Defacement, by Stuart Snelson
artwork by Kirsty Greenwood

He was unaccustomed to being separated from his reflection. After the accident, all he wanted to do was look in the mirror. Often, patients had no desire to see themselves post operation. He was not like most patients. Tucked rigidly beneath clean sheets, he contemplated the alteration of his appearance.

As an artist, he worked exclusively in the field of self-portraiture. Peers mocked such dogged diligence, and he would grudgingly concede it was an anachronistic pursuit. Throughout his working life, he had painted a self-portrait almost every day. As he recovered, he was made anxious by unsettled momentum, by his failure to maintain the one regulatory aspect in his life. From such harsh self-examination, he extracted a living.

Through cinema, through television, he was accustomed to watching the aftermath of accident. He had witnessed countless wards of made-up patients – maligned, supine – go through the same methodical anxieties. Routinely shunning mirrors, they refused to look at themselves, before, finally, dramatic disclosures, unravelled exposures. He, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to see what had occurred, was itching to commit to canvas whatever devastation had been wrought upon his face.

In the hospital: an absence of mirrors. Presumably, staff felt it unwise for the sick to see themselves, contemplation of their ashen counterparts counterproductive to the healing process. Hapless vampires, they shuffled, bloodless and unreflected.

Unmirrored, he sought reflection elsewhere: the convex offering of the back of a spoon and, at a distance, the dusty surface of the unwatched television. In both he saw vague summations of what had occurred: a peak of plaster, cresting centrally, gleaming white amidst bruised skin.

Upon returning home, he immediately made his way to his studio for an afternoon of stark contemplation. His nose plastered, he anxiously awaited the grand unveiling. More than once he had been tempted to tear the bandage off, to reveal what lay beneath. His fingernails' tentative investigations, scratching the edges, were met by the admonitory slaps of his girlfriend. Alone in his studio he summoned thoughts of her, and refrained from revelation. In silence he looked upon his face, the bandaged nose, the bruised and scratched skin. He angled a mirror and dutifully recorded what he saw. He was nothing if not loyal to his reflection.

In his first completed work since leaving hospital, he was unrecognisable from previous portraits. Beside each other, the last painting before the incident and the first upon release seemed to portray different people. A story lay in between them. It was not much of a story and certainly not one destined to illicit sympathy. His injuries had been self-inflicted; the blame remaining squarely with himself. Drunkenly, returning from the bar with a round of drinks, he had taken a tumble. Hurtled earthward his concerns lay with the drink’s plight rather than his own, and he had failed to let go of the glasses. His face absorbed this decision; his nose splayed accordingly. Confused, bleeding profusely, he had enquired simply, before losing consciousness: how are the drinks?

Alcohol had been the instigator of previous incident, a slapdash mishap that had left him with a broken arm. His drawing hand cast encased, he became frustrated. With determination, he taught his underused left to form recognisable lines. The results were very different portraits, impressionistic through inexactitude. Somehow, he had managed to turn inconvenience to his advantage, an ambidexterity arising from his predicament. From his latest situation, he sought similar recompense. Each day, before the mirror, he charted his face’s change, its slow recuperation.

With defacement came a complete recalibration of his art. Previously, aided by a magnifying glass, he had spent hours searching for flaws, for signs of the aging process, the slow march to death. He often searched in vain. Post-accident such considerations intensified. Imperfections became the heart of his paintings.

In portrait terms, only having eyes for himself, it was with difficulty that he countered accusations of narcissism. It wasn’t that he was unwilling to turn his gaze elsewhere, rather that his self-obsession was due to an inability to capture the character of others, their essence. He, not the sitter, was dissatisfied with the outcome. They were lifeless likenesses, photorealistic but dead on the canvas. Only by focusing on himself could he achieve what he wanted. Thus, he became his own muse.

Ill-advisedly, towards the beginning of their relationship, he had painted his girlfriend. It had not been an entirely successful venture. Used to seeking out signs of his own advancing years, he turned this critical gaze upon her. She had not anticipated such brutal honesty, such unflattering scrutiny. Is this how you see me? she had asked, between sobs. All hopes of unabashed flattery dashed, it seemed to her more cruel caricature than accurate depiction. In portraiture, as in life, he discovered, honesty was rarely the best policy.

*

He soon amassed stacked canvases of his stricken image. He was monitored by his own recent past. In his studio, mirrors covered surfaces not serviced by portraits. Everywhere he looked, he saw himself. Whenever anyone else entered his studio, it felt like a gross act of trespass, their reflected figure floating between his army of simulacra. For this reason, he kept visitors to a minimum.

He was loath to calculate the percentage of his life spent staring into his own eyes, at his own weary reflection. Over the years, he had bought dozens of mirrors, collected and experimented with all varieties, convex and concave, all manner of contortions and distortions. He would paint himself as he appeared, would include the mirror's defects, his speckled reflection. He had accumulated several lifetimes' worth of bad luck through smashing mirrors; but as luck would have it, he was not of a superstitious bent. He would render what lay fragmented in their shattered remains, conjuring bric-a-brac Braques, his face fractured, turning in on itself. Such cubist enthusiasms were a youthful folly. He had moved beyond that now, had settled into his routine: the dutifully recorded daily portrait.

