Abigail Teller

Death of the Subject


The day I found out my grandmother was dying, she was already sleeping in a wrong bed. Most beds were wrong for her. My parents' guest bed was ideal, because it meant she was visiting me, and her own marriage bed was acceptable, when I was visiting her. But all other beds were wrong. They were too far away from me. This new bed was the most wrong of all. It was a hospice bed.

I had experienced a similar displacement only months earlier with my grandfather. When I saw him two days after learning of his condition, it was at his funeral. While my immediate family had suffered through back-to-back rounds of excruciating diagnoses, treatments, and goodbyes, the only part of my grandparents left intact to hear my goodbyes was their house.

As far as I can remember, my grandparents built their house in 1957 and moved in the day my uncle was born. Even as I child, I found their fake topiaries and wall-to-wall carpeting delightfully dated. I strategically hid footprints to hunt for during future visits, preserved in the carpet's plush pile, safe from my grandmother's meticulous housekeeping. I assumed that nothing in their house had changed since the day they moved in, and that their choice of orange, brown, and harvest gold decor was simply prescient for the 1950s. They kept their rotary phone in the kitchen. The boom box my mother failed to gift my grandfather with did not replace his record player. Their couches were rough tweeds. Their ottomans were thickly woven florals. My grandfather woke up early and went to work and my grandmother relaxed in the den. They were always there when I visited, furniture and family, condition unchanged. But now, my grandparents- of all people!- had instigated change, and I knew the rate would only accelerate.

My family took back freshly minted mementos, useless items that remained useless, except for their newly embedded sentimentality. But, would my grandparents' marriage bed still be their marriage bed if another couple used it? Would I recognize my grandmother's den chair in a different daylight, without its ossified indents in the carpet? Would I recognize my grandfather's desk without its dried-out pens, crumbling erasers, crusty flags, and the cat letter sorter that my mother insisted on buying for him at that craft fair? Would they lose their meaning with their context? I took out my camera and focused on the furniture as my parents began to deinstall the final exhibition of my grandparents' prints, patterns, and textiles. I began documenting the tactile contact, the literal feelings that I wanted to take with me.

Two years later, I sorted through the photographs, jpegs distorting bit by bit every time I opened them. I chose two to paint from, still life portraits of my grandmother's den chair and of my grandfather's desk. Both portraits are dominated by pastel walls, smooth fleshy masses of verdaccio and knifed vessels pulsating through layers of soft tissue, creamy like frosting. My grandmother׳s chair is centered in the foreground, surrounded by framed watercolors and a decorative plate that gently grafted themselves into the background wall. A velvet pillow nestles into cushions as warm, as welcoming, and as inviting as I remember my grandmother. My grandfather's desk occupies less than a third of his portrait. A flash spotlighting the corporal wall behind it dominates the composition, a placeholder for where my grandfather sat.

I've lived with these paintings for seven years now. My grandfather's desk hangs in my mother's stairwell, and my grandmother's chair is sitting next to me on my living room wall. My feelings are more acute when I look at the representation of her chair than when I look the actual chair I chose to represent her. That chair is now in my childhood bedroom, covered with old clothes, an ikea blanket, and possibly a cat. The vaguely Asian inspired watercolors that used to sink into my grandmother's den wall are now equally absorbed into my mother's living room decorations. She uses the cat letter sorter in the kitchen, as she was the only one who liked it, anyway. I don't think anyone wanted the old desk, but it might turn up in the basement some day. My grandparents' marriage bed is now in my uncle's attic. I slept in it a few years ago with my boyfriend, and I will admit to feeling slightly ashamed. Despite my vestigial premarital guilt, these objects have changed, in that they are still furniture. They still work. They can be endlessly repurposed. They outlasted my grandparents and will probably outlast me. As will their portraits.

The problem is, it's a lie. Or, mostly a lie. The parts about missing my grandparents and repurposing their furniture and portraits, while sappy, are true. But, my memories, like the jpegs, distort every time I open them. Every time I link them with the paintings. I feel a physical longing, a true connection to that chair in the den. But, it's the wrong chair. That particular chair belonged in the living room. The watercolors used to flank a dark mahogany bureau that I guess had already been packed by the time I started documenting. I don't know why that chair was put there. Its crisp contours define it from the buttery den wall like a temporary tattoo freshly imprinted on an exposed limb. It appears permanent, but is not even skin deep. It sits on the surface, always at risk of abrasion. Flat and thin, the chair's sole pair of stilettoed legs teeter on the edge, threatening to topple into the viewer's space. The are no hind legs, no support to keep the chair from being displaced. I photographed it out of spite. I was personally offended that it was the wrong piece of furniture, that it was out of place, like my grandmother. I was doing more than documenting my grandparents' house. I was expressing my outrage at its change.

As a junior painting major, I wrote an artist's statement dedicating myself to portraiture. I made these figure-free portraits to show that I could push boundaries, to prove that I was creative. I did try to paint the recliner that my grandmother sat in everyday, but it was less distinctive than the painted white bricks behind it and the somewhat white carpet beneath it. I photographed the recliner and sketched it, but cloying nostalgia slopped from the page every time. It was not aesthetically engaging enough to hold the painting together or to repress my sentimentality, my desperation to curl up in it again. My need to nestle up and say goodbye to my actual grandmother, not to her emptying house. I chose to paint the armchair instead because it would make a better painting.

As for my grandfather's desk, I never saw him use it. The negative space occupying a majority of the composition is a remnant of the source photograph. It was reserved not for my grandfather, but for a tapestry of the Pied Piper that had already been taken down. Drying cracks reveal the desk's actual color, a bland brown beneath the beautiful finish I invented for it. Hazy definitions of the desk's remaining possessions rest ethereally above it, almost casting shadows. Even the borders of the richly varnished desk fade into its warm vascular penumbra. Pentimenti show through the wall like bruises, reminders of damaging change. Reminders that things were no longer how I wanted—sorry, remembered—them. A roll of duct tape lying in the foreground casts a slight shadow over the front edge of the desk, replacing the objects it was being used to pack. Its round shape echoes the flash on the wall, drawing the eye between the empty wall and the offending tape, calling attention to its aberrant presence. Unlike its surroundings, the roll of duct tape is thinly painted, its margins do not bleed, it clearly does not belong.

Although I did not faithfully portray my grandfather's desk, the fleshy space above the desk accurately evokes emptiness. It no longer matters to me that my source photograph was about an absent tapestry. I eventually noticed that my memories of my grandparents had begun to break down. That they continue to dissipate as I live with the lies I painted, fabrications of my grandmother in her armchair and my grandfather at his desk. And I don't care. These feelings, these connections are no less authentic for the errors of their source. It's funny. I painted disingenuous portraits of my grandparents and in my failure to capture their likeness, I actually captured something honest. Something that I did not recognize at the time. Something more relatable than portraits of my relatives. It does not matter that you will not be able to recognize the people these paintings used to be about.

The armchair is counterfeit, a temporary tattoo. It waits to fall out of its space, and even I don't know when it will crash down. My mother, in her attempt to protect me, did not tell me that my grandparents were dying until they were almost gone. I was shocked. I was unprepared. I was outraged. Twice. It was easier to paint what I falsely perceived as fictions than consciously confront my emotions. But it no longer matters that, as a student, I was more concerned with aesthetics than with accuracy. It no longer matters that I did not end up earning an A. Most of all, it no longer matters that my teenage self was only ready to say goodbye to a silly tapestry, and not to her grandfather. Making and living with these paintings forced me to say true goodbyes. That does matter.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.