A Matter of Perspective

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It's strange driving through the front gate. Usually I'd be breaking into a place like this.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not some starving artist, reduced to copping showers and Zs in empty Palisades vacation homes by night, hawking watercolors on Rodeo Drive by day. I have my own place up in Arleta—well, not all my own, but my roommate's a security guard who works the graveyard shift at Universal Studios, so we hardly ever cross paths. My teaching and occasional gallery sale cover the rent just fine. I'm no Kehinde Wiley, Damien Hirst, or Jeff Koons, but I'm not starving.

My habit of breaking and entering has never had much to do with money, not directly. I'm looking for something, you see. Something that was taken from me way back when I was still using a fake ID to sidle my way into smoke-stained dives down around south Silverlake and Koreatown. No gallery represented me then; I lived and worked in a rat-infested nightmare of a co-op in West Hollywood with a number of other young bums, burritoing myself in paint-stained drop cloths to sleep, emerging in the morning—or, more often, mid-afternoon—as a sort of kaleidoscopic, aborted butterfly. Between painting and partying, I daydreamed of becoming the next Mark Bradford, a classic rags-to-riches local boy hero. I don't kid myself nowadays, but the good thing about being an artist is that obscurity is no more of a death sentence than death itself.

Poor as I was back then, it wasn't real poor. It was an elective, almost glamorous poor—la vie bohème, they used to call it, but with a lot more Molly. Never crossed the line with needles, but if you could drop it or pop it, I did. I had this idea that it made me paint better, being whacked out of my gourd, but the truth was I couldn't stand to be alone with my thoughts for more than thirty seconds. Girls, boys, endless nights, pulsating skin and heat, living off instant ramen for a week just to afford a tube of that real cadmium red that smeared like butter and tinted like blood—it overwhelmed, a trip always on the cusp of going bad. Life was great until it was awful, a churning slush of Naples yellow and scarlet lake, quinacridone violet and pthalo blue, steeping my brain in turpentine and heavy metals until I shook like a leaf and sweated it all out, ready to chase the next high.

I had this friend named Sid in those days. "Friend" is perhaps not the right word; I didn't know his last name, but we'd crossed paths enough times in dim lounges and warehouse raves that I eventually had him up to my little corner of the co-op during daylight hours, where we passed a spliff and he surveyed my work.

"This interlude here," he said, gesturing to a heavily reworked section reminiscent of a leering face. "Very Basquiat."

"Derivative?" I murmured nervously.

"No!" he assured me, waving the spliff through the air like a censer to banish the hateful word. "Not at all. Entirely new. A brilliant evolution."

I glowed at the praise. Some seventeen or eighteen times a day, I, like most artists, seesawed between thinking myself the second coming of Arshile Gorky and despairing that I was a talentless hack. Sid's words had briefly reassured me of my genius.

We chatted for what I remember being most of an afternoon, the light filtering through the grimy windows growing yellow, then orange, then red before snuffing like a spent candle. I admitted that I'd painted most of my work in an altered state of mind—hardly innovative, as anyone who lived through the 60s would tell you—but Sid seemed genuinely interested. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a little plastic bag of chalky blue pills.

"New, from my supplier," he said, shaking one out. He handed it to me and I pinched it between thumb and forefinger, squinting like a jeweler checking for flaws. God was I affected.

"What is it?" I finally asked. "DMT? Like blue elephant?"

"No, it doesn't really have a name yet," he said. "Limited batch. Came through London, but it's outta China originally I heard. It's supposedly indescribable."

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