The Defeat and Exile of Richard Pickman


“It’s a disgusting habit. Come on, smoke with me.” Richard Pickman offers a cigarette. There are heavy spears of discouraging rain outside, and he lights up in the bar (is it a club? Well, I do not find the distinction meaningful), the infelicitously named The Alterverse, which is a living, coughing testament to what unscrupulous partying might look like to someone who has only ever imagined it. Much like Mr. Pickman himself--I have never met anyone so staggeringly affected. No one else is smoking, and there are laws about this kind of thing, although sometimes in some places scant litigious observance, so I wonder if it’s that kind of place. Or maybe, although these kids all dress like they smoke, none do. I look around. Lightweights, I reason, and take the cigarette.

Richard Pickman, enfant terrible, has taken the art world sturm und drang. His paintings and photographs are called shocking, which I bet he loves to see in print. Pickman’s public identity is a cacophony of rumors--whether this makes him an enigma or a cipher is anyone’s guess, and specifically my assignment. The rumors and stories of Pickman which he did not invent himself have been supplied by his considerable entourage. He never travels alone, always with a rotating honor guard of waifs, strays and artists carefully selected for the subordinate quotient of their talent and fame in comparison to his. “I am a sculptor” someone improbably named Sticky Viva tells me, “Each of my pieces are a tooth on a tribal necklace. A trophy for a foe I’ve killed.” I do not understand. She incorrectly interprets my bemusement as an invitation to explain herself. “Not literally, I mean--something metaphorical, like a fear or anxiety.” Dentists may unclench in relief.

“The Yellow Queen is coming on!” Another informs with what I would deem excessive enthusiasm. (Maybe a little Wonderland shoe in? Something about the Queen coming? Dunno.)

Something called The Yellow Queen, which I can only describe as an adult male lion wearing a prom dress, takes the stage with a guitar. All but Pickman cheer. Strumming like all our lives depend on him (that is, with mild, but at least mobile indifference), The Yellow Queen’s songs are bellicose sighs, aggressive yawns which belie his epicene glamor. His face contorts with passion and melancholy as he belts and brims, and his audience’s feet tap and shoulders sway. Richard Pickman does not dance, he is perfectly still even while moving, like an insect in flight. A girl in a blinding, incomprehensible sequin dress and with a haircut I don’t understand, who had until now sat prone and accessory to him, lunges unto the table like something less than mammalian climbing a staircase. In motorcycle boots, I see.

Richard Pickman sits like a parrot on his perch while she seizes and shivers, dancing I’m told, not to the music, but to a jungle drum only she can hear. She is wearing a pendulous necklace which catches my eye against my better judgement--you know that these things exist, but who is it that is buying them, you wonder? There is an epileptic, strobing effect to the spectacle, The Yellow Queen roaring lyrical about his sexual failures and this girl rhythmically regressing to our unknown evolutionary origins.

One of Richard Pickman’s fans? “It’s kind of you to ask. She is Nikita Volkov”--shit, you don’t say--”and actually I am her biggest fan.” The man smiles without teeth. There are rumblings, which I can now confirm, that profligate Russian mobster (So, overtly he’s an industrialist - I was thinking a media mogul. But it can certainly stand that his fortune is seen with a hairy eye. But as far as this article goes, that would be acknowledged slander.) Grigori Volkov’s plastic daughter was in the belly of the beast, another Richard Pickman ideologue. Pickman’s acolytes, once accepting him as the savior of painting, feel excused from any further study of art. They also feel excused from looking very closely at Pickman himself. His way is not merely the only way, but The Way, the adamantine platonic ideal form. I do not find it necessary to know much about any of his followers, not even Nikita, but am told none the less. “Nikki  is a flower” he says, without much botanical or metaphorical accuracy to my poor eyes. “What she does is inimitable.”

Imitable, Richard, imitable, surely.

