B.S. Lewis presents: Immersive

Published on 20 May 2024 at 14:11

They say that really good art sucks you in. I really hoped, especially in this case, that it wasn’t true.

 

I know you don’t know what I’m talking about. Let me start again.

 

Over the years, whether it was on field trips with my school or vacations with my family, I had visited a lot of museums. Half of my life seemed to be spent in them.

 

There was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, even the small Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art in Elmhurst. No matter the size or subject, I found myself there, oftentimes with my family in tow.

 

My mom always said she loved looking at artwork, all the colors and methods and pretty pictures. My dad always responded to this the same way, telling her that she was missing the point of it all. Art wasn’t about looking pretty or neat. Art was about action; it was about meaning. Art wasn’t the actual artwork, it was what the artwork made you feel. I never understood what he meant by that. At least I never did until today.

 

Last month we had moved to a small town in the midwest. We were always moving around for mom’s work. She was a surgical assistant and was always getting contracts for work in other states. This latest three month assignment brought us to Illinois.

 

I never minded the moving around too much. I never had a lot of friends and I didn’t own very much. I also really enjoyed seeing new things and going new places, so this lifestyle seemed to fit me just fine. Still…this latest place, though? Even I thought it was a little bit weird and small. But hey, I guess people need surgery everywhere, right?

 

So we took our usual week or two to settle in. We got our furniture in place and our clothes hung up in closets or transferred from being folded in suitcases and boxes to being folded up in dressers. We learned where the grocery store, the hardware shop and the dry cleaners was. My dad found where the best local bar was. All that was left to do now that my mom was started in her new position, was to find the next museum and start learning. About our town, about history, war, Cubism, it didn’t matter. It was just our thing. We were tourists in every town we lived in.

 

Just after 4pm, when my mother’s shift ended and she drove her rented red Ford Taurus home, we heard her honking in the driveway. One long blast, three short ones, then another long one. That was her special signal, it meant that we should come out to the car, ready for an excursion. My dad and I shared a smile and raced to get our shoes on, knowing whoever got to the car first was riding shotgun.

 

We were soon piled into the car and on our way. Mom drove us down a super twisty and winding road, one I had never been down before. There were gnarled trees lining the roadway. The branches reaching out to grab at our car; the way that the crooked fingers on grandma’s hands moved when they were driven mad by the need to pinch your cheeks. Finally, we arrived.

 

The museum she pulled up to was a large square building. Old brick, faded but not cracked. Dual blue-and-white striped awnings gave the front of the building a suspicious, squinting face. A worn wooden sign was nailed to the center of the building, right where the forehead on the face would be. The sign read:

 

Caution: Fresh Paint

 

There was a small shadow left behind from the little letter “T” that had fallen from the sign a long time ago.

 

“Isn’t that a creative name? It’s an art gallery for paintings, but the sign looks like a caution sign. Every month they feature a new artist. A fresh artist, get it? Get it?” Repeated elbows into my dads side made him admit that yes, he got it. Once that was settled we locked up the car behind us with an audible click and made our way inside, through the door between the angry awning eyebrows.

 

**********

 

The entryway was heavily decorated. There were flyers and advertisements for upcoming exhibits and passing shows through town. All of the ads were bright and colorful and fun, but they were all mashed together until it was all a mess that was hard to look at. I let out a sigh of relief when we were through and it approaching the front desk of the lobby.

 

The woman standing behind the tall desk was old. Not just old, but ancient. Her grey hair was pulled back into a brutally tight bun. Her skin was pale and thin, pulled extra taut by the force of her hairdo. This all made her smile appear skeletal instead of friendly when she smiled and said hello. After asking my parents about their day and how they had heard about the new exhibit, the lady skeleton turned her attention on me and she winked.

 

“I hope you like the paintings,” she said in a warm and conspiratorial tone. “Some people think they can be a little scary.”

 

I told her that I wasn’t scared of anything. When she handed me my ticket for the exhibit, I asked her if she knew that the T had fallen off the sign. She gave me another smile that made her look more Halloween than human.

 

“Sure do. But I think it still find it fitting.” My parents were already a few steps ahead and talking, so they didn’t hear the quiet cackle that the lady broke into. I didn’t hear her stop, it just eventually faded away once we got deeper into the building.

 

**********

 

We walked through a heavy set of double doors and into the first room. The room was colder, dropping a few degrees as soon as you stepped into the room. It was like turning the corner at the grocery store and ending up in the refrigerated section. It wasn’t cold enough for a jacket, but it was cold enough to break out in goosebumps.

 

There were a number of paintings on the wall, each a piece from a different exhibit in the past. There were long landscapes and sunsets painted over green hills and valleys. There were tall paintings, which looked old and featured brick houses and stern faces. There were some framed features that seemed to contain very little at all, just some drips and drops or a red line or two. I never understood that abstract stuff. I walked a few feet and found one that was more my style. It was framed in thick gold, the edges warped and arabesque.

