“The first thing you should know,” Scott McRae said before he paused to light his cigarette with an old-fashioned metal Zippo lighter, snapping it closed and extinguishing its flame with a sharp ping, “is that I’m somewhat shy and modest.” He exhaled a screen of smoke and smiled.
I laughed. The man who stripped naked and flopped in paint and rolled on canvases, who was an Internet phenomenon for his willingness to do this in front of cameras, who was, in my opinion, as much an exhibitionist as an artist, was describing himself as shy? Modest? “You’re joking,” I said.
“I’m not.” He extinguished his cigarette after just one drag. I’d never seen anyone do that before. He pressed his hands into a praying position and looked at the floor. “I’m really not. Or I am.”
“Come on. Mr. McRae—”
“Scott. More people have seen your naked body than probably any porn star on the planet.”
He pretended to stare off into the middle distance, pondering. “‘Star on the planet.’ You just gave me the title for my next work.”
“Why are they called ‘porn stars’ anyway?” He dropped his prayer hands and leaned back, staring deep into my eyes. “They’re pretty much anonymous. Guys with massive cocks, women with lovely tits, but can you name one?” His eyes drifted down briefly to my chest. That’s certainly a look I’ve gotten before, and I felt like he was daring me to fold my arms, bullying me into covering up, but I resisted.
Instead I tried for a gesture that opened me up, brushing my hair off my forehead and letting my elbow linger in the air for a few seconds. “Name a porn star? I can’t.”
“No one can. They’re not people. They’re just bodies.”
I checked my recorder to make sure it was running. I’d made that mistake once before, and it’s a mystery why I didn’t switch careers after that. “I want to get back to your shyness and modesty.”
“I’m sorry.” He stood up and unbuttoned his shirt. “I shouldn’t have agreed to this. I can’t talk. I hate to talk. Why the fuck do people want to hear what I have to say anyway?”
“So they can get closer to understanding your genius, I’d imagine.” He threw his shirt to the ground and walked over toward his famous paint tubs, six of them, side-by-side like coffins, each gleaming white despite how often they had been filled with paint. A twenty-by-thirty-foot canvas was stretched on the studio floor. I stood up and followed him, adding, “Average people always want to hear from creators. That’s why I have a job.”
He turned. His smile was gone, utterly gone. A mood was upon him. I thought, this is it: he’s going to get to work. He glowered and said, “I don’t want to talk to them. I want them to hear something deeper.”
“What do you mean?”
He opened up a ten-gallon bucket of yellow, the rich yellow of an egg yolk, and dumped it in the first tub, then did the same with blue in the second tub.
“Are you starting one right now?” I asked.
“I’m done talking.” He wouldn’t even look at me. He opened a red bucket and dumped it in tub number three, then a second bucket of red so that the red tub was twice as full as the others. It reminded me of blood, a murder scene.
“Can I help?” I asked. He said nothing. He crumpled onto the ground and wrenched off his snakeskin cowboy boots. He wore no socks, and I thought the boots must have hurt, but I also wondered if anything hurt Scott McRae, who seemed almost unnaturally tough.
“Do you feel pain?” I thought to ask.
His eyes were smoldering with anger now as he stared at me. He strode over to my recorder and leaned up close to it. “What else is there to feel but pain?” he said, evenly.
“Pleasure?” I suggested.
“If you know so much, why are you asking me questions?”
I stopped. The man was insane. Not the first artist I’d encountered who might be described that way.
He unbuckled his belt. He had one of those stupid, big metal buckles from the seventies. He unzipped his jeans and dropped them to the ground. No underwear. He was two feet from me, naked. This I expected, but not this quickly.
He looked defiant, like I had dared him to do this. I had seen his naked body before on screen: compact, muscular, primitive. His bald head and trimmed beard contributed to his simian look. “I’m starting with red, and I don’t know where I’m going from there. Please don’t talk to me until it’s over. If you do, I’m going to scream and destroy your little recording gadget.”
On the verge of creation, he felt the need to destroy something: not just my recorder, but me. He’d been doing that since I arrived. Suddenly, I was no longer interested in Scott McRae, The Body Painter. I was more drawn to the blank canvas and to the paint-filled tubs than to the naked man in front of me. His body, really, left nothing to the imagination. His words were signs pointing in contrary directions. His eyes were weapons. But that blank canvas and the tubs of paint would soon become the remnant of a fury of human will, and as I pictured what the canvas would look like, I felt myself go slack, and deepen.
He walked toward the red tub. He paused and wheeled on me, and noticing me looking at the canvas, he waved in my periphery. “Don’t talk. Understood?”
He actually wanted me to talk because he had told me not to, so I shrugged.
No more words, Mr. McRae. But try to hear something deeper in my gesture.
D. Quentin Miller is Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston and the author of a bunch of books, articles, and stories. His forthcoming books are Understanding John Edgar Wideman and American Literature in Transition: 1980-1990. He’s working on a cultural memoir of the 1980s.