*

He worked furiously to capture his recovery in oil, knowing he would only have one opportunity to depict himself in this fashion. He could have taken photographs, of course, but he had always felt an inherent dishonesty in working from them, an instantly apparent inauthenticity. At portrait exhibitions, he would pride himself on being able to separate those who worked from life from those who studied photographs. To him, something was always lost through the intermediary medium. Nothing, for him, could transgress the raw honesty of the mirror. Such engagement lacked the fixity of digital images, the constant changes of light unfolding in real time, life reflected.

Before long, he found himself with enough work to exhibit, and found his dealer keen to capitalise on this marked departure. Piecing together the exhibition, he considered his accident a liberation rather than a setback. Through trauma had come revitalisation. He had begun to doubt his commitment to the self-portrait, had questioned his facility for such perverse perseverance. How did other artists maintain lifelong aesthetics, whimsical decisions made in youth and obstinately carried through to senility?

His exhibition hung in strict chronology. In the gallery, standing centrally, he turned slowly, observing the paintings sequentially. The first paintings were certainly the finest he had painted. But as he recovered, as his face healed, his work became less convincing, less committed. After the opening, left alone in the gallery, the convivial bluster having moved elsewhere, he contemplated his work in reverse. Considered anti-clockwise he saw his appearance degenerate, bruise slowly, abrasions appearing until he was once more covered in plaster. Rubbing both hands upon his restructured nose, he felt an odd nostalgic twinge.

With the exhibition, he felt he had silenced the few critics who paid attention to his work. Those who doubted his commitment to his art saw in this show an authenticity he had previously lacked. For the first time in his career, one gets the impression he has suffered for his art. This was the line, from a review, that stuck with him. It had been a struggle to find, responses having been largely favourable, lurking as it was deep in a scroll of google searches. Naively navigated, cyberspace proved itself a vortex of negativity, split second confirmation of insecurities for those who sought them. The line in question he had enlarged and mounted on his studio wall. He bristled every time he saw it.

*

As the bruising had healed, he found himself reacquainted with anonymity. Whilst his partner cheered his recovery, as mirrors began to reflect a familiar featureless face, he became despondent. Returning to normal, he found himself a less engaging subject.

His aim, up to this point, had been to record the aging process over the course of a lifetime. It had become, in a sense, a mechanical process, his daily portrait a part of a larger project that would only be fully appreciated after many years. He knew that his greatest exhibition would be staged after his death, a posthumous retrospective that would function as a time-lapse truncation of his life. The exhibition after his accident had acted as a manner of time travel, life's ravages drastically condensed. It had made him question whether he had the requisite patience to watch his face's slow transformation, to record that which was only apparent by comparison, the elongation of features, the sag and droop of his skin, the creases and wrinkles, the radial grooves of crow's feet, the hairs mysteriously sprouting from unlikely apertures. It felt now more like scientific observation than artistic endeavour. He wished to foreshorten the gap and, was greedily eager to see what the future would inflict upon him.

He realised, looking back, that his best work had always been when he looked relatively dishevelled: the more haggard and distressed, the more revealing the portrait. His attempts to cultivate such states – drinking excessively, staying up all night – had a twofold effect: they summoned suitably strained faces, but simultaneously rendered him incapable of capturing them. He called an end to his obsessive ablutions, his bathroom emptied of unnecessary unguents, a vanished vanity. In unkemptness, he found freedom. He took up smoking once more, tried to apply a tobacco patina to his features. Haphazardly hacked by his own hand, his hair became an unbalanced focus, the jagged fringe of the unhinged. Stubble struggled into straggled formations. Incrementally, he hastened his own deterioration.

He began to improvise, to introduce elements of incident, to adorn his canvases with that which wasn’t there. Observing damaged fruit, he tried to blend their blemishes on canvas with his own skin; but his bruised apple cheeks failed to convince. Sidelined online by the extreme physical differences of others, a single phenomenon could entrance him for hours. Laboriously, he studied the cauliflowering of sportsmen’s ears, the transformation of an organ into something else entirely, perverse organic forms, otherworldly protuberances, the eruptions of stalled volcanoes.

Unable to sleep since the incident, he took to haunting hospitals. Amidst the nocturnal chaos of the accident and emergency ward, he slipped unnoticed. Sunk in a plastic bucket seat, he became a self-appointed artist in residence. Sitting patiently, he watched unfortunates clutch bloodied rags to gushing wounds, attempts to stem the flow from newly acquired apertures. As they struggled, he would sketch discreetly, a war artist documenting the casualties of urban warfare, battles staged whilst others slept, the glum, pummelled faces of pub-crawl brawlers.

