The first painting I ever paid money for I don’t actually own, though it’s hanging in my living room. Let me explain.
A couple of years ago, a painting called “Chicken” caught my eye in a gallery in Sacramento. I’d gone there for a six-week consulting job that erased my money woes, lifted me out of depression, and probably saved my life. Grateful, and wanting to mark the transition, I decided to buy something that would remind me of this moment—a pot or a set of pots, or maybe even a painting. I’d never purchased art before, though this is not to say I didn’t know how. Sure, I owned art: a watercolor of sweet potatoes, an abstract nude done by a college painter friend. My younger brother, out of a conviction that postal workers are bored, puts postage on odd objects to see what the U.S. Postal Service will deliver. A phone receiver. A laminated cricket. I keep them on a shelf, a poor man’s Duchamp and Hirst. But I had never bought art—and who needs to when laminated crickets arrive unexpectedly in the mail? For a long time I considered myself a found object sort of guy. I saw if not treasure, then beauty in rusted metal, slabs of limestone, stones from creekbeds, demolished buildings, the grain of wood, even mold. These were also the kinds of objet d’art I could afford: Rust, mold, and rocks are cheap.
And this is when I met “Chicken”: two fields of color, divided on the diagonal, one side orange, the other black. There’s a chicken, but it’s hard to tell what she’s doing. Two flowers, drawn in orange, dominate the left side; one hangs upside down. Also, across the top are letters. Those were the things I remembered about “Chicken” after I first saw it hanging high on a wall. I didn’t know I was going to buy it, but then I also didn’t know I was going to marry my wife when I first met her. Days after I first saw “Chicken,” I went back to see it, and the gallery owner, a leathered artist named Steve, took it down from the wall and we admired it together. This time I discovered its kinetic lines, the stuttering of the figures and the jumbled colors. I saw that it was more than orange and black, but also white and yellow; now I was able to see the specks of other colors, here a piece of robin’s egg blue, there blood red, peeking from behind the figures, as if the surface of the painting and its order hid, and subdued, a brambling of colors that lay behind. Each finger-wipe of paint, each co-mingled color, I began to see as its own entity. “Chicken” was not a singular painting, a monolithic object, but a confederacy of painterly choices. Each one called out something in me and shook it loose.
I snapped a digital photo of the painting and over the next few weeks slowly fell in love with “Chicken.” After I left Sacramento and returned home, I made the photo my computer desktop. Every time I looked at it, it lodged deeper in my mind. So I decided to buy it. I sent Steve a check and waited for my painting to arrive. Every day I came home from work, I hoped to find the object of my desire, my object, on the porch.
In the days that followed I became besotted with suspicion, locking all the doors, shutting all the windows, making plans to move away.
Days passed. No painting.
I emailed Steve: Where is it? He replied: Soon.
A few more days went by. I twinged with longing. Also regret: What if Steve couldn’t be trusted? I wrote him again. Thursday or Friday, he wrote. I’m sticking it in the mail today.
Monday, and still no painting. I write to Steve, frustrated. Where is it? I demanded. I sent it FedEx, he replied, and he gave me a tracking number. The FedEx site reported that the painting had been delivered already. Today was Monday. According to FedEx, it had come on Friday evening at 7:15.
And last Friday I would have arrived home from work at about the same time that I do every day—7:35. Which could only mean that in that space of 20 minutes the package had been stolen from my front porch. Though my neighborhood had lost its glamour decades before, my suspicion that my house eventually would be broken into had faded long ago. The most danger came from the transients walking from the river north to the day labor sites. I had every reason to feel safe—that is, until my painting was stolen. In the days that followed I became besotted with suspicion, locking all the doors, shutting all the windows, making plans to move away.
And then I closed the picture of “Chicken” on my computer. I couldn’t bear to see what I’d lost forever.
Two days later, while working in my office in the front room of my house, I look up through the windows and see a man, a white man with ratted hair and dirty clothing, walk up my driveway, inspect my house for a split-second, and then swerve away.
That’s the guy who stole my fucking painting.
I bound out of my chair, open the front door, and step out onto the porch and watch the man walk like a leering wink: up on the sidewalk, down onto the street, swerving along cars to peer into their windows, back on the sidewalk. He’s not walking to get somewhere, he’s casing the neighborhood.
Convinced he’s the culprit behind the theft of “Chicken,” I get on my bicycle to track him down and confront him. When I find him I know exactly what I’ll say: You took a box from my porch and I want what was in it. So you have to tell me who bought it from you so I can retrieve it. Or perhaps it’s still sitting in your campout or drainpipe or wherever and I want it back because I know you do not find it meaningful. I will give you $20 and you will give me the painting.
He will be chastened but reasonable, and the $20 is more real than the art, and I will follow him to wherever the painting is and he will hand it over.
It would sew this story up if the guy I followed out of my own paranoia had somehow doubled back to return it. But I doubt that’s what happened.
But it doesn’t happen that way, because I can’t find him. I ride to the end of the block, up the street, down the other way, into the alley: He’s gone. I say hi to a young guy bending over the engine of his truck and ask if he’s seen the man; he hasn’t. I ride. In the alley is a mother with her two sons, picking up litter because she is sick of the mess; the younger son, about eight years old, is holding a bag for her, while the other son, 14 or so, stabs lazily at a faded flyer in the weed with a stick. Perhaps you’ve seen a painting in the weeds? I ask, but no, they haven’t. I ask about the man, and again no, they haven’t seen him. I explain: My painting, it was stolen; this neighborhood, once safe, I no longer trust. It was the first painting I had ever bought, I say. Does she understand? I don’t know. I say I like that she’s picking up trash; I tell the boys my own mother made me do that once, and I thought she was crazy then too, but this is actually an important act of care. I eventually ride home, empty-handed and flat-hearted. I am coming down from the adrenaline rush, and it takes me a while to register that on my porch, leaning against the railing, is a large flat box with a return address in California.
It would sew this story up if the guy I followed out of my own paranoia had somehow doubled back to return it. But I doubt that’s what happened. Instead, I believe that FedEx was not reliable; that on the previous Friday night a delivery person falsified the package’s delivery in order to knock off early. The 20 minutes I spent chasing my bad guy was enough time for FedEx to do the right thing.
As I’m writing this, I’m looking at “Chicken,” which is propped above my desk in the front room of my new house. My pleasure with it comes from rediscovering the artist’s choices. But the feeling that it’s in the right place—here—depends solely on the fact and manner of its arrival.
As Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift, a marvelous book about gift economies, art, and creativity: “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us.” When “Chicken” escaped the gravity of my desire and vanished, it was no longer mine. To me, it lost its status as property.
The “Chicken” I bought was lost; what I sought, I failed to find; what I waited for never arrived. The “Chicken” over my desk is a gift—either a gift of itself or a gift from the universe; I’ll take either.