Yes, I’m back and have been since Friday. No, I don’t know what’s next, other than that my wife and I — Happy Valentine’s Day, honey — are starting divorce proceedings, which my father-in-law, a civil-rights attorney I haven’t met, is handling pro bono. (The biggest laugh line in our vows — “to refrain from any major purchases until the divorce is finalized” — was inserted at his suggestion.)
We’ll be able to start planning our divorce party once we know the court date, which sounds like it will be sometime in April.
Apart from that, the last few days have been filled with transitioning from living out of my car to making my apartment inhabitable, which it really wasn’t before I left. It was just a place where mail and laundry piled up while I rushed from home to gym to office to galleries to whatever la-di-da functions I “covered” for the paper from night to night. Now it’s time to make it a place where I can stand to spend time.
I’ve also gone to my first art events — Laura Lark‘s opening Saturday afternoon, a lecture at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art that night — where I received little, if any, of the scarlet-letter treatment. It may be partly that, as my ex told me, some people think the last two-and-a-half months have been a hoax, which, come to think of it, many people also thought when I first entered the loony bin. But more than that, people want a return to routine; having avoided reading my art coverage when I was at the Houston Chronicle, they want to know where they can avoid reading it now.
It won’t be at the Chronicle, whose editors understandably don’t want any help — even freelance — from me, and don’t seem to want it from anyone. Why should they? They’re not feeling any pressure to bring art writing back, though they have felt compelled — surprise, surprise — to add more executive layers, in keeping with standard Hearst operating procedure: Cut journalists; add bureaucrats. (A Hearst corollary: Continually shrink the paper; continually jack up the price.)
Still, I’ve been working on a couple of freelance writing gigs, which combined pay what a one-hour appointment with a client pays. And I’m holding out a sliver of hope that whatever notoriety an upcoming Texas Monthly story on The Art Guys/Menil Collection tree-acquisition brouhaha generates will lead to my connecting with someone willing to take some kind of chance on me and the wherewithal to throw some non-escorting work my way. But in the meantime, it’s pretty clear which of my marketable skills the market values, and it ain’t art writing.
Among the people I ran into Saturday was Menil curator Toby Kamps. Our exchange was cordial; I didn’t ask if the museum is at work on acquiring this Jack in the Box commercial, which would now fit into its collection all too well:
As you may have heard, a Washington legislator cited the commercial in support of his opposition to marriage equality. Expect it to come up again during the inevitable referendum to overturn yesterday’s vote.
As Gary Tinterow, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new director, settles into the position, it’s understandable that the former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator would take pains not to ruffle any feathers. Still, his introductory videos on the MFAH’s website require parsing, much like this message from my motel:
I get it: Motels can’t just come out and ask guests not to steal the towels and linens, and museum directors need the kind of job security the late Peter C. Marzio enjoyed before they can bluntly say, “We’ll never be the Met,” and “Houston will never be New York,” as Marzio told me on several occasions.
Still, I’m glad I didn’t have a mouthful of coffee when I heard Tinterow say, “The level of quality is absolutely the same between the MFAH and the Metropolitan.”
Ironically, he said this while sitting in the MFAH’s worst gallery, a hodge-podge that mixes a medium-size Elie Nadelman sculpture of a dancing couple (c. 1918-1924) with Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Fan — Ghost Version (1967); one of Frank Stella’s most reductive paintings, Palmito Ranch (1961); and a depressingly mediocre selection of abstract expressionist paintings, including one of the most lackluster Robert Motherwells — just because it’s big doesn’t mean it’s good, folks — and easily the worst Adolph Gottlieb I’ve seen anywhere, an early, sketchy pictograph I can’t find an image of online. Making matters worse, the Nadelman sits on a ginormous table in the middle of the room; the Oldenburg — the only Pop piece in the space — crowds out the best painting in the gallery, Jackson Pollock’s pre-drip The Blue Unconscious (1946), on loan from a private collection; and the bright yellow hard-edge Stella, a significant recent acquisition, is sandwiched between two black-and-white Franz Klines. (Discusing that juxtaposition with me last year, MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene mentioned the Menil Collection’s recent-ish accession of a Kline knockoff drawing Stella made during his student years, when probably every art student in the country was doing Kline knockoffs. Knowing that background doesn’t make the placement make any more sense.) Topping off the incoherence, a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass window peers in from the adjacent decorative-arts alcove. (Specific pieces may have been rotated out since I hit the road, but this is basically how the gallery always looks, as if the MFAH is determined to put its worst foot forward.)
