Written by Madeleine Dunnigan 


I look at the painting in front of me. I am amazed by the variety of browns. The muddy mass separates into rich tones contrasted with sharper hues. Stripes of red and blue slice the surface. The paint has been applied luxuriously, thick and creamy, almost edible. 

When I was younger I tried life modelling. As soon as I took off my robe I would sweat uncontrollably. The body’s capacity for perspiration is extraordinary. Have you ever sweated from the backs of your knees, or the soft bit where buttock meets thigh?  It’s exhausting too, being still, especially when someone is watching you. Especially when twenty-five elderly hobbyists are watching you, one leg balanced on a chair, your groin stretched and your labia flapping in the hot air from the fan heater pointed directly at you. 
              ‘She’s shaking’ I heard an old man whisper behind me.

Then I met you. Young, talented, poised for success and the idea of being a muse seemed more glamorous.

I take a step back from the canvas and realise that rather than something delicious waiting to be consumed it is rotten, the aftermath of an excretion. 

Your paintings were fantastic and ugly. Fantastically ugly. But you had no interest in painting me when we were together: rather you painted people throwing up on each other, devouring each other, crouched on top of each other. People in despair, disgrace and disarray. Your paintings were large but you lacked the space in which to store them so when you finished, you removed canvas from stretcher, peeling it away like a layer of dead skin. 

From powder to paste to liquid colour, no two paints are the same. Another step back from the canvas. Where is that brown from? It must be the earth, or beneath it, something primordial. I’m holding a box with a cake inside, whose layers of light chocolate sponge are filled with fluffy whipped cream. I’m wondering now what I expected, some kind of celebration? A reunion?  

I should have known. My best friend called a week earlier to warn me: ‘I don’t think you should come to the exhibition. You’re doing so well and I don’t think it would help your progress. You’ve got to be strict with yourself. The paintings are…’ 

But you don’t see it that way. ‘It’s us,’ you say, smiling shyly, as if it is a secret joke we share, ‘it’s our pain and our love and everything in between. I thought you would understand.’ 

Two disembodied heads float in front of me, their faces distorted, their hair lank, their eyes empty. Their mouths look like uncooked sausages. Other body parts float: a leg, an arm, fingers crossed. 

Suddenly the cake flies from my hands, and smears itself down the painting, the white cream and soft sponge mixing with the heavy brushstrokes of paint. 

This is a story about why they say ‘no food and drink’ at galleries.

It is only when I am walking down the road, licking the dark sticky brown from my fingers that I recall the top corner of the canvas: a tiny patch of blue, with a green sail and yellow hull, a life boat with just enough room for one.

Madeleine is co-founder of Ladybeard magazine. She curates The Libreria Room, a series of writer and artist-led discussions and often hosts the Libreria Podcast. She is currently studying an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, for which she has been awarded the Isaac Arthur Green Fellowship. @madeleine_i_d