Pinwood Atholton's "A Book of Squares"
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2001
Pinwood Atholton first made headlines three years
ago with his magnificant ``Seventeen Orange Heads'',
seventeen people roller-skating around a
plexiglass room, their heads shaved and painted
bright orange. The skaters were taken from a
pool of one hundred such people, and skated in
shifts so that the exhibit continued around the clock.
With the bold orange words ``four squares'' the
work under review pays homage to ``Seventeen
Orange Heads'' and yet announces a move to a
more subtle style.
All I can say is: Wow! Atholton's brilliant new work
is sure to cement his reputation as
a pioneer of contemporary art. Just forty pages long,
this masterpiece is divided into three sections.
The first section contains nine pages of
black squares; the second contains twenty one
pages of black squares; the third contains
ten pages of black squares.
Each square is centered in the middle
of the page and fills slightly more than
half the page.
On the last
page, one finds the words ``four squares'' written
above the black square, in bright orange. This
is the only text in the book.
Opening the book to page 1, you are confronted by
a black square. It takes you back to the first
the three years of hell you suffered in the El Paso Medium
Security Adult Corrections Facility. Unable to
sleep you stared at the black midnight sky through
a small square window framed by a white plaster wall.
You heard the distant chords of a banjo wafting
in through the window, taunting you,
carrying in the sounds of freedom. The square
on page 1 tells that this is just the start,
my friend; there's plenty more where this comes from.
Indeed, the black square on page 2 is the same
window. This time it is 4:30 a.m., time for the
morning reveille. The tinny notes from the
bugle jolt you awake like an electric shock.
You sit on your
cot, nauseated, gritting your teeth,
pressing your chin into your knees.
You shiver relentlessly, but not from the
cold; it is actually as hot as a boiler room.
foot has a cramp; sweat pours from your forehead
and carries remnants of the harsh institutional
soap into your eyes. And then there is the window -
still there, always there - letting in the
sickening predawn blackness.
The pages alternate like this, midnight followed by
predawn, desperation followed by nausea. Just when you
think that it will never end you come to chapter
two and suddenly the black square on page 11
is the open
summer sky, seen through the square frames of the
glasses you borrowed from your best friend
Crazy Dave. You and Crazy Dave are sitting
around a campfire, cooking a can of
pinto beans Crazy Dave had swiped from the
local grocery store earlier that day.
The New Mexico sky smiles
down at you; crickets chirp; a warm breeze
ruffles your hair. It is your third night
Crazy Dave is telling you about all the things
he's done during your three years of
incarceration. He spent
last summer in Alaska, in the tuna canneries,
filling cans with tuna day in and day out.
Working so hard he made a pile of money.
Now its all gone.
He'd like to settle down. He tells you how
he'd like to go up to Alaska next summer, save
his money, then come back down and buy a small place
on the edge of the Mojave desert.
He and his girlfriend Carla
are getting married. Carla is pregnant and they
are going to have a baby. You can't believe
it; your best friend Crazy Dave is going to be a father.
You take it all in, warmed by the fire,
staring up at the black New Mexico sky through
the frames of those glasses.
The square on page 12 is the same New Mexico sky,
framed by the bed of Crazy Dave's white pick-up
truck. Crazy Dave picked
up a family of three along the side of the road
and is giving them a lift to Flagstaff, Arizona. Seeking
fresh air you jumped at the opportunity to ride in the
bed of the truck. Crazy Dave is driving
about ninety miles an hour down the open road
and you are laying on your back looking
up at the clear black sky. You hear the
wheels rumbling over the highway. Every once
in a while a billboard whizzes by.
The warm wind
rushes over the back of the truck, whistling
as it goes.
The square on Page 19 is the black ocean, seen from
the cliffs of La Jolla, California. You stood
on those cliffs, watching the other divers
jump into the ocean, debating whether or not
you would jump.
You remember how finally you jumped from the cliffs into
the water. The wind scraped your body as you dropped
down, down, into the waiting ocean. The little black patch
of water grew and
grew until suddenly, wham! It was all around you.
Gripped by the cool water you kicked your feet
and pushed your way back to the surface.
And so the square on page 19 leads you into the depths
of the work. Your carefree journey has come to the
end. You decided to take the plunge back into your life.
The squares from the end of chapter two have a hard,
clear-cut feel. Their edges divide black from white,
inside from outside, square from not-square.
Harsh but fair, these squares are telling you
that nothing comes without dedication and
sacrifice. Here are the borders of your life,
clearly defined, limiting, unmoving.
Chapter three begins on page 32, with a square
that is as black as coal. It is
the coal that is going to power the furnace of your life.
It has yet to be lit, but still you
feel its energy.
On page 33 it is lit! Here is the same square,
this time smoldering with the beginnings of a black
flame. And so it goes, page 34, page 35, page 36.
The black flame engulfs the square. By the time
you reach page 39 you are staring at a raging
black fire, framed by a searing white hot page.
And so it comes as a shock when you finally read
the orange words ``four squares'' at the top
of page 40. You suddenly realize that you are
looking at four squares, fitting together exactly,
to make one larger one. You realize now that
all the facets of your life - the wasted youth,
the early years of crime, the hellish incarceration,
the wild journey across the Southwest, the
humbling menial jobs, the arduous climb back
to respectibility, the smoldering and finally
blazing fires of your success - are all part of
the single whole that is your life!
This is a book about suffering and the release from
suffering, about healing and redemption - once again,
a brilliant work. Wow!