Friday, 14 February 2014

Payne's Grey by Viccy Adams

The first thing Janet sees in the art is her own reflection. The black-rimmed glass captures the outline of her face, and the rectangles on the wall behind her, and the chattering mouths of the couple heading towards the exit. The slight sound of the plastic window in the envelope is probably audible only to her above the uneven tapping of feet around the wooden-floored exhibition space and only then because she is feeling the noise more than hearing it as she clenches and unclenches her fist.
    Superimposed on the bruise-blue of the watercolours, Janet pulls the shape of her hair behind her ear and tries to focus through the mirroring. the fourteen paintings are all in the same poetic shades of twilight. They’re like vivid photographs with all the colour pulled out by some pigment-frenzied dementor on sabbatical from the Harry Potter books.
    Taking a pen from her coat pocket, Janet adds a note to the half-way list on the back of the envelope. Someone stands behind her for a moment, making the hairs on her neck reach to attention and adding a layer of obliqueness to the forst scene of the painting. When they move on she finds an area of dappled light which had missed her attention.
    Payne’s Grey is, according to the exhibition notes, a mixture of ultramarine and sienna first put together by the Devon-born artist William Payne. Janet has never been to Devon. She adds another line to the list on the envelope, then steps back from that one painting to sit on the low wooden bench in the centre of the small room. From here she can see all of the paintings without the interference of her own face, and the twisting limbs of the trees and shuffled facets of suburbia are more pleasing with the encapsulation given by even that slight distance.
    With the walking, standing, running weight of the day taken off them, Janet’s feet tingle inside her boots and one knee begins to cramp. In this sitting moment of stillness, she becomes aware that – unlike the unpeopled silence of the watercolours – this is the first time she has been by herself all day. Automatically, Janet raises her head to look for the next question to answer. Her eyes meet the white partition walls behind the paintings.
    A tour group moves on and for a rare few seconds it is only Janet and the fourteen twilit scenes making up the sonnet of the exhibition. Nobody jostles Janet, nobody blocks her view. The shouts of schoolchildren carry in from elsewhere in the building, underlined by the thumping drag of heavy-footed tourists in walking boots. A quick check at the opening between the third and fourth wall confirms that even the gallery guard has left his post.
    Janet stands. The coat slips from her shoulders and pools silkenly on the floor by the solid, pale wooden box of the bench. She kicks at the heel of her left boot until her foot loosens and her leg pulls free, then uses the toes of her left foot to hold the boot on her right foot to the floor and steps out of it into an ungainly stumble that pitches her directly up to the thin wire demarcating the appropriate distance for members of the public to keep from the glass-eyed pictures.
    Through grabbing at the wire to steady herself, Janet discovers that its taut appearance belies the weakness of the supporting poles at the corners of the room, two of which fall over loudly. She lets go of the wire as if it burns through her palm and dusts her knees. She is now face to face with another painting. Unlike the dappling patches of the blue forest she had tried so very feebly to focus on before, the blues of this picture are suburban house fronts, the thin washes of colour cleansing the street grime into something almost attractive.
    Although she hadn’t exactly made one, this still would not have been Janet’s first choice. But she is used to taking advantage of second-best and living through mild disappointment, and considering the amount of time and effort it took her to get right here, right now, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense, she figures she might as well just make the most of it.
    When the gallery guard comes back in and Janet has only managed to get one leg hooked through the frame, her first thought is that if she’d done as Kathy suggested and taken up running with her, then she might have had enough puff to make it through in one go. But seeing the gallery guard’s uniform made her hesitate and pull back and she’s worried that if she moves now she’ll cut herself on the refracting edges of the glass still hanging off the sides of the frame.
    “You dropped this.” The gallery guard hands her the balled-up envelope. “Going through or coming back?”
    For all Janet knows, this man with his slicked black hair and surprisingly ginger facial hair might spend all day with people jumping in and out of paintings. Janet apologises for the mess and the gallery guard says really no need to mention and then there’s an awkward moment when Janet’s leg twitches and she starts to bleed and the guard asks if she’d like a hand.
    “In or out?’ He asks again, and Janet takes a deep breath and says she doesn’t know.
    “What’s stopping you?” Janet shrugs carefully, trying to mop the trickle of blood on her leg with the hem of her skirt.
    “What’s keeping you?”
    “I’ve never…” Janet gestures at the painting. She realises that the leg hooked over the frame is wet. Looking down at her foot, she sees that it is splattered with rain. The guard catches her looking and grins. Janet blushes.
    “Easy does it. You’ll feel better when all of you is in one place.”
    “Have you ever?”
    “All the time.” He steps forwards and picks up Janet’s discarded coat. “May I?” Janet nods, and the guard arranges the coat over the edge of the glass. Up close, Janet realises that his uniform is a slick and shiny as the paintings in the room. She also realises that he isn’t breathing. She holds her own breath.
    Once he has finished covering the exposed shards, the guard gestures for Janet to shift her weight across to the left. His arm around her waist is stiff – more plastic than flesh. Janet forgets to hold her breath and begins to giggle. “Where are you from?” she asks.
    The guard ignores her. “You’ll have to be quick.”
    “Are you coming too?”
    “Not this way.” He lifts her other leg over for her and she feels the rain getting heavier.
Janet leans back for a moment and the glass under the coat pushes into the top of her thighs.  “How do I get back?”
    The guard shrugs. Janet looks at the slickness of his hair and thinks wet paint. She hands him back the envelope. “For you. Something to get one with while you’re here.” Then she leans forward and falls into the rain.

About the Author: Viccy Adams is a former Leverhulme Trust artist in residence, and a creative researcher. She's writing a novel about fertility economics and climate change and collaborating on a number of creative projects from women's tailoring ( to digital innovation (
Two.5 is Viccy's creative collaboration with Brooklyn-based photographic media artist, Samantha Silver. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign (4 February to 27 March 2014) to raise final production costs for On The Same Page: an app template to display text/image collaborations simply, elegantly and digitally. Contributor perks range from professionally recorded audio stories to licensed copies of the software files (allowing individuals/small organisations to publish their own work as apps).

She tweets @viccyiswriting and her website is

Image: (c) Andrew Catellier