Standing amidst the guests at the art gallery, I felt criminal.
Everyone had received an invitation – a 4 x 6 inch color postcard featuring my painting, Black Dress. Ordinarily this is considered an honor, but there was a slight problem. The painting hanging on the wall was an imposter.
Is it technically a forgery for an artist to copy one of their own paintings? I’m not talking about a slight variation, a modest shift in the course of a series kind of thing, but rather an exact duplicate made for the purpose of deception. That’s exactly what I had done, only a few weeks earlier.
“You’ve got one new message,” the answering machine announced brightly. “Congratulations! Your painting, Black Dress, has been chosen by the Prestige Gallery to be included in our annual group exhibition. Furthermore, we’ve chosen to use the image on the formal invitation. Please call at your earliest convenience,” etcetera, etcetera.
Rewind that message. For a few seconds I was euphoric, and then panic struck. The painting in question was gone, as in SOLD.
It wasn’t all that irresponsible to have sent in Black Dress along with the other slides. Submitting samples of your work, for a fee, in the hope of being selected for exhibition, is the art world equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. Statistically, a painter is more likely to become president or contract leprosy than get into a show. It did cross my mind a miracle could occur, and in that event I would simply paint a replacement. How arrogant.
Now that the unexpected had occurred, my lack of skill in the forgery department presented itself as a significant obstacle. I considered my options. Honesty was definitely out. No way was I about to admit the chosen painting was unavailable, or that maybe they could have it on loan with a Not For Sale sticker attached. A commercial gallery would never go for that. Nor did I consider asking if they’d take another in its place. No. This opportunity was too important to be risked in any way. I went back to the idea of forgery.
Black Dress, and its owner, resided in the vicinity. I went over to see Katrina, a successful businesswoman, art collector, and friend. Sitting on her front steps, she listened patiently as I blurted out my predicament, an amused look on her face the entire time. My request must have sounded a bit crazy.
“So let me get this straight,” she said. “You want to borrow my painting back and make a copy of it. Is that right?”
“That’s all there is to it. Simple.” I felt guilty of a crime.
“Then you’ll ship it off to the other side of the country, correct?”
“Correct.” Confirmation of that fact seemed important to her.
After sashaying into the house, Katrina emerged with the painting slung from her palm by the hanging wire. “Just make sure you give me back the original and not the twin, okay?”
She actually thought I could pull it off.
In the studio, I stared at Black Dress and the blank canvas beside it. Fear set in. If I had a formula for painting, which I don’t, it would be one that involved experimentation and embracing the unknown. “Get in there and make a mess,” I’ve told my students regularly. “Take risks!” This was often followed up by, “Working yourself out of a jam is an opportunity for something wonderful to happen!”
Ordinarily good advice, this clearly did not apply to forgery, surely a more exact science. I found myself in brand new territory.
The first logical step called for gridding off the original painting using a sheet of heavy plastic and a Sharpie marker. Then I laid out a corresponding grid, this time using paint, directly on the blank canvas. One square inch at a time, I transferred information, bit by bit, mark by mark, color by color. Despite my initial anxiety about the process, a feeling of peace came over me. Forced to work slowly, carefully, and methodically, painting began to feel like a meditation instead of the usual jitterbug. Each action had a clear sense of purpose, every stroke predetermined, the colors scripted. No big brushes. No smearing with rags. No random drips.
Black Dress was but one in a series of what I called my dress paintings, and as I worked, my mind wandered back to the first piece, created in the throes of grad school. Locked away in our studios, every one of us desperately struggled to come up with something new, something worthy of defending in the coming critique.
Never intended as subject matter, that first dress was simply my outfit for the evening. Vintage, with lace at the collar, it hung against a large white canvas that leaned against the wall. Its presence intensified, almost as if another person shared the space, a figure implied in thread and cloth. I couldn’t stop looking at it, so I painted its portrait.
After that, the contents of my closet came into the studio regularly; a series had been born. Rules were set. All the paintings had to be life size and only of garments I’d actually wear. Zippers became a motif, as well as seams, hems, darts. See-through material best revealed the architecture of the garment and allowed translucent layering of both paint and pattern. More than once I cut out a lining to make it so.
Black Dress and its twin, perfect examples of sheerness, had pink and yellow roses floating in front of dark backdrops. The blossoms collided, overlapped, their color more intense or muted depending on location and layer. Ribbon ties at the waist dripped down and twisted, becoming thick and then thin, at times disappearing. I noticed these details as if for the first time.
Two days passed. When the grid no longer served a purpose, I let it disappear, melt and sink into the paint. With a deadline looming, I worked late into the night. Stepping outside the studio and peering through the window into the lit studio, I couldn’t tell which was which.
There was only one more task to accomplish and I signed the twin at the bottom, setting it apart from the unsigned original.
At the Prestige Gallery, I drank wine and celebrated my illicit success. Black Dress won “Best in Show” and a thousand dollar prize. Now that the statute of limitations has kicked in, I freely admit my crime. The twins reside in different houses, not quite identical, but close.