Lyric Essay: “When a man says less is more, it’s hard not to hear him (or, on figure painting)” by Sophie Paquette


When a man says less is more, it’s hard not to hear him (or, on figure painting)

He teaches us to apply paint in shapes. To recognize shadow and bend before limb. Our subject sprawls on the couch, arms hung along the cushion’s back. I paint the knee sticking out too far and the kimono slides down her leg, pulls her thigh into the light. I like this: leg hiked up like she’s waiting for her partner to get home, to pull confession from their lips like bee drawing nectar. I invent narrative for her and maybe that’s my first mistake.

In elementary school, before catching the bus each morning, I meet my mom in the kitchen. My arms hang and she crouches, squints to see if the hem of my shorts stretches past my middle finger. In the hallways, I scrunch my shoulders, stand tense and try to shrink when someone else walks past, hike the denim down as far as it will go. Willing my body to reshape itself in a way that doesn’t break any rules.

In class, the distance between chin and nipple should equal that of underboob to belly button, or the length of the head the same as mid thigh to lower knee, or the entire body comprised of seven-and-a-half heads, nineteen fingers—any way we slice her should draw a seam we can fold over itself, again and again until disappearance. But still only shapes.

He teaches by demonstration. The woman he’s painted: abstract in all the right ways. A constant ratio. She’s all body :: no face. She’s been tattoo ::  live nude :: turned inside out and made into sex-ed diagram :: inverted mouth :: starts conversation :: hangs over the loveseat :: really pulls the room together ::

Too detailed, he tells me. I’m putting too much work into it. Waves his brush at the model and says it doesn’t need to look like her. Just needs to look like a person, or the shape of one.

If someone asks me to draw a picture of myself I won’t know how. I can’t conjure my own face. I string my body along like a toy dog, one end of the shoelace leash wrapped around its throat and the other double-knotted to my pinky. I try on new skins and always leave with a stomach ache.

I starve and I swell. I lose weight and only feel more visible. My mother sits at the table and watches me eat. I step on a scale and am made to stand backward, face whoever is doing the measuring.

He tells us it’s okay to alter a figure for aesthetic purposes. Leave out a shoulder where it’s easiest. Bend body for style. We squint and pinch our model between two fingers; she’s simpler to discern at arms’ distance. Not you, someone shouts to her, you look great! and we all laugh but keep painting.

I become negative space. It’s easiest to grow larger this way: deleting every photo of myself from my mother’s phone. Avoiding mirrors and reflections. I define my size by the spaces I fit into without spilling over. Sit side-by-side someone else, quantify the width of my squished thigh compared to theirs. Try on my sister’s clothes, study how differently things cling to us.

I am always mapping the distances between—stomach hung over :: hip, or between :: one inner thigh :: the other :: between :: flesh :: bones buried :: beneath, someone else’s hands :: my skin, my skin :: the soil, me :: my body, my body :: as scratches :: as the drawings Tracey Emin pens like spidersilk, thin and itchy. Her 1997 monoprint “Terribly Wrong” depicts a scrawled self-portrait, open-legged, bleeding scribbles, the words SOMETHINGS WRONG strung above the figure with select letters backward and messy. A response to Emin’s abortion three years earlier. A response to the body as lacuna, the areas unfilled—1998’s “My Bed,” Emin’s own empty bed, is surrounded by relics of her depression: a used tampon, empty vodka bottles, bloodied underwear. Pulled back, the covers reveal a naked slice of stained sheet.

Tracey Emin’s figures are misshapen and spindly, born from a complicated relationship with her body and the forms it takes. How the women in Emin’s work—a shattering prism of herself, a hundred chicken-scratch refractions—demand more space in the places they don’t inhabit: the invisible image of Emin in the bed and the days she spent there; the narratives we extract from the gaps between.

During her breaks, the model pulls the kimono tight around her waist and walks, barefoot, across the studio. Pauses at each painting. A room full of mirrors declaring how they see her, or how they would see her better.

The relatives we meet every summer miss my gradation, see only sudden shifts in my shape. I develop a fear of these visits, how I must appear to them without context. I’m embarrassed for what they see: a girl I can’t picture but whose body must break every rule.

I stretch and they tell me I look so healthy. I expand and I look so well. That I look like myself again.

His brush hovers over my canvas. He moves to my palette and pushes the color around, asks me to stand so he can sit and fix things. He teaches by showing. This looks awkward he says and pulls a thick slab of red across the leg I left bare, kimono covering up until the knee. He draws a blue line across the lower half of the canvas, reframing, cuts her mid-calf and says the design is more interesting this way.

What is a measurement anyway? Half a canvas. The skin from my hip to knee. The distance between me :: the mirror :: an empty bed :: the imprint of my body :: all this space the model takes on her couch ::  and how many seconds for me to meet her eye, for her to smile and look back.

Sophie Paquette is a poet and essayist from Bloomington, Indiana. She has been the recipient of residencies from the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop, Iowa Young Writers Studio, and the Adroit journal. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Offing, Midwestern Gothic, Cosmonauts Avenue, and others.

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