The Sky Below, the Ocean Above, 2014.
Acrylic, serigraph, stone, sand, water, insect wings, glue, canvas,
In The Sky Below, the Oceans Above the collision of materials combine in a crowded, shimmering image of the artist’s psyche. The bramble of purple brushstrokes layered atop dragonfly wings, shattered glass, sand, and a water-damaged photograph of a man’s obscured, smiling face, are all glued atop a torn canvas, capturing an effluence, a senseless and collagesque irruption of the artist’s belief in the value and possibility of art that paralyzed his late twenties spent in Italy.
There, each night, he wrung less and less sense from the world, falling deeper into a starless despair, the victim of a gravity well so dense and oppressive even light could not escape it. The whys flitted like winged insects, always out of reach, and discarded canvases, hundreds of them, were marred with a slash of color and then abandoned. Their corpses covered his walls and filled his room until his humid studio apartment was so crowded he could only sleep and pace in a straight line from his bed to the door.
It was then that death itself came, whispered its name, and addressed itself as the only possible art left for the artist, as the terminus of art, as the void which art seeks to escape but never can, because, it whispers, death itself the ur-art. It opened Johansson’s door and led him outside, toward black-rock cliffs that overlooked the Aegean. It filled his pockets with stones.
With death and its susur, he watched as the sun rose and the cliff face beneath him married and marred the light, idolized and clarified its morning shimmer. Above the sea and below the sky, the artist quivered and listened to death. When he jumped his body cut like a knife through the air. The breeze sang alto low across his skin. He crashed, his toes in ballet-pointe, into the water.
The sea held him like a hand, soft and purpling, as he sank. The depths’ aubergine welcomed him. The water was deep and the light above filtered down in thin columns of half-light. The drowning felt like a memory, an echo. It was not even an acquiescence. In the deep as the darkness ensconced him, he saw, impossibly, a face shimmer from the depths beneath him. He saw the brilliant curve of this face’s handsome pearlescent smile, the swimming algae of his voice, sublunary and beneath language, bubbled and burst around his face. His golden eyes, the last two limbs of light left to him, shone.
Oh, the face he saw in the depths as it worshipped him. Made cymbals of his bones as it crushed them. Made him forget the strained rubber of his popping lungs. The face reached into his stone-laden pockets until it held each stone Johansson had placed in them in its mouth like a promise. Then bit and ground the stone into sand.
The artist thought of the hidden door behind his childhood bed that led to a crawl space, and when he wanted to cry but couldn’t summon the tears, how he’d pull his bed away from the wall, one quiet inch at a time until he could fit through the door. Inside, he’d sit in the dark of the crawl space on a single wooden board that spanned the sea of insulation and close the door behind him. In the perfect, utter darkness he would be able to cry. It was as if the darkness, in its totality, held him, and in its stifling freedom, he could release whatever sadness had built behind the dam of his eyes.
He thought about how once he’d fallen asleep in there, after weeping, and had woken up to the sounds of his parents screaming for him because they didn’t know about his secret room—he hadn’t told them—and they hadn’t noticed his bed slid back from the wall. When he crawled out and pushed his bed back flush against the wall and answered their calls, his mother hugged him and begged him to tell her where he was while his father cried with relief, touching his shoulder with his baseball glove of a hand as if touching any more of him would cause him to vanish again, maybe forever this time.
Johansson told them he was in his room the whole time, hiding in his closet. He sensed that if he told them the truth the darkness would no longer be truly dark, and he worried he might never be able to cry again if he lost it. He shivered in horror as he imagined his body filling up with tears that had nowhere to go.
He watched his father’s eyes leave his face and stare at the headboard of his bed, angled ever so slightly off-center. Johansson held his breath, waiting for his father to say that he knew where he’d been, but he didn’t. He kept the darkness safe for his son.
Still, the next time he felt the stopped sadness lodged like a stone in the sea of his throat and went to the hidden dark to cry, he did not feel the darkness and its arms embrace him. He could not cry. He knew his father knew, and so the place was shattered.
He began sketching the next day in a small lined notebook and his sadness trickled out of him with each jagged line he carved into the page. It was different than the darkness. It was work, not release, but it helped more, and it felt more total when he’d finished. The tears came, and water fell on the paper, smearing the pen ink, wrinkling the pages as they dried. He remembered this work, as the ocean’s face relieved him of his weight.
In the ocean, there was darkness, too, and a face within it, this time. Oh god did his lungs hurt as he spun through the water to find the surface. Death whispers, but life shouts. The rocks in his pockets were gone and he kicked, rising through the water, the vision of a face beneath the waves, at the border between art and darkness, shrinking. He kicked until the sky came into singeing view, its blues and whites a panoply of summer. The salt brine. The darting eyes. The face. The darkness’s sudden absence like a wound he knew would never close. The echo of a hand reaching into his pockets. The sudden buoyancy of his body. The shattered glass of it all, dotted with blue acrylic.
The artist floated on his stomach, two wants pulling him in opposite directions. The ocean was above him, the sky was below. Up, the ocean darkness, with its hands and salt and peace. Down, the sky, the face that had smiled and freed him, and the turmoil of representation. Lines and colors would no longer suffice. The darkness was strong. The face, the sky, the tumult and possibility of a crowded canvas. He flipped and faced clouds and sun until the waves spat him ashore. The darkness was gone, and in its place, there was a longing. There was work. The slashed canvas at home waited for him, ready for what came next: This thalassic piece of crowded, insistent art that launched the artist’s early career and marked his foray into mixed media.