A Place Not Unlike Your Own
Paintings by Brett Busang
June 11th–July 27, 2008
Tennessee Williams once announced that he had lived, for the most part, a gypsy life, bouncing from place to place, project to project.
In my case, the word bounce might give the wrong impression, suggesting, as it does, spontaneous eruption. Though I have lived in lots of places, I settled down pretty deep and, when it came time to go, I didn’t wanna. That is to say, when I lived in Brooklyn, it was the world for me. I was perfectly happy to be there and didn’t desire to be anyplace else. I liked its clash of ethnicities, its uneasy boundaries, its age-old skeins of rivalry and ritual. Black people, for example, knew not to come into my neighborhood. And, for the most part, didn’t. Turf was respected, by both underdog and “master.”
I was not acknowledged until the year I left. I had been on probation for some years and had grown to accept my lot as the guy you didn’t say hello to. One day, after the proprietor of a coffee-bar opened up to me, I was in. Just like that. When you’re willing to stick around, things open up.
I should speak only for myself. Black folk were obliged to seek Opportunity in other places.
Washington, DC, where I live now, is overrun with people whose critical faculties are underutilized. To wear themselves out, they do crossword puzzles, see darkly paranoid films, attack zoning issues with the tireless consideration you hope to see in a family doctor. They’re a careful lot whose salient virtues are loyalty and consistency. They cut their yards every other Saturday, put their kids in schools that are community-oriented, and are fiercely “pro-active” where property values are concerned. I plan ahead in the sense that I can’t do it backwards – am a bit of an outsider. I’m the only shabby-looking guy who isn’t ranting to an audience that won’t stop to argue. I’m the guy who wanders around looking up – or sideways. I’m the guy who can have a conversation with somebody everyone one avoids.
Washington is as complicated a place as Brooklyn, with its unequal distribution of wealth and poverty; its occasionally craggy beauty; its flat-wound streets and squares; its cruelly oblivious urban culture. Where I live, it’s, by turns, smugly charming and Doomsday-desolate. As a painter, I’ve stuck to the more desolate areas because they’re asymmetrical, both in their human and architectural dimensions. There are no right angles – or “right” people. If something’s old, you do the best you can to keep it going. When an argument breaks out, it’s settled expediently, if not fairly. For spiritual sustenance, people drink – or go to church. A lot of the people who live here came from Tennessee and North Carolina; from crossroads villages with flat-lined economies; from brawling cities where you could get a job in the big furniture factory. They came here to work in jobs that paid good money and were steady and stable. They came here to get away from the racial prejudice whose sickening imagery a wider public would occasionally see in the newspapers. They came here not necessarily to right wrongs, but to roost in a place that was a little better and a little safer than the places they knew only too well.
Every city has attracted similar populations and expanded to accommodate them; they put out the lights in one place and turned them on in another. My city would be familiar to anybody who lives in America today – though it is possible that, the more people can drive away from things that aren’t perfect, the less they’ll see of such places. Escape is very tempting when it is so “easy” a thing to do.