 

It was a picture of a clown. Giant round white face, bright ruby red lips that puckered up and gave you an evil grin. It’s eyes were painted in a special way. I didn’t understand how, but they were painted so that they followed you when you moved. I liked it. I wouldn’t put it in my room, that’s for sure, but I liked it.

 

I studied it a little bit closer. It had a small propeller hat sitting upon its monstrous head. The propeller blades were painted in bright color, alternating between blue and white. They matched the awnings outside.

 

“Find something you like there, kiddo?

 

I jumped with surprise when my mom spoke over my shoulder. I guess I was lost in concentration. I turned and saw my mom smiling at me like a cat who found a mouse. She loved it when we liked her little surprises, so I could tell that she was gonna be all over me once I admitted I liked a single painting in the place.

 

“Yeah,” I said causally, shrugging my shoulders to show that I didn’t like it that much, “this one’s okay I guess.” My mom smiled but then frowned in surprise.

 

“Hmmph,” she said, “not your usual favorite. There’s no ghouls or goblins or blood or stuff like that. Could it be that my little man is growing up and getting good taste?”

 

I didn’t know what she was talking about, she usually hates clowns. And this one did have a little bit of blood dribbling from the side of its mouth. I figured maybe she was looking at the wrong one. When I turned, however, I gasped.

 

The painting had changed.

 

It wasn’t a clown anymore. The face was still white and round, the lips were still ruby red. There was a smear of red in the corner of the mouth too. But the smear was lipstick, a shade matching the rest of the lips. The pale face was a Geisha, not a clown. There was a black bun sitting atop the head instead of a propellor hat. There was a pair of chopsticks stuck through it, one white and one blue. They also matched the awnings.

 

“What the -” I turned back to my mom, ready to tell her about the change, but she was already walking away. She heard my dad clear his throat and decided he must like what he was looking at. She pounced on him like a cat. “Found one you like too, huh? What is it? The colors? The technique? The subject or time in history? What is it? What?”

 

The wide-eyed trapped look on my dads face told me that I could save it for the car ride home. I shouted to my mom that I was going to wander around on my own. Once she nodded it was okay, I slipped away until I found a corner and then disappeared around it.

 

**********

 

Once I was around the bend, I was far enough away from my mom’s chatter to think about how the painting had changed. I couldn’t explain it. I knew for sure what I had seen. It made no sense. Maybe it was one of those holographic pictures? The kind that change when you stand at different angles. Then again, I knew I had seen the clown at different angles already, remembering the way that it’s glinting eyes followed you. I shuddered but then shook my head to clear it of these thoughts. I couldn’t explain it, so there was no use in worrying about it.

 

I craned my neck to look up to read the bold name of the painting now in front of me. The title was engraved on a 2x4 nailed into the wall and it looked like it was etched into it with a wood burning tool. The title of the piece was Trafficked.

 

I flicked my eyes over the details of the busy painting. It seemed to depict a traffic jam in a busy city. Cars clogged every inch of road and the sky overhead was a deep blue with thin lines of white clouds. It matched the awning outside.

 

There were so many shapes and models and types of car that it was hard to focus on any one spot, so I started to read the artist placard that was mounted to the wall beneath it.

 

Wayne Freeway, 2020

Trafficked

Acrilic on canvas

 

I glanced up as a small beam of light broke in from somewhere and called my attention to a small section of road on the left side of the painting. It was what appeared to be a clown car.

 

Mix of soft body acrylics and fluid.

 

The clown car was small and bright red. It looked a bit like our Ford Taurus, except that it was covered sporadically by round spots of yellow, dotting the car like a leopard. The car seemed as if it had rear-ended a school bus and that was the cause of the traffic backup.

 

Canvas is a mix of polyvinyl chloride and hemp.

 

There is a clown standing in front of the car. It looks like he is having a conversation with the bus driver. The bus driver is holding out his hand and grabbing something from the clown. It looks like they are probably exchanging insurance information.

 

Dedicated to the memory of the artists son, Duke (1993-1998)

 

I looked closer at the painting. My first glance of the painting had been wrong. There wasn’t just one clown in front of the car, there were three. And between the tires of the school bus you could see a couple pairs of long, banana-shaped shoes, which were bright red and probably squeaked when you took a step. It was like there were clowns hidden on the other side of the bus too. Like they were standing on the other side of it and looking into the windows of the bus. They were probably just checking on the kids. Make sure no one was hurt in the accident.

 

This work is meant to be a statement on patience, time management and anger.

 

Now that I understood what the piece was supposed to mean, I decided to look at it with fresh and informed eyes.

 

I saw now that the back doors of the small clown car were open and there was a multitude of comically dressed men spilling out of the back. More clowns were coming out of it than should have been able to fit inside. Some were tall and some were short. Some were round and some were thin. One of them was sporting huge muscles bulging out of a striped shirt that had its sleeves torn off.

