New Paltz-based artist Rich Corozine has launched a riveting and sublime novel/memoir titled The Last Painting. That isn’t the only homage to Da Vinci, because the cover of the book is a self-portrait of Corozine, naked save for a bowler hat and a kerchief, stretched out in an Anatomy of an Artist-like pose. That’s what the book is: an almost-blurred anatomical portrait of the stories and places and people that have had influence on Corozine’s life, without naming them or pinpointing them so directly that it reads like GPS coordinates.
It begins with this waterfall of goodbyes that seem to begin in earnest, and as they pick up speed collect every significant and random cultural benchmark before and into the 21st century. It goes from “Goodbye Mom, Goodbye Pop, Goodbye Kids, Goodbye Hudson River” to “Goodbye Watts, Goodbye Oakland, Goodbye Birmingham, Goodbye Wyatt Earp, Goodbye General George Armstrong Custer, Goodbye Crazy Horse, Goodbye Honest Abe, Goodbye Hip-Hop, Goodbye Punk, Goodbye Rock ‘n’ Roll. Goodbye Woody and Soon-Yi. Goodbye TV, DVD, CD and the FBI…Goodbye Silicon Chips, Goodbye Potato Chips, Goodbye Chips off the old Block.”
He talks about New Paltz and the community fight to keep Wal-Mart out and a Monkey Wrench Gang-like desire to blow up the fast-food-conglomerate cesspools like McDonald’s that crept into town before citizens were armed and ready with grassroots vehemence and pro bono environmental rights attorneys. You’re lulled into the artist’s mind that is both personal and porous at the same time. Artists create inside their minds, but those minds are not devoid of context. They still exist within the larger world; and all of the profound and mundane bits and pieces that have flooded this artist’s life are synthesized and organized beautifully within these pages.
We go from Goodbye to a fevered dream that the artist is having about this all-consuming need to finish The Last Painting. It must be perfect and contain every piece of beauty and sorrow and heartbreak and tenderness that he has ever experienced or that has ever happened onto one piece of mortal canvas.
“I walk to it. My last painting. The colors are sprawled across the floor around me. The brushes are at the ready, immersed in holy water. I paint a pale blue with delicacy. A mix of cerulean and titanium. I paint the inside of the remaining tree forms. Blue-on-blue, the edges dark. The interior spaces are soft, gentle, like fine china, or as if brushing my hand across her breast. Muted form. The line at the edge is too dark and I smudge it once again with my thumb and step back again to squint knowing that this painting will be the culmination of all I have ever seen or felt…ever. It is my last stand.”
From this fevered state that is both lucid and sensual and filled with light and colors and detail, we move into the middle of the book, where there are stories that have echoed throughout Corozine’s life – some in paintings, others in plays and still others as living legends, tales that have stayed the test of time – oral hieroglyphics, written testimony of things that may have only been witnessed once or every day or maybe not at all.
There is a story about Ba-Ba the Car. Ba-Ba is a person who is mute and deaf, who believes he’s a car. He drives around the town at night, signaling to turn, yielding for oncoming traffic, stopping when the light turns red and accelerating with a “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” when the light turns green. What’s beautiful about Ba-Ba and the writing of this story is that the author never condescends to this mythical character. He writes, “Ba-Ba is a good driver,” and “Ba-Ba was also a careful driver.” We watch, through the lens of teenage boys, as Ba-Ba fills up his gas tank, checks his engine, has trouble with his ignition. We also see him transform from being a car to a bulldozer in the town’s dump to a groovy and smooth Pink Cadillac, replete with Ba-Ba dressing in all pink and wearing pink fuzzy dice around his neck.
“We were awed by him,” reflects Corozine. “And here’s the big distinction. Ba-Ba didn’t pretend to be a car or impersonate a car. Ba-Ba believed he was a car. At least he did certain times of the day, mostly at night. There were other times where he swept up at a local gas station and he had to live somewhere and sleep but when he drove at night, he was driving.”
There is also a man with Down syndrome in a residential facility who believes he’s a chicken and convinces the narrator, who is working there, to build him a coop. There’s a story about the young artist taking a job as a census enumerator in one of the poorest, most drug-infested, grimy and sketchy parts of Manhattan in the 1970s. There are rats running over his lap as he tries to fill out the information for tenants who are toothless, drunk, clad in soiled pajamas and trying to kiss him. He walks back to his apartment with a piece of sandpaper trying to rub the grime off him, but it’s there.
These are the underbelly stories where we shine light into the crevices. Sometimes there are these beautiful, transcendent beings like Ba-Ba, and other times, there is a poor artist, being kissed by a drug-addled middle-aged woman with no pants on in a seedy apartment on the Upper East Side. These stories can each stand on their own, but in this book, they’re vignettes that are orchestrated and positioned in such a way that they become parts of a larger story – a symphony of experiences that continue to resonate with the artist and his readers.
“I have paintings of Ba-Ba, I’ve written plays about him, he’s had a production in Poland and my brother, Vinnie, is in the process of finding a dance company to put on a sort of musical rendition of the piece. Ba-Ba is magical. We were only teenagers when we would go and look for him at night when he was driving,” said Corozine. “We didn’t do it to laugh at him, we were fascinated by him. Here we were, a bunch of teenagers in this shit town, with nothing happening and people mumbling on the corner or drunk at the bar and then there was Ba-Ba who was able to transcend this place and this time. One of my friends said that Ba-Ba was the only one to ever get out of that town!”
What’s so enchanting about Corozine and his book, as well as all of his work across artistic media, is his sense of humility, his absolute lack of vanity or even awareness of how talented he is. He’s an artist because he makes art every day. “You know how it is. It’s the thing we do because we have to do it. Art is the only thing. It’s how we make meaning out of our lives and communicate with one another and enrich the culture and save it, really. What happens after you do the art? I’ve never been interested in all of that – the art world or publicity or whatever.”
Yes, Corozine has had shows in Europe and the States, and there are luscious stories in this book that are rooted in Italy and Sweden and upstate New York and the Bronx. But the thing that brings it all together is this character, this artist with a bowler hat who is in love with art and beauty and the process of creation. “I do a lot of self-portraits, but they’re not really me,” he said. “It’s almost like a character. The bowler hat was my mother’s, and she wore it during her last days, and I promised her I would keep wearing it.”
There are these props and this dance between Corozine the person and artist and father and brother and son and the narrator who is one or maybe two steps removed. “That’s why I called it a novel/memoir because some stories are absolutely true – like Ba-Ba – and others are just a play on this idea of the final hurrah. The Last Painting. What does that mean? The artist could do his last painting, and when it’s done? Throw it out or start a new one!”
The book closes brilliantly with a scene of the artist flying over Florence saying goodbye in Italian to all of the Renaissance figures. Embodying that concept is a self-portrait titled, Where’s Richie? He’s flyin’ with the birds.
He’s as charming and warm and full of light and passion in person as the pages he pens in this book. If you love art, if you love good writing and fantastic stories about people who rarely are seen in literature, then stop by Inquiring Minds in downtown New Paltz to get a copy of his book, and come to his reading/signing at the Elting Memorial Library in the Village of New Paltz on Sunday, December 4 at 3 p.m.