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Ezra Gray

Sweetie (Relationships Play Out)

7 March - 11 May 2024

Two brothers are left alone to eat pizza and watch the Simpsons. This is only allowed on school nights when their parents go out to play doubles badminton. The parents believe that the cartoon has a calming, corralling effect.


After pizza and TV, they run out of things to do and get tired of each other’s company. The older brother turns to reading a book about impressive or disgusting animals, while the younger wanders around the unusually quiet house. He finds himself upstairs in the parents’ bathroom with all the lights on. The brightness makes it feel quieter. He approaches the large mirror with caution. Mirrors hold a mystical, quasi-forbidden quality in his mind. More than once he’d seen mirrors removed from the hands of children by grown ups for unknowable reasons. With his parents still out and his brother downstairs picking his nose on the couch, he takes the opportunity to find out what the fuss is about. He gets in close so that he appears six inches from himself, staring deep into the iris and at all the little details, like a beetle in a jar. Then he begins making faces: pleading, grinning, crazed expressions. An unnerving, glitchy feeling comes over him, at the centre of which is the question: “who is making these faces? Me, or the reflection?” Then, like the sound of strings rising, the mirror no longer feels inanimate, it only frightens him; as he rushes off he wonders if it is watching him leave. Downstairs, he tries to behave normally, secretly embarrassed that he let it get to him.


* * *


Before I could call anyone a friend, a boy came up to me in the hall of the community centre and ordered me to follow him. He led me down to the basement level to the building’s central furnace and shut it down as if it were his job, by pushing a glowing red button then running off like he’d lit a fuse. I mention him because, for the next ten years, it was this type of boy that ended up being my friend. I kept finding myself under the wings of miscreant little shits.


Grown ups declared the rules of childhood and some children repeated them  — tattle-tales, teacher’s pets, children I wanted nothing to do with. At recess we would wonder where all the soccer balls had gone, and then after a short search I would find a boy alone in some corner of the school grounds who had gathered them all, every last one, trying to kick them up onto the roof. I could see the dozen he already succeeded with, way up there, four stories up, peering over the edge of the gutter and I shared in his satisfaction.


For a summer, my closest friend was a genuine kleptomaniac. He stole from everyone. He stole from school, he stole from the corner store, he stole from his parents, he stole from me. Children are much closer to the earth, that is, to the ground, so they make good scavengers. It also means that I remember the heat of that summer, not by a sun that beat down on us, or the kind of hot wind that would never cool you down, but by the temperature of the sidewalk and a warm bolt I would pick up and clean against my shirt. Everything was dusty and the grass was all dead.


One sunny afternoon my kleptomaniac friend showed me how the trunks to most cars weren’t really locked, and could easily be opened by pushing the keyhole which itself was a button. We wandered through the alleys behind our neighbours’ houses and he would show me how to reach over and unlock a variety of gates, or slip in between broken fences to steal things from garages and tool sheds. Like a convict, he’d cut a hole in the wall behind his dresser, where he kept the kinds of strange objects a child like that might find valuable. Nicorette gum, sunglasses, a tire-pressure gauge, an emergency candle stick, a jam jar full of ball-bearings, a hearing aid, sets of keys, keychains, a little silver dolphin with crystals for eyes, saw blades and drill bits (gold coloured) and cash. All of it qualified as treasure to me.

You could say I was a bad judge of character, but back then another ten year old boy could impress in me the feeling that he had lived a much longer life than I had, had gone through phases and had experiences that for some reason I had missed. The way he spoke of his past dealings, it was as if my friend had given up on the big scores and was now only stealing for sport. At my house, he asked to see my stash, which I was nervous about showing him and for good reason — he was a seasoned stealer, and I hadn’t stolen anything; most of mine was souvenirs from trips with my family or little birthday gifts from classmates that I would keep in a small trunk in my closet.


A few weeks later, he pulled my little bronze Eiffel Tower out from behind his dresser, the one my parents had bought in Paris when I was a baby. He was so excited to show it to me that he forgot I was the one he’d stolen it from. When I asked him if it was mine, whether he had stolen it from me, he said with complete earnestness that he found it on the street. I so badly wanted to believe him that I pictured my Eiffel Tower still safe at home, among my other souvenirs. I think I really did believe him, until later one day when he said that I could have it if I wanted — which seemed so out of character that it might as well have been a confession. For whatever reason, I felt that lying was worse than stealing, and our friendship ended then. Later, I heard he went on to start fires.


* * * 


An old teacher would say it’s a little “subject heavy”, and she might be right. The subject problem is important to me and recently it’s where I’ve been finding a way in.


I have a friend who paints, I suspect, as if it were a stage of his digestion; he says he doesn’t “get” something until he’s painted it. Then he saves all of his image sources in binders, in the form of jpg’s trapped in A4 plastic sleeves. Maybe I don’t really “get” something until I’ve painted it, but once I’ve finished, I don’t feel for it the way I used to.


Something Monet wrote about painting his dying wife: “I find myself staring at her tragic countenance, automatically trying to identify things like ‘the proportions of light’.” 


I wonder what this says about the weight of a subject, and the painter who wants more than to behold it. Do we confuse callousness with courage? Behind the painting of a woman submerging, a man measures the light on his dying wife.

Ezra Gray (b. 1986) lives and works in Paris. He completed his MA in painting from the Royal College of Art (London) & BFA from Concordia University (Montreal). Select solo exhibitions include Maximum Yearn, Unit 17, Vancouver (2020); Joech God, Emalin, London (2018); Brown Space, Almanac Inn, Turin & Infinitive, Jeffrey Stark, New York City (both 2017). Select two person & group exhibitions include Nothing but murmuring, 2x2x2 by im labor, Tokyo (2021); Folly, Emalin Projects, Dunmore Pineapple, Scotland; Honolulu Triennale with Sean Nicholas Savage, Honolulu, Zurich (both 2016) & Rundgang, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (2014).

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