaphor isn’t so much “subtext” but “text.” The surface-level reading of the exhibit is straightforward: oil is bad, renewable energy is good, the end. But is there a deeper meaning at play here?
In the past, I had wondered in this very magazine what kind of purpose Larson’s (and others’) overtly political art has in our modern artistic landscape. Is this just another effect of where postmodern discourse has landed us, people yelling into empty rooms? Some may use tweets, some may use acrylic, but is overall the end goal the same?
It took until coming across the piece “Self-Portrait (drowning)” in Let Them Drink Oil to change my mind. Amidst all the screaming animals and humans in the oil river on the walls, I found Larson’s skilled self-portrait.
Our need to transition away from oil to a more environmentally sustainable energy is definitely the surface-level reading of the exhibit, but Larson’s twisted and agonized portrayal of the self carries a different tone. Its inclusion among the anonymous crowd is what has me thinking about this exhibit differently. In my purview, this piece calls up the quiet desperation we all keep in our hearts. The natural expression of despair of living under the yoke of our fragile, ego-driven exterior personas. Hell of a lot to say just using a self-portrait.
The end of the exhibit, a modern take on 1960s pop art, has a companion piece to the first “Self-Portrait,” this one called “Self-Portrait (flying).” In it, Larson’s view of the self isn’t the soaring visage of someone when we think of flight. But just the point-of-view shot of looking at her feet in a couple of paint covered Chuck Taylors, hovering a few feet off the ground. It’s that type of flying that’s optimistic without being fully free.
Sometimes the loudest art, the art that screams to be seen, isn’t really what an exhibit is about. Tucked in the exhibit is a moment of daring vulnerability, begging people to look past the statement and loud colors, to find what the exhibit really is about. And when you’ve finally seen that core truth, you have to share it with other people.
Charlotte read it through twice before she crumpled it up and threw it in the recycling bin. With damp eyes and a weary heart, she climbed into bed. And for the first time in a long time, sleep didn’t elude her.