Forget New York. Having visited museums across the country for the last two-and-a-half months, I can only think of a handful of galleries as you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me bad as the one in which Tinterow sat giving Houston the last thing it needs, another soothing, self-esteem-boosting pep talk. Yes, it’s a meet-the-director message on a website, and yes, museum directors have to be civic boosters, but cheerleading is one thing; cognitive dissonance is another.
As for Tinterow’s “ambitions for the MFAH,” here they are:
I’ve got my eye on some very important works of art that I hope we can attract to the museum either as loans or as acquisitions. I hope to be able to maintain the same high level of exhibition programs and educational programs that Peter Marzio and the staff and trustees have maintained all these years.
I have ambitions for Tinterow’s ambitions. I’ll outline them in an upcoming post.
Note: This is the last of an occasional series of excerpts from a draft of an essay that I originally intended for the Houston Chronicle, my former employer. It turned out to be too long to fit anywhere in the print edition, but my editors were willing to consider posting it on 29-95.com, the Chronicle’s entertainment website, with changes I was unwilling to make. The fact that I was unwilling to make those changes, however, does not mean I don’t think the essay could use some improvement, so I welcome feedback from readers. References to dates such as “last week” or “Friday” will make more sense if you consider the draft was filed shortly before Thanksgiving and the wedding was held on Friday, Nov. 18. Part 1 is here; part 2 here; part 3 here; part 4 here. — Devon Britt-Darby
My escorting career was about as conventional as my married life. My best ad didn’t have a phone number or rates, but the URL to my website along with a photo and the message: “Who is Devon and why is everyone reading his diary?”
I loved being Devon. While I was Devon, my art improved and I developed a critical eye and voice, visiting the best exhibitions and perusing the collections of the best museums in the country.
My readers — some clients, some not — became my collector base. Buying my work made them feel closer to me. Rightly so.
It was while I was Devon that I first developed the discipline to write every day. I freely mingled art writing with escorting anecdotes that seemed more revealing than they were.
Many of my readers told me they liked the art posts best. To be sure, others told me the opposite, but now that I’m a “legitimate” art critic, ironically, my online readership is nowhere near what it was in the Devon days, when it overwhelmingly consisted of readers far outside the art world.
And I was part of a loose movement — though it’s an exaggeration to call it that –to develop standards in an outlaw profession. I reported my income and paid taxes on it, scrupulously practiced safe sex and treated client confidentiality as a fiduciary responsibility. I got just as irked with escorts who flouted their responsibilities as I do with museums that flout theirs. (My thinking about escorting in the Internet era was influenced by Aaron Lawrence’s now out-of-print The Male Escort’s Handbook: Your Guide to Getting Rich the Hard Way, though I certainly never got rich doing it. By the time I read it in 2001, Lawrence’s book was already an artifact of the headiest days of the dot-com era. — DB-D)
I’d have no business doing what I do now if I hadn’t done what I did then. And I’m tired of behaving as though I’m ashamed of something I’m not, although I’ve done thingsfor which I’ve had to apologize at some point during every job I’ve held, escorting included.
For instance, I dabbled in crystal meth at one point, then found it doesn’t stop with dabbling. Months later, in the throes of a manic rage, I wrote the one blog entry of which I’m truly ashamed, saying atrocious things I didn’t mean about two wonderful people, a writer and an artist who were never clients, but were very kind to me, only to be repaid with a delusional, defamatory rant. They know who they are, and if they ever see this, I repeat: I’m truly sorry, and I think of what I did to you everyday. (When submitting this draft to the Chronicle, I omitted the 2004 meth-fueled road trip that I’ve blogged about in entries such as this one — the essay was already too long for the paper — but it would figure more prominently in an expanded version.)