 

I looked up at the school bus and realized that there was more to see. A pair of legs, thin, childlike, were upside down and sticking up over a seat near the far windows. The clowns weren’t checking on the kids. No, they were taking them! Pulling them right out of the windows.

 

Finally, my eyes were pulled back to the exchange with the driver. It wasn’t insurance information that the clown was handing over to the bus driver. It was a pile of hundred dollar bills. And the bus driver was smiling.

 

Just before I suppressed a yelp and decided to run back to my parents, I saw something sticking out of the trunk of the clown car. It was a tiny arm, crushed and covered in red splotches. It was holding a report card clutched in its small fist. The name written above a column of Ds and Fs…was Duke.

 

I ran as fast as I could back to where I had left my parents. The sound of my shoes squeaking across the polished tile floor made it sound as if a million small painted clowns had leapt from the wall and were chasing me, hot at my heels, little red shoes squeaking after me.

 

**********

 

I returned to the exhibit I had left my parents in. I didn’t see them. I ran down the hall and whipped myself around the other corner. I still didn’t see them. I ran back and forth. I thought about asking the front desk lady if she had seen them but, remembering her cackle and smile, decided not to and kept searching on my own. This place wasn’t that big. I should be able to find them.

 

I ran past an exhibit featuring a series of painted aquariums. In the middle picture, one particular fish tank is dirty and fogged up, red mist clouding the surface of the water. I didn’t think it was algae. Floating in the water all alone in that tank was a clownfish. It had one white eye and one red. It matched the awnings outside.

 

I opened one set of double doors after another. I passed a painting made with brush and watercolor on a blueprint grid. It was painted with red, bright red, blue, dark blue, chocolate brown, sandy tan, and white fluids. This one was a painting of a courtroom that was silently awaiting a verdict. The judge looked stern. The plaintiff looked anxious. A single clown sat amongst eleven regular folks in the jury box. The jury all hung their heads, avoiding eye contact. All except for the clown, whose eyes followed you when you ran. He was pantomiming cutting a throat with his clenched fist and a thumb.

 

I ran til my lungs burned.

I ran til my my legs ached.

I ran til my face paled.

I ran til my nose and cheeks were bright red with the exertion.

 

I circled until I ended up back in that first room, the one where I had first left my parents behind. Another beam of light seemed to burst in from a high above window. The spotlight illuminated particles of dust swirling through the air, dragging my attention down its illuminated length and to a series of paintings on the wall.

 

In the middle, between tall paintings of brick buildings and long paintings of landscapes, hung an oval frame. It was thick gold, the edges warped and arabesque. It was a smiling clown. Tight red lips pulled back to reveal wet yellow teeth. The gums were caked with odd flecks of flesh colored gunk. The smile was so large that it distorted the face. The sheer size of the smile forced the eyes to turn to thin slit that all but disappeared from view. Above the smile there was very little that could take your attention away from those teeth and that dripping tongue. There was a perfectly round nose, red and shining. There was a propellor hat that hung lazily to the side. It’s propellors were white and blue. They matched something that I could no longer remember.

 

The clown was clutching something in its meaty ivory hand. It held three strings, which hung limply from its fist until it reached the edge of the golden frame. From there, the strings spilled forth from the painting, spooling out like thread snagged from your favorite sweater by a sharp corner you didn’t see coming. The strings fell, separated, and then climbed again, each attaching itself to a separate frame hung above the smiling clown.

 

The first string attached to a square black frame with gilded edges. Featured within it was a only a small cardboard box, its flaps folded shut and heavily taped. A crimson pool formed beneath the bottom, causing the lower half of the cardboard box to warp and bloat. A gift tag was plastered to the side of the package. It had my name on it.

 

My wide, frightened eyes flew to the second string. It was attached to something jutting out of the back of an overturned body. The body was wearing the same shirt that I had on. I screamed and looked at the object stabbed into the kid in the painting. Into me. I thought it was a blade at first, but I was mistaken. It was a letter ’T’.

 

The room spun. My head swirled and I felt sick. Yet I couldn’t stop my eyes from drifting to the third string, the third picture. It was a thick silver frame. It wasn’t just framed, no, it was barred. Straight silver poles decorated the front of the canvas, turning the painting from an artwork to a prison cell. Inside the cell, mouths twisted up in frozen cries of terror and their curled lips painted bright red, were my parents. Beneath their acrylic prison, a placard. It listed no materials or colors or influences. It contained only one word:

 

Run.

 

Before I could try, the lights shut off. I heard a familiar cackling behind me. In front of me, two glowing red eyes opened. And, although I couldn’t see it, I knew that a smiling mouth was opening wider.

 

END

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Comments

Leah
2 months ago

scary! i hate clowns lol

Gina
2 months ago

creepy

Benji
2 months ago

Hate clowns lol

Roy
2 months ago

awesome. reminded me of goosebumps

Mike M.
2 months ago

it was great. unlike everyone else, I like clowns! haha

Mike
a month ago

so good! gave me early RL stein vibes

Rebecca
24 days ago

I’d still hang it in my house