This may be obvious now, but the first thing I need to tell you about Art Criticism and Other Short Stories, the newest addition to Blank Cheque Press’s impressive roster, is that it is not directly art criticism. Instead, here there are stories that range from squeaky clean to filthy. Stories that squelch, flutter and pop. AC&OSS is the collected works of Helen Reed’s artist fan-fiction zine — something I would think was some kind of bizarre witticism if it didn’t work so well. The book engages itself with subtly distorted sugar-pie displays of awe — cogent evidence of the fan-fic genre — but also fanatical “too-close” readings (Jen Delos Reyes’ “Private Lives”), odes (Hazel Meyers’ ode to Louise Bourgeois’ ponytail) and science-fiction Bas Jan Ader (Sam Korman’s BAS1975). These are stories that pressure criticism without shying away from desire. They open themselves like an ocean; to become more magnetic, more habitable, to accomodate the needs you didn’t know you had. Consuming every calorie of kink, and laying claim to a sense of indulgent art fantasy. And so — hanging on the dead air between the silent recipients of these love letters and our voyeurism is Liam Jonstone’s response to the collection. Brought to us in the flavour of AC&OSS’s clamorous contributors, and of course, Helen’s coveted eye for fun.
I awoke in the night, or at least I thought I had. My mind recalled a faint whispering of something about a crystal dagger before the storm outside the hull overtook whatever else was spoken.
And now I shall recall the events which preceded this dream. Which perhaps was no dream at all.
It was then several days later when I had landed in port. I never did discover whose voice it was that whispered to me, but I had found early next morning on the ship which brought me into town, a small dagger made of luminescent crystal that seemed to glow green in the moonlight. What its properties were, or why it had come into my possession, were but a mystery to me. One which I desired greatly to unravel.
I became friendly with townsfolk and the local guards quickly and began my inquiries. I was instructed by one of my new friends to meet with a merchant by the edge of town. This merchant was known to be an excellent appraiser of esoteric artefacts. A relationship with this merchant was considered paramount for any dungeoneer, such as myself, and so I made haste to their workshop.
The merchant towered at least three hands taller than myself, whom I have always considered to be above average in height. They wore little, save for a sabretache which I discovered later contained only a series of large constricting bands made of clothlike material. From top to bottom the merchant was covered in long and lush coils of hair. It was difficult to discern whether their form purely was that of silkened curl with no physical form beneath, or if instead the hair that protruded from their top was simply allowed to grow whimsically out of control so as to nearly dust the floors as they moved.
I recall now standing in the merchant’s workshop for quite some time and considering simultaneously the absurdity of consulting a sentient oversized lock of hair and their infallible perception as they narrated histories I knew to be true of all the objects I had on my person. As the moments ticked by, I was drawn further into the minutiae and the sentiment of the merchant’s words, until several words stood out from the rest.
“The dagger is not for you to know, but it will question you.”
I had spent many days pondering the merchant’s words and caressing the fine edge of the crystal dagger I had tasked myself with safekeeping. The dagger seemed to whisper and echo questions, present challenges, and produce imagery within my mind. The ideas were fresh, confusing, and yet familiar. I often wondered if I should put it out of my mind and cast the dagger into the abyss. Some time passed, most of which I filled through conversation with local townsfolk about the crystal dagger and the ideas that had come to me involving its purpose. Some conversations were more fruitful than others.
There was an older dungeoneer who was down on his luck. I spent much of our time together fighting the urge to roll my eyes at the stories of his past lover and the journeys they were on. He was all but washed up in this moment, but I was later able to appreciate what his story really meant.
There was an enchantress who said she would channel the inner voice of the dagger for me and, though I suspected it was all staged, I allowed it.
There was an adventurer who instructed me to hold a wooden board with the words “Listen” carved into one side while they examined the dagger. One individual I recall quite fondly. They drew several graphs and iterations of how they think the dagger had come to be. There were many others, most of which were as memorable as the last. Though I cannot say for certain if any of them truly had the answers I was seeking.
During the coldest stretch of winter I visited a mage in their high tower not far from where I slept most nights. Perhaps one with arcane wisdom could tap into the dagger’s secrets.
The tower was as tall as the sky, though the spiralling stairs that led up to the mage’s library somehow seemed only a flight or two. I curled and turned my fist and was caught off guard as my gentle knocking produced a resounding boom that echoed through the stairwell behind me.
My encounter with the mage was warm as they opened the door and brought me inside their study. The mage’s quarters were beautifully lined with shelves of books and scrolls of which I had only heard the names of and never thought I would ever myself read. They spoke to me of the fallacy of seeking knowledge in an object, but instead spoke of how knowledge comes from one’s willingness to apply that which is unknown to learn. Their words guided and directed my hands towards the crystal dagger which I don’t recall placing upon on a pedestal before us — glowing in the moonlight the dagger seemed almost to bleed whispers of its secrets as moonbeams caught dust motes hanging above its emerald glow.
Then the tower disappeared. The oaken floorboards beneath me vanished as if a blink had wiped their essence from existence. For a moment I hung there, as if grasped tightly by the darkness of the night sky. In those moments I remembered all those whom I had met in this strange town recently and recalled that each left me with more questions, more curiosity perhaps, than I had before encountering them. I reached out to take the crystal dagger which was suspended in front of me and as I grasped it I immediately began my descent back to Earth and smiled.