At least the adventure led to a staycation in a forensic psychiatric hospital, where my blog developed a cult following among employees of one state’s department of mental health.
They freaked when this freak somehow kept updating the blog despite the fact that I wasn’t supposed to have Internet access. But they had to admit it was kind of cool when my readers — Devonistas, I called them at the time — mailed in cartons of cigarettes, calling cards, books, snacks, and other contraband en masse for my fellow patients and me, in response to my online call for “a conspiracy of kindness.”
My favorite part of the revelatory exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk — at the Dallas Museum of Art through Feb. 12 — was a room called “Punk Cancan.” It brought back memories of the time fashion mattered most to me: inside the loony bin. Using the sharpest dull tools available, I sliced and ripped up donated clothes to create fun fashions for the funny farm. Soon I was besieged with requests from the other patients — all straight guys. I’d like to think Gaultier would have found the effort fabulous, if not the workmanship. Even in that institutional setting, this punk couldcould.
Being Devon was art. About that much, I don’t have to ask.
Why come out about this now? Because getting married Friday and feeling all my worlds integrate has shifted something. There’s no turning back now.
I don’t want to be that guy who silently seethed when a Menil curator — before Kamps’ time — told me personal details about the dancer who shook his money maker in a group show that included Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 installation Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), then had the nerve to tell me not to interview him because the estate wouldn’t like it.
And I really don’t want to be the guy who got too busy to implement the workaround I came up with. In New Orleans to cover Prospect.1, the city’s first international contemporary art biennial, I interviewed the dancers at The Corner Pocket about what they thought of the Menil curator’s request, writing their answers on napkins.
We had a richer discussion of what Gonzalez-Torres’ work was about than I’d had with the curator, but I got bogged down in the usual crush of deadlines and let the opportunity pass, only to read, months later, a Los Angeles Times interview with a dancer who was performing the piece in a show at the Hammer Museum. Shame on the Menil, and double-shame on me.
Before the wedding, I planned to use Douglas Britt-Darby as my byline until the divorce was finalized, then revert back to Douglas Britt after the divorce. (It takes awhile. We’ll be married into the new year.)
Saturday, I realized attaching Reese’s last name to my own needed to be a permanent, legally binding gesture.
Sunday, I realized one more tweak to my name was needed.
I need to go through the process, which I realize is a hassle that carries its own risks, of changing my name to Devon Britt-Darby — a name that, like my wedding, brings my worlds together into something approaching wholeness. I need a constant reminder of what an integrated life feels like.
I told Reese. She responded with the same compassionshe’s shown during our engagement and marriage. She’s a keeper, which is why can’t keep her.
I know it’s hard to get used to name changes, so while I love the sound of Devon — it rhymes with heaven — I won’t stop answering to Douglas. But if you fail to attach my wife’s last name to my own, we’ll have problems.
As far as I’m concerned, if having been Devon suddenly invalidates my perspectives on art, then burn down the museums.
If strip joints can’t be temples of art, burn them down.
If I can’t write the truth while working at a newspaper, burn it down.
Just don’t forget to throw this faggot on the fire, head first, that my ashes may mingle freely with all of the above.
Sorry posting’s been sporadic lately. Part of it’s that time flew by on the West Coast, with Pacific Standard Time exhibitions to see in Southern California and old friends and clients to catch up with in San Francisco — including, of course, my biggest fan.
Which is bigger, by the way? We’d probably need to see my biggest fan in a harness — an astonishingly strong harness — to be sure.
I’m in Las Vegas now, about to load the car for Albuquerque and head back to Houston via a few days’ stop in Dallas. At this point, as it happens, I’m retracing the first half of the crazy 2004 road trip whose last half I set out to trace when I took off more than two months ago. Relatively speaking, this was the saner half of the trip in that I didn’t totally lose touch with reality until I got to New Orleans. But I rememember reaching out to a friend in Las Vegas for just enough crystal to get me to Dallas, where I replenished my supply. It’s much nicer driving through the desert without sweaty eyeballs this time around.