Young artists often mistake proximity to the art world for the act of creation itself. Nowhere is this error more common than in New York City, where being able to paint and make rent is a question of finding "the right imbalance" between art and paying work. So says the disarmingly candid narrator of Samantha Peale's first novel, The American Painter Emma Dial, who is not following her own advice. Emma, in the employ of a critically acclaimed painter, hasn't visited her studio in a year. Her self-loathing is palpable; the prose vibrates with the heat of her disgust. (The author herself served as a studio assistant to Jeff Koons — the controversial "King of Kitsch" — and would have had the opportunity to witness this creative trap first-hand.)
As the book opens, Emma perches "like a pet bird" on scaffolding, tweaking a painting for customers of the celebrity artist Michael Freiburg, at his instruction. For seven years, Emma has served as Freiburg's assistant, making all of his art according to his elaborate directions and sleeping with him so that "I would be able to paint more the way he wanted me to."
From a less original writer, this relationship would be far too loaded — a plot device placed in service of a feminist agenda. But Peale doesn't allow her protagonist to wallow in self-pity. Emma, having made the bargain, is matter-of-fact and even a little cynical about it. Her bluntness about the arrangement and its deadening effect on her own art, about her yearning to refocus and the unlikelihood that she actually will, creates a strangely exciting tension around a fairly mundane question: Will she or won't she paint something of her own?
Michael himself doesn't so much as pick up a brush, and claims not to miss it. His ability to divorce conception from implementation — from the feeling of mixing a color and standing before a blank canvas — mystifies Emma. "I could not locate where the excitement was for Michael," she says, "why it was paintings and not something else. This bothered me for a long time until I decided it did not matter. It was a job."
When Michael's friend and rival Phillip Cleary, an art-school idol of Emma's, turns his attention on her and starts referring to her boss's work as Emma's own — "That's you and me side by side," Cleary says, showing her a catalog in which one of Michael's paintings hangs beside his — she is consumed with longing, both sexual and artistic. The more she sees of Cleary, the more difficult it becomes to tolerate Michael. Yet the infatuation poses the danger that Emma will simply wind up in thrall to another great man.
Emma's musings about herself, her boss and the shallow business-, theory- and networking-obsessed world they move in, recall in their frankness and clarity the gimlet-eyed Kate Christensen, whose first novel, In the Drink, depicts an aimless young woman ghost-writing a memoir for a socialite, and whose more recent book, The Great Man, exposes the superficiality of the art world by depicting dueling biographers of a now-dead male artist who fail to recognize his less famous sister as the real talent.
While Peale's work lacks the layered complexity of Christensen's best work, The American Painter Emma Dial is fueled by the same kind of urgent, accessible and weirdly riveting inquiry into the desire to create. Is Emma a true artist, or is she a cog? By the end of the book, we are dying to find out, and we do.