Last September I had the opportunity to see the David Zwirner Gallery at the High Line while it was on exhibit, and one of the paintings, Untitled by Jasper Johns, was evocative in all senses. This is my description of the painting:
They look like ghosts. Or more optimistically, souls. They could be women, children, grandparents, babies; crying and shrieking; drowning in pain, deceit. Nature has knifed them with a cruel, painful stab of betrayal. The souls. They belong to a frame that looks like Picasso’s “Guernica” washed over time and time again by unrelenting anger, by a wave that has eroded every ounce of compassion into raw human fear. The colorless chaos possesses a horror that seeps through the sickly paints and sucks the remaining humanity out of the screaming blobs in the foreground. The ghostly forms of what were once living, breathing people are nothing more than ethereal remnants. A black fist of fury smears the stormy gray background with shadows of terror, terror that makes the hideously disfigured life below sway from left to right in panic. This is desperation. This is despair. The shadows are huddled together in the bottom left of the frame; maybe for warmth, maybe for security, maybe because they have nowhere else to go in a black and white world that has stripped them of the life they once knew and trusted. But yet, even in this closeness exists a haunting distance between the Haitian souls. They are literally transparent, and figuratively empty. No closeness can heal the deep and painful wounds fate has dealt them. Black and white isn’t always so terrible. But black and white without human resilience is just pain. If there was hope in these souls, the painting wouldn’t be so frightening. But in this specific point, in this specific time, hope is merely a mad figment of a wicked imagination.
This leg of the High Line feels like a living frame of some delusional surrealist film. It’s just so strange. Barely visible railroad tracks squash the fledgling green life below them. The rails are prison bars, the grass their victims. Above the ground looms a high-rise with clean glass windows and clean glass doors. It stands like a man on Wall Street, erect in a black designer tux that’s too elaborate, too expensive, too out of place. This sight is a collage of hideously misplaced magazine cutouts. Shattered windows against sleek new buildings, black gravel and trash against spotless paths, fading graffiti art against blocks of new concrete. But in the midst of the woefully incoherent setting is a symbol of redemption. It is a man shaving ice. Inhale, shovel, exhale. Inhale, shovel, exhale. The block of frozen water hides his torso. Only his face and working hand are visible. He is calm, at total peace. Every nerve on his face is relaxed, every ounce of taxing effort his block of ice demands dissolves in his serenity. At first, his presence is almost as displaced as the concrete jungle this High Line has become. He is too human, too real to be standing against such a plastic backdrop. But that very authenticity is what makes the rest of the atmosphere bearable. The contentment on the man’s face is a small but powerful beacon of hope. The broken windows and scattered rails no longer feel like disturbing memories of what was once a beautiful past. The man is still smiling. Everything is in its right place, part of an endless cycle of construction and destruction. Because, no matter how much the urban monster kills the monuments of the past, no matter what knocks down beauty and brings up concrete walls of gray, the man’s face will always be at ease. His art is his spirit, his spirit is eternal.