Light Lines by Geoff Cohen
Thin, light-etched yellowish-orange lines where her eyelids met. Red Rothko squares stamped her eyelids. Bright white light framed Chuck’s goggled face the moment before Jen opened her eyes. She breathed in smoke, ash, particles, and dirt. It hurts to breathe: searing pain.
It was May 25, the start of a new year. The blanket wrapped around her quickly became too much, heat rising, sweat coming. She leaned forward. At her feet, an aerial photograph of Merriwether’s intaglio in all of its fluorescent fury. The ground: cracked concrete and Em’s chalk drawings. Next to the paint can kiln with three small-plugged holes in the lid, stood the almost empty fifth of Crown Royale.
She had spent the night drinking whiskey, watching the vivid orange flames, the three columns of blue steam spraying their way through the holes, followed by candlelight. When the flames died, she lifted the can out of the coals with an iron poker she bought cheap in a second-hand store. Quickly, she plugged the holes. She laid back. The blue and white polyester straps of the old lounge chair pressed into her flesh. Jen chugged from the fifth and closed her eyes to wait for the can kiln to cool.
May 24, 1993. Chuck Merriwether, enfant terrible, painter, my mentor, and my lover was driving us back to Riverside in his old Jeep Grand Cherokee, pulling the trailer full of spray cans, resin cans, and two tanks of propane. We had finished it, the MacArthur project, the Essex axolotl intaglio, the 7,250,000 square feet of Camp Essex Army Airfield covered with fluorescent spray paint, bright neon colors—reds, pinks, oranges, bits of blue and green.
We were flying high down Historic Route 66. Eighty miles an hour, they said at the trial. I was sitting sideways, my feet in his lap. We sang to the mixtape he had slotted, Life Is a Fast Lane. Chuck was joyous as five years of paralysis faded away.
He turned toward me, the one he says freed him. The one who appeared with a homemade portfolio, shiny black duct tape edged with fluorescent orange and pink strips. A gawky white girl from Hemet with sunset-orange hair, a black The Smiths shirt, ripped, tight black jeans, and bright orange Doc Martens, a Basquiat knockoff, a Haring wannabe, who created neon self-portraits as Mona Lisa, as the Girl with a Pearl Earring, as Marilyn Monroe and balloon-curved oil pastel letters and Pokemon-like figures. He told me, “If you are going to succeed as an artist, you will need to push against boundaries, push against the edges of your medium.”
Together, Chuck and I pushed the limits of the mediums, spray painting everything he could find and carry into his studio: pallets, sheet rock, cardboard, plastic sheeting, found objects, mannequins. But he was trapped in a vision of Warhol meets Lee Quiñones and RISK. Nothing felt right. Receiving the MacArthur added that much more pressure.
For my thesis, I wanted to appropriate Southwestern land art and Grady Clay’s landscape defacers to reinvent them as urban. After he said “fuck no,” Chuck and I went on a road trip, heading east. First up, the prehistoric Blythe Intaglios, light tan against the red patinas. Next, we wandered through the gray concrete obelisks and bunkers of Michael Heizer’s City. His Double Negative—a trench in the side of Mormon Mesa—took our breath away. Roden Crater was closed.
We spent a night in a cabin during a storm, watching the lightning strike the four hundred stainless steel rods in Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field. As the lightning flashed and reverberated, I felt the awe etched in Chuck’s face. We tried to get into Star Axis but were not welcomed. I sketched the giant pyramid carved into the mesa from a road south of the structure. On the way to the Spiral Jetty, Chuck stared out the windows. I felt him slowly unwinding, reestablishing himself, reconnecting. When we wandered around and in the four concrete cylinders of Sun Tunnels, he spoke of something large, of earth art, and fluorescent spray paint. When I turned the Jeep north towards Robert Morris’s Johnson Pit #30, Chuck stopped me. “I need to be in my studio.”
“Life is a fast lane, yeah.” Chuck hit a pothole, a large one. He lost control of the Jeep. The trailer twisted and jerked.
We flipped over. The roof scraped the pavement. Sparks flew. We hit the shoulder and rolled. We stopped. Flames followed us. Upside down, Chuck’s head was crushed between the roof and steering wheel. The safety belt pressed against my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I felt heat. Spots and blackness. Trapped, tangled in my safety belt. A voice came out of the darkness, a man’s voice. I saw the flames spread, engulfing the bed of the truck, licking at Chuck’s shirt. A brass-handled knife slid under my safety belt. I fell on the roof. He pulled, carried me. An explosion. Flames shot up from the trailer. Another explosion. The Jeep. The man screamed. He twisted. I felt gravel. Another explosion. He screamed, clawing his back. He faced the fires. Strips of metal, shining silver lines embedded in his back. He fell forward. Voices. Men, firemen, policemen, Bureau of Land Management..
I blacked out.
Any clothes on? Sweatshirt and jeans. The quilt slid away as Jen stood up on unsteady feet. May 25. The start of a new year.
Peter came out and handed her a cup of coffee. “Happy New Year, doll.”
Jen took the clay mug, reddish-blue glaze, tall and deep, not wide. She looked past Peter’s head, past the black hair flecked with gray to Dry Wash Burned, the first in her acclaimed landscape series, hanging on the kitchen wall. Black lines carefully traced the contours of the clearing, the burnt Jeep and trailer, the blackened grass, the scorched rock, the caution tape.
Peter gave Jen a hug, his nose snuggled into her hair. He stepped back and smiled carefully. She returned the smile, smaller, shorter. She noticed the chalk stick figures, pinks, oranges, blues, and greens on the concrete below. “EMILY” in thick lines. Stick landscapes, green trunked trees with pink and orange fronds. Em’s intaglio.
Jen bent down and popped off the kiln lid using a brass and wood-handled Buck knife, a last gasp of smoke, and a can full of half-inch radius sticks of charcoal. She knelt before Em’s drawings, withdrew a charcoal stick, and carefully drew a black line around the work. She printed her daughter’s name, “EM’S INTANGLIO” and “MAY 25.” She stood up, admiring the images, a smile curved across her face.
Born in Seattle, raised in Michigan, educated everywhere, Geoff Cohen seeks true places. With pen and feet, he travels West to East, from South to North. Recently, he spoke with a coyote (Canis Latrans) regarding the spaces in the wall between Arizona and Sonora.