From here, he was drawn to the work of Henry Tonks, the delicate pastel studies of soldiers returning home from the frontline, their traumatised faces, the disasters of war etched into their skin. He experienced an unsettling fascination with the missing jaw lines, the absence of external features, images captured before life changing reconstructive surgery. Turning to technology, he digitally manipulated photographs of himself, aimed to see what he would look like when similarly afflicted. His face a tabula rasa, he incorporated the wounds of others. But it felt disrespectful to the source to appropriate their afflictions in the name of art, to execute battlefield disfigurements upon himself in the comfort of his own studio.

Unconvinced by his own incorporations, he engaged the services of a make-up artist. Through deft brushwork, she inflicted injury for the stage and small screen. Whilst her work was exemplary, his reproductions of her transformations fell short of his desired intention. Skilfully, and with great patience, she created her illusions, but for him they remained just that: illusions. He felt an inherent hollowness in his disguise, his paintings of his painted face; there was no depth to his imperfections, they existed as mere veneer.

*

Busy filling sketchbooks with disfigurements, he failed to notice his relationship disintegrating. By the time he realised that the occasional text was not enough, his partner had already made her decision. Accosting him at his studio, she accused him of self-centredness. It was hard, he realised at the time, to deny such accusations whilst stood in a room surrounded by painted visions of himself. Looked on by his mirror image from all angles, his meekly mounted defence quickly floundered. She ventured that his fall, apart from altering him physically, had had unseen repercussions, that a darkness had come over him. Her pleading unheeded, emergency ward expeditions aside, he failed to visit the doctor. He himself hadn’t noticed any such changes, presumed it was all in her head.

*

With his partner gone, he began to consider more drastic options. His efforts towards physical adjustment, thus far, had felt artificial. Tentatively he began to experiment, to take a role in his own deterioration. Using blunt objects, he took to self-administered blows, endured black eyes with increased frequency. But there seemed to be a limit to the damage one could inflict upon oneself, the body unwilling to engage in its own destruction. Or maybe that was just him. Besides, the after effects lacked the spontaneity, the random dispatch of actual violence, the badly aimed blows of after hours brawls.

After a lifetime spent trying to avoid violence, he found himself going out of his way to insult and provoke. In pubs, drunk, he would nettle hair-trigger regulars, wrench clenchings from resistant fists, attempt to direct their unleashed fury in his direction. Absorbing punches, he offered no defence. This perturbed attackers. His immediate submissiveness, what looked like the voluntary offer of his jaw, threw them off guard. Unchallenged the slaphappy seemed unwilling to cause too much damage. He wore all too briefly the results of minor scuffles.

Soon his studio was lined with ruddy, bloodied, mugshots, his beatings' fleeting spoils captured in oil: contusions, broken skin, chipped teeth. This was the trade off, his altered appearance a cheap price to pay for authenticity: his face became the malleable clay from which his work was formed. The uglier he became, the more beautiful the paintings, at least in his eyes. His gallery begged to differ. Increasingly concerned about his new direction, his dealer doubted that his clients wanted crime scene portraits haunting their homes. The artist's bruised, bloodied face would unsettle feng shui alignments. But he was painting for posterity now, not his patrons.

His sojourns on the emergency wards had initiated darker desires; he wished to experiment with some minor, superficial scarring. Naturally, he was of too lily-livered a disposition to do himself any real harm. Whilst he craved the results, such self-administered actions lay beyond him. For the best part of a day, he sat staring into the mirror with a knife in his hand, committed to inflicting some interesting scar upon himself. As night fell, he remained unengraved. Squeamishness prevented him from exacting anything of any permanence. For this, he would require outside help, the unkindness of strangers.

Through an acquaintance of some disrepute, he made arrangements for someone to attack him. He didn't wish to know the time or place, hadn’t specified the details, just that it should involve some manner of facial disfigurement. Through his go-between, he had let his attacker know the two main addresses he spent his days scuttling between: his flat, and his studio. Anticipating interception, his walks between the two became unexpectedly exhilarating. Looking over his shoulder he would walk, each echoing footstep and every slowing car heralding the possibility of attack, a routine commute given a frisson of danger. He made bait of himself, lingered in unsavoury locations, took lonely detours down deserted alleys, chose paths devoid of witnesses. Could he make it any easier for his assailant?

Time moved on and nothing happened. Had this man taken his money and reneged on his part of the deal? Given the specifics there seemed little scope for a refund. He envisaged an afternoon explaining to bemused police that he had paid a man to disfigure him, but that he had failed to keep his part of the bargain: so, you want us to arrest a man for not attacking you?

He had almost given up hope, when his attacker appeared as if from nowhere. Beset from behind he was shunted head first into an alley. Within seconds, his vision was obscured as his attacker fitted something snugly over his head. His breathing was constricted. Thus muffled he could just make out the sound of smashed glass. He passed out as the first shard pierced his skin.

*

Upon waking, to the whir and concern of the emergency ward, he was unsure how long he had been unconscious. He heard voices but could not yet make out shapes. It felt like his entire face was swaddled in bandages. In a daze, he considered the sight that would greet him, the wounds inflicted, the work it would inspire. He tried to open his eyes, but something felt wrong. Stirring, he tried to move, shook off the reassuring hand that had been placed upon his arm.


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