The Conference’s Art Show was big. Despite Hulda’s modest appraisal, it was one of the prime attractions of the event, almost as large as the merchant’s space but a lot more crowded. Linked panels hung with paintings created a maze of narrow corridors filled with gawkers. Around the edges were tables loaded with sculpture and ceramics. In one corner, a workshop mainly filled with women and children was working on clay pots.
Everywhere on display were a multitude of Scolding Madonnas, few alike. Wizards, saints, and adventurers also were in abundance. One highly detailed acrylic was an amusing depiction of Heronimo and his short assistants sampling the fruits of their distillery while leering at a bathing townswoman through his telescope. But most pieces were less clever or technically proficient. Many were amateurish, or perhaps abstract.
He found his sister in the corner watching kids rolling clay.
“Hi sis,” he said. “You look rather wistful, I must say. I thought you’d be busy judging.”
“Hey Gus,” Allie said. She sighed, “We’re nearly done. I was reminiscing about the sandbox at home. Maybe I should put one in the gallery.”
“Why not? Allie Cat Studio is wildly eclectic anyway. The tourists would love it, but your kitties might think it was meant for them.”
“Hmm, they might at that,” she mused. Pulling herself back to the present, she waved her hand around at the show, “What do you think?”
“The show? As crazy as expected,” Gus said, “but both bigger and better. You should’ve submitted pieces of your own.”
“No time remember? Anyway, it’ been fun so far.” She looked at him over the top of her glasses. “That’s not what you’re here for.
“Sorry, she’s not here now,” Allie continued. “Angelique went to get water. She’ll be back soon. But talking of crazy, you should see what she entered. Come this way.”
Allie led Gus into the labyrinth of images. People were drawn to a funny acrylic painting of the Virgin Mary doing the dishes in the Holy Tub. Aided by a small flock of cherubs; a dove perched upon her shoulder, lovingly rendered like a frame from a 1930s cartoon. A shy, chubby teen girl turned red from the admiration it had garnered.
Further on, they threaded between a picture of the Holy Tub with the words “ce n’est pas d’un lavabo” beneath it, and another with a floating washtub in front of a man’s head. Allie turned and said, “You were wondering how Angelique’s changed? See for yourself.”
“Yikes,” Gus said. Before them hung a half dozen watercolors, starkly framed in glossy red. These were unlike the serene floral compositions for which Angelique was known. The images themselves were delicate, modeled curved surfaces and folds which could either be of cloth or flesh, strewn with petals. Yet which body parts were implied were likewise highly ambiguous. It was possible to see other kinds of shapes in them, many suggestive or erotic.
“It’s technically well done,” Allie said in a low voice. “I like it, but unlike her flowers, I could never display this stuff back home. There’s nothing really overt, but I can just imagine how the old hens would cluck, even Imelda. Look at this one.” She pointed at a large painting set high upon the wall. It consisted of a dark, dripping arc slashed across a light pink form.
“Is that a closed eye crying, or a bleeding cut across a torso?” Gus asked. Turning his head sideways didn’t help. He peered at the title, “Eye/Lash” which did not clarify it either.
“You tell me, Augustine,” came a familiar voice. “Which would you prefer?”
“Hey, Angel, hello,” he said turning. There she stood behind him in a loose white artist’s smock and a beret.
“Well?” she asked again, taking a sip from her bottle, raising an eyebrow.
“Beats me,” Gus admitted. “Both alternatives are sad. Put together, they’re disturbing.”
“See, Allie,” Angelique teased, “I told you he’d get it.”
“I’ll ignore that, but the uncertainty creates tension,” Gus said. “Even I can see it displays a lot of skill. But I thought you were into traditional themes, you know, halos and cherubs.”
“Usually; in fact, that’s what I was asked to judge this time, but I’m trying something new. People’s reactions are interestingly varied, not often what I expected.”
“It’s not just beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder,” Allie said. “There’s a group of nuns who’ve come by three times at least, tittering like naughty schoolgirls.”
“Really?” Angelique laughed. “I don’t suppose they’re the ones who’ve bid.”
Gus took another look at the entry label. The sheet attached to it listed bids for the silent part of the auction, nearly half full. He read the last name, with a monetary figure twice as much as the instant sale price, and whistled.
“No,” he said. “They couldn’t afford it, because your biggest fan is apparently none other than Cindi Salvage. Congratulations, babe, looks like you’ve finally made the big leagues.”
Angelique blushed and took a sip, smiling. Gus checked the other tags. “Wow, all of them. You’re doing gangbusters, dear. You’ll be able to move away from Maureven.”
“Oh, I don’t know. My grand-uncle is sometimes difficult, yes, but it is so peaceful and quiet surrounded by all those dead people.”
“Not for me to criticize, but we should celebrate this over dinner.”
“Sorry, this evening, there will be the voting and the live auction. We shall be busy here until late.” She bit her fulsome lower lip. “Perhaps breakfast tomorrow?”
“Love to,” Gus said. “The Terrace at say, eight?”
“Seven,” Angelique. “I don’t eat much breakfast but his time of year, I’m an early riser.”
“Oh yes, of course.” Gus shrugged. “I should have remembered.”
“If that’s settled, there’s something else I think you should see before you go, Gus,” Allie said. “This year’s Grand Prize winner, if we have our way.”
She led them to a wall where another admiring group collected. This painting, also comic in theme, was larger than the drunken peeping sorcerer, filling two of the panels. It parodied Alfini’s The Ascension of the Sacred Reliquary. In this version, a horrified Virgin and angels with the Inner Reliquary hovered above modern Bellegraal, overlooking the scene in dismay. The whole landscape was dreadfully suburbanized, with a grid of car-choked streets and shops serving le fast food. The sky was choked with smoke-spewing jets whizzing everywhere scattering cherubs like pigeons.
“This weird view started me thinking,” Allie said. “I haven’t figured it out yet, but I can’t shake the nagging feeling that somehow The Ascension might yet be the key to this.”