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03/07/2014

Perfect Circle

Jonathan Gibbs

an extract from Randall

When the pub kicked out, we headed back to someone’s house. (Emily decided to call it a night, and I put her in a cab home.) What happened then is the perfect opportunity to show how the reality of being around Randall differed from the myths and tall tales that have tended to grow up around him. I don’t want to suggest that everything you might have read or heard about him is wrong, or hopelessly exaggerated. It’s more complicated than that. And, over the years, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of adding to that atmosphere of hype, of accentuating the exotic and the outrageous for the journalists, and the collectors, and just the ordinary people who asked, when they found out that I knew Randall, what he was like. Perhaps the simple fact is that an event or moment such as those I experienced with Randall has to be embellished or inflated when you tell it to someone who wasn’t there, just to give a sense of the scale and the thrill that you would have got, to be there, inside that moment. So, to set the record straight (if such a thing is even possible) we didn’t actually ‘break in’ to Goldsmiths. Randall didn’t vandalise his own show, or try to set it on fire. Nor did he climb in through a window, although he, and the rest of us, did climb out of one.

What happened was that, as the party downshifted from dancing to sitting, people did get around to talking about art, discussing the different works: the good, the bad and the wonderfully, peerlessly awful. It was the end of their time at the college, so they were keen to look both back and forward, to pass final judgment and extend fantastical prophesies.

At one point I turned to Randall and asked him what it was he’d done.

‘It’s called Perfect Circle,’ he said.

He took a final, squint-eyed draw on a joint, and passed it to me.

‘Perfect Circle,’ I said.

‘Yeah. There’s this famous story about the Renaissance painter Giotto, who lived in Florence in the thirteenth century. He’s got this great painting of Judas giving Jesus the traitor’s kiss.’

‘A fresco.’ This was Kevin Nicholson-Banks, sat on the floor, head tipped back on the sofa, where someone, possibly a girl, was stroking his hair. ‘Early fourteenth century. The Scrovegni chapel in Padua.’

‘Early fourteenth. Gotcha.’ Randall gave Kevin an ironical salute, and went on. ‘Anyway, Judas looks really creepy, he’s shorter than Jesus and kind of ugly and bulky and he’s got his arm up on Jesus’s shoulder, like he’s going to wrap him in his cloak and drag him down to hell.’

‘He looks like a fucking monkey. That’s what he looks like.’

‘Thank you, Kevin. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, one day the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto because he was thinking of commissioning some work from him, some frescos or whatever. The messenger asked him for a sample of his work. Presumably he was expecting Giotto to give him a few nice Biblical scenes to take back, but Giotto just took a piece of paper and painted a perfect circle in the middle of it, and gave him that.’

I laughed. ‘Good man. Did he get the job?’

‘He did. I guess the Pope knew his shit. And so, all I’ve done is copy Giotto. He had to convince God’s representative on earth he had the shit. I’ve got to get convince a bunch of professors and xternal examiners. Obviously, I’m not putting myself up there with Giotto, but I thought, if I can produce a decent circle, then how can they not pass me?’

‘And? How do you think you’ve done?’

‘Not bad. I guess I’ve done about four thousand circles. I reckon there are six or seven really good ones.’

‘How about now?’ I asked. ‘Could you do one now?’

I think this was the point at which Randall really noticed me. Perhaps this was even when the possibility of our friendship was born. For myself, I’d only known him a few hours, but still I knew, or perhaps I didn’t know, but it was true nonetheless, that I wanted to know him better. He had something I wanted, though what it was I couldn’t have said.

‘I think we could do that. Yes.’

Someone passed him a piece of paper and a pen and he kneeled on the carpet and cleared a space on the coffee table. He settled himself – there was a lovely touch of the maestro in the way he shot his sleeves, rolled his shoulders and coughed – then he tucked his elbow into his side, gave a couple of quick ghost arcs above the white and calmly, not fast at all, drew the pen round, barely touching the paper, it seemed, but leaving a line behind it. One movement, and it was done.

It was indeed a very good circle, and I clapped and whooped along with everyone else, though I couldn’t help looking round to check for tell-tale smirks or other evidence of conspiracy. I was enjoying myself tremendously – I’d turned down the offer of half an E, but was carried along on the general tide of positive vibes, a high by association – but I wasn’t yet comfortable enough in their company, let alone in my understanding of art, not to worry that I was being taken for a ride.