Nikita is determined to dance with everyone. “Oh, how very entrancing” Pickman says in spite of himself, and in particular spite of everyone else. Perhaps Nikita most of all. There is a vague, muffled malevolence underpinning every word this man breathes. The word mephitic crosses my mind, as does the condition of our rapidly obsolescing lexicon. I do not truly have any words, contemporary or antique, to describe this carnival which knows far too much about itself, and not enough about anything else. Is it always like this, I wonder aloud.

“Esse quam videri?” Richard Pickman sqwaks in feigned offense. It’s Latin for something. Neither I, nor I suspect Richard Pickman, know exactly what. A man without vitality -- he is in a permanent state of diminishing. He has the body of a bat, all angles and elbows, and the mind of a lizard, knowing but unknowable. Jointed and joyless. Talking of his art, he has a studied shyness, a stuttered monotone which slowly accrues emphasis as he realizes what he’s talking about, perhaps just a few moments before we do. “When you make something, you want it to be important. You want for things to change.” Brecht said that art was not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer to shape it. “No one starts a revolution over a fucking painting.” A tired but surprisingly sonorous Nikkita cuts in. “They start these failed little uprisings because they don’t have enough to eat. And it always regresses to the same tyranny.” She has the dulcet self-assurance of someone who has always had enough to eat, but she has a point. “We are aiming higher” she promises.

“It’s a permanent revolution” Richard Pickman exhales like smoke. I did not need to ask him what the hell he is talking about, he supplies without prompting -- “My fidelity is to longevity, more than any aesthetic principle. What I make has to last. I am disposable. You are disposable. The two-score virgins I am accused by every media outlet of sacrificing to the Dark Mother under every Gibbous moon are most disposable of all.” Is that ire or irony? Does he, like all of us, just want to be remembered after he sheds this mortal coil? “There is an eternity beyond memory, and “I” am not very important in it. But I want to see and record it.”   

What on Earth is he talking about?

“Oh, you. Earth has nothing to do with it.” The more he says, the less I know. He obscures meaning the way a magician hides a rabbit or bird. But is this magician building to a crescendo? Not in this conversation, I will spoil that much for you, but ever? The longer he takes to volt, the higher the bar is raised. And everything is a riddle or a hint or a clue. What must it be like to spend your whole life misdirecting--but if he is diverting our gaze, what does he want us looking away from?

“I will paint and photograph things exactly as I see them.” he waxes sinister, and knowingly, his paintings are all grotesque and macabre. Is this how he sees the rest of us? “Every passer-by is my sitter. It’s all I know how to do, so I hope it’s enough. Maybe your next article will be titled The Defeat and Exile of Richard Pickman.” He is unphased by this, probability notwithstanding, like the descriptive mouth of a comedy/tragedy mask stiffened to horizontal neutrality. After this, he will not provide further insight into his work, probings are met with camp deflections or he is drowned out by the banal chorus of his chirping entourage. In a desperate plea for meaningful content, I confront his most articulate companion, Nikita and her absurd necklace, why she’s forgone opulent privilege for impecunious squalor. There is no answer she could give that would not be read as predictable, and I will not bother you with it.

But what is that shimmering affront to the very concept of egalitarianism hanging around her neck?

Pickman’s ears perk up. In a singular display of assertiveness, he cuts Nikita off “That necklace is a family heirloom. Legend suggests it bestows lycanthropy on the wearer--that is, turns them into a werewolf” he explains, always assuming he is the cleverest man available. “It works about as well as Grigori Volkov’s prick” (Meh.) he laments in that flamboyant monotone, buzzard eyes dead behind those stupid sunglasses. The implication is not what it seems, Pickman believes or pretends to believe, in this imbroglio of occultism--and he hangs out with the blindingly besequined proof of Grigori Volkov’s virility. This is what we are allowed to know about Richard Pickman--stories about him and from him, sometimes both at once, at best half remembered, and at worst fully invented. Everything screened and obscured in thick allusivity to this trove of unknown constituent parts. These smudged gray thumbprints invite questions and then refuse to answer them, except with vagaries and misdirection. Richard Pickman is an adequate draughtsman, but he is too often gesturing when he must grasp, if he wishes to live up to his reputation as the inheritor of modern art.