My friend Petunia is a cubist and paints large canvases of fractured figures that often have two things in common: a cigarette and a conspicuous triangle of pubic hair. Her studio is housed in an old munitions factory in East London. A crepuscular pile of almost Dickensian darkness, when in residence I like to relate tales of little boys' fingerprints worn off from the toil, and consumptive waifs coughing their last and dying in the courtyard. The ceiling still boasts rusted machinery, cogs and wheels of titanic proportion we frequently try to account for: "This widgety bit poured the rum directly into your mouth and then this piniony part pulled the tooth right out!"
The white walls of the studio are employed as an unerasable chalkboard and are covered in a frenzy of notes: "flamingos vs. egrets/gay football league/march reflections," and "all girl (x) red/yellow (x)," and "hair/palm similarities @ the beach." Paint is mixed in everything from Frisbees to aluminum loaf pans, sticky Winsor and Newton short/flat/bright-fine hog bristles stuck into soup cans and stolen shot glasses of linseed oil.
Although the walls look more like the blackboard of a maths class, more John Nash than an artist's studio, I maintain that Petunia is not so much a mathematician as she is a butcher. Her white apron is splattered with the fleshy tones and flashy hair colors of the women she rends apart. She cuts them up before they are ever put together.
I know the piece that will make her name. It will make her famous one day. An enormous canvas entitled Orgy, it is Pet's family portrait.
Petunia is the only child of an Irish mother and an Ethiopian father. Her dad died before she was born. I've memorized his photograph - his wet brown eyes, his young mustache, his glossy marcel - a black and white picture that lives unframed on Petunia's nightstand.
It has sometimes struck me that I must know him as well as Petunia. I've absorbed the poignancy of the way the photo sits against other bedside objects. To cover it in glass, to make a permanent home for it would deprive Pet of the casual, everyday love most children get to feel for their parents. Petunia has the same eyes as the photograph, only thrice as large, but she waxes the mustache bi-weekly. And regardless of its point on the ever-jagged style graph ("x = in; y = out") she never pomades her wild and face-framing Afro.
On the left of this painting, the background a dusty chartreuse, is the ruddy complexioned head of a white woman. On the right is the glowing skin of a black man. As always in Pet's world, one ear is large and the other is small and facing in another direction. Pet's universe is populated with people not made up of arms and legs, but of half moons and isosceleses. In the middle of the field the pale figure of the left and the melanous frame of the right overlap. Where they do there are two dun and disparate eyes and a mass of hair impossible to discern as the pubic bristles of one or the other or the head of the third. But the most remarkable feature of what is decidedly her first masterpiece is anatomy usually neglected in her work: the bright white and exuberant smile of a toddler-sized Petunia.