Randall raised his hand, acknowledging the general applause, and waved the piece of paper towards me.

‘There you go,’ he said.

I grinned, and reached out to take it. It felt, that moment too, like a connection being made. But, just as I was about to take hold of it, he whipped the sheet back out of my grasp.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a better idea. Let’s put it with the rest.’

His eyes were fixed on me, but I could tell it was the reaction of the others he was waiting on.

‘Come on. Vincent hasn’t seen the show. What better time?’

In the end it was about eight or nine of us that made the trip out of the house and up the road to the college. Some of us may have been apprehensive about the plan, or dubious as to its chances of success, but we all, drunkenly, or druggedly, but anyway obediently, trooped along behind him as Randall strode up to the entrance.

He leaned close to the doors to look through them, then rapped on the glass. After a moment the security guard appeared; of course, he knew Randall. He opened the door and listened while Randall sweet-talked him into letting us in. The guard accepted our promises to behave, and not to take too long, then Randall stood holding the door and smiling maniacally at us as we filed in. It was my first time inside the building, obviously, and the long corridors and marble floors looked far more impressive in that severe, mechanical light, devoid of people, than they ever did during the daytime. We went through a couple of sets of double doors to the gallery rooms, and I was given a tour of the other students’ work. There was some photography and the odd weird painting (Frank Greene’s early ‘acid cloud’ pieces were there) but most of it, it seemed to me, was made up of installations (Gina Holland’s betting shop, complete with shop dummies, Aya Inouye’s rugs made from unstitched canvas sneakers). I observed these solemnly enough, but I had no way of getting a handle on them whatsoever. They looked to me like nothing more than poorly executed parodies of what sculptures are supposed to be like, done by someone who’d never actually seen one, and that had been stood squarely in the middle of the big, white-painted rooms as if to shame them.

Then we came to Randall’s space.

There was a long table in the middle of it, covered in pieces of paper, some of them messily collected into piles, some spread out, as if at random. Pots with pens, brushes and other bits and pieces, a basic office chair on wheels. There were more sheets on the floor: a carpet of rejects, scuffed and torn. And on the wall, pinned or taped, more again: these the chosen, the miraculous few that approached perfection. Each sheet blank but for its circle: some thin of line, some thick, some monochrome, some coloured. The walls made for a gallery of empty targets, a hundred zeros without a one to put in front of them. ‘They’re all the same,’ I remember thinking, as I strolled around the room, can of beer in hand, looking at them all and trying to look like I was thinking the kind of thoughts I guessed the rest of them would be thinking; trying to think the thoughts. ‘All circles are the same. There aren’t any other kinds.’ That was the limit of what I my hazed, untutored brain could produce.

Taken as a whole, it was certainly impressive. At that time of night, with our words and footfalls echoing off the whitepainted plywood flats that divided the room into individual spaces, but without diminishing the sense of Georgian grandeur, it was certainly spooky. Drunk, and a bit stoned, and otherwise intellectually high on my sudden ingress into this strange new world, I was perfectly willing to accept that it was art.

Randall wanted to decide where ‘my’ circle should go – he had a scoring system, with different bits of wall given over to the different grades – so we amused ourselves for a time by debating its merits and deficiencies, sharing round the beers, smoking more cigarettes and joints out of a back window.

Then things got a little silly.

Someone made a paper aeroplane from one of the circle drawings on the floor, and aimed it across the room. Someone else responded, and soon we were in the midst of a full-on paper ball fight, that quickly spread out into the other rooms. For five, maybe ten minutes we charged around the suite of rooms, ducking and lunging and hiding and hurling our ineffectual missiles, swearing and joking and reeling out quotes from films. As well as each other, we used other art works, installations and paintings and photographs, as targets. The artists made yelping reference to liminal trajectories and the necessity of reconfiguring the canon as they hurled around their scrunched-up balls of paper.

Interestingly, although we used the sheets on the table and the floor, no one touched any of the ones on the wall – I say interestingly because, looking back on the show, and with a degree more knowledge about how to read these things than I had then, it is clear that the quality of the best circles was not what the show was about. Randall constantly railed against what he called ‘the tyranny of technique’. Anyone who thought art had to be skilfully executed, or look good, was in thrall to outmoded ideas. Randall must have found it ironical to the point of quaintness that we – even the most advanced, theoretically-minded of his peers – left the most ‘perfect’ circles alone.

Randall is published by Galley Beggar Press at £11

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