The Openings

by by Grace Dunham

illustration by by Robert Sandler

The galleries in Chelsea are white. Their floors are usually polished concrete. Galleries are modern. Their job is to highlight the transcendence of objects and ideas through their simplicity, and maybe through their purity too. One night a month galleries have openings; many galleries on the same street often have their openings on the same night. During openings, people fill the galleries. If someone knows most of the people at an opening, he meanders through the room—or rooms, depending—moving from group to group, catching up. If someone knows fewer people, she tends to stick to the group she came with. If someone knows no one, he stays close to the walls, looking at the art (if the work is two-dimensional). People drink wine or sparkling water, in clear hard plastic cups. Lots of people stand outside smoking cigarettes, even in the winter. This makes openings smell like wine and smoke, mixed with new paint. White walls are always being repainted.

I think of the opening smell when I think of being young. I grew up going to openings because my parents are both artists. I was usually the smallest person in the room and I moved from group to group enjoying the freedom that came with being little. When my parents had openings, I walked around like I owned the place. I would look up at people and say things like, “It’s great work. I’m very proud of my mother.”

My father, who is a painter, has a show of new work in New York every two years, more or less. A show of his was meant to open last month, but during the hurricane a 12-foot Hudson River wave rushed eastbound through Chelsea’s streets and filled the galleries with five feet of black water. His paintings, as well as hundreds of other works of modern art, were damaged.

The paintings are of women: wild, naked, paper-white women bathing in brightly colored landscapes. Sometimes he asks me if I’m embarrassed that he paints wild, naked women and I tell him that I’m not, that actually I’m proud. All winter, spring, and summer he mostly stayed in his studio—a barn next to our house—leaning over big canvases laid out on the ground. He starts in the middle, so that he can stand on the unpainted parts in his socks, and then works his way out. When he takes breaks from working, he comes into the kitchen in paint-smudged khaki pants so that he can eat an apple. He was worried that people would think his paintings were of Eden. The women in the paintings are always alone—sometimes bathing knee-high in aqua water, sometimes reaching for a round purple fruit, sometimes facing a yellow sun on the horizon. We only ever see the women from behind. Big flowers, a yellow circle surrounded by red petals, fall from boxy trees, little green cactus mounds pop from the ground, and round brown hills rise in the distance. The flowers, trees, and hills look like the first flowers, trees, and hills. The paintings do remind me of the beginning of time.

My father is obsessed with the end of humanity, I’ve recently realized. He is working hard to make sense of his own impending death. Part of that, it seems, is learning about the impending death of all of us. He likes to remind me, and others, of the collective work that we are doing to speed up the process. Two weeks ago he sent me an article from a nature journal about humanity’s next inflection point: the moment when we will exhaust all the resources this little green and blue planet has to offer us and begin our rapid decline. When we fall, the article suggests, we may take the animals and plants with us: “the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects.”

About 75,00 years ago, a giant volcano erupted on the island of Sumatra and covered the earth with 3,000 cubic kilometers of magma, ash, and rock—enough, says the article, to blanket the District of Columbia up to the stratosphere. Dust blocked the sun for a decade. Most Homo sapiens died. It’s possible, even, that only a few thousand survived. When a species shrinks, mutations spread quickly: the remaining Homo sapiens banded together, swapped genes, and became more or less what we are today.

In the 1930s, imported red fire ants arrived at the port of Mobile, Alabama. The ants came from Northern Argentina. When a Brazilian cargo ship filled its ballast with local soil for balance, it accidentally took the ants on too. Lucky ants, ending up on the coastal flood plains of the Gulf of Mexico: their own home had been coastline, laced with rivers; they were built to thrive in floods. When rising water lifts the ants from their nests in the earth, they coalesce into enormous floating balls—workers on the outside, queens in the middle. They make a raft out of themselves. Whole cities can survive on the surface of the water for months. When the water recedes the ants rush back into the earth, wherever that may be. In Argentina, competing ant colonies had warred against one another; in America, they coexisted with relative ease. Like us, their initial scarcity was ultimately their strength. The fire ants did well in Alabama: they floated their way along the flood planes and up through the Mississippi Delta, invading the entire American South.

If I let my imagination get the best of me, I see big red ant rafts navigating the square rooms of my father’s exhibit. I imagine a green future: thick algae, the kind that looks like sequins, wavy water plants, and lily pads. I like to picture my dad’s paintings half-submerged in a verdant indoor pond, tangled up with new life. This dream, of course, never could have happened. Bacteria, fungi, and toxic mold do well in the dark still waters of the city, but not much else. Even if green things somehow started to grow, the pond—contained by the gallery’s once white walls—would eventually run out of what they needed.

When I was young, I loved the stories about mushrooms popping up in the Earth Room. The Earth Room is a loft filled with two feet of soil. It’s on Wooster Street, a few blocks away from the loft in SoHo where I lived for the first six years of my life. It’s been there since the 1970s, when the artist, Walter De Maria, installed it, and when my mother had just moved to the neighborhood. People did a lot of strange things in lofts then—like lock themselves in cages or take off their clothes in front of audiences—but not many of those things are still in SoHo. The same man has been taking care of the Earth Room for over twenty years now. He sits behind a desk off to the side, rakes the soil, and waters it weekly to keep it dark and moist. Whenever a mushroom appeared, he plucked it; whenever there were edible ones, like shaggy parasols, he ate them. When there were weeds, he raked those too. The artist had wanted the earth to stay the same. Once all the nutrients in the soil were used up, the mushrooms and weeds—nuisances that everyone enjoyed—stopped growing.


Things in Chelsea are back to normal. Two weeks after the hurricane, I walked around and looked at all the galleries. Draining hoses ran out of doors and onto streets. A filthy waterline ringed some of the galleries. In others, the lower five feet of sheet-rock had been removed. Painters were repainting everything the usual bright white. People were devastated—they had lost beloved objects and money—but also knew that things could have been worse. Last week my father had his opening, less than a month behind schedule. I saw all the people who I’ve seen at his openings since I was little. The paintings looked beautiful, maybe even more beautiful because they’d been through something. People agreed that his time in the country—and watching his daughters become adults—had been good for him: his work had never been this bright and alive, never been so joyous.