Review of 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'', which featured 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 night of 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. Your right 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 of freedom.

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!