In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York-set novel The Great Gatsby, a pair of gaping, unblinking eyes on a billboard for local optometrist are always watching: the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckelburg. The “doctor’s” eyes loom over the book’s glamorous yet doomed Jazz-Age plot, taking stock of the book’s sordid and surreptitious moments. The eyes are a strange, surreal image that puzzle, not only the characters within the bounds of the book, but nearly a century’s worth of readers.
Indubitably, the true meaning behind the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckelburg have been analyzed to death in the body paragraphs of countless American literature essays. Their meaning, as with most symbols of great literature, are too complex and ambiguous to be cornered into a single meaning. But, one thing is certain: the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckelburg have created a very strange legacy. They are the beginning of NYC’s fascination with disembodied eyes. Walk up Sixth Avenue pedestrian passed 14th street or scroll through Nick Savides portfolio, and you will come eyeball to eyeball with a modern iteration of the Fitzgeraldian symbol.
In his painting, View from the Highline at Sunset, realist painter Nick Savides paints Gansevoort Street in New York’s Meatpacking District during sunset. The composition most poignant region is the pair of eyes painted on the face of one of the buildings. Like the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckelburg in The Great Gatsby, these eyes are large and always “watching.” The eyes in Nick’s painting are both celestial and terrestrial. Their gray color echoes both the sky and the concrete of the street. This connection, established through color, bridges the two realms. The billboard “looks” at the contemporary, commonplace, and pedestrian with an objective, omniscient, and even godlike viewpoint.
The billboard is a proxy for the realist artist. The eyes remain indiscriminately open mirroring the basic values of Realism. The people in the painting engage in ordinary, night-in-Meatpacking activities, from sipping cocktails in a fern-lined enclosure to digging through heaps of trash. What the eyes do symbolically, Nick Savides does physically; they capture it all.
Paradoxically, the billboard complicates the realism with swirl of surrealism. The eyes bizarrely anthropomorphize the skyline and self-referentially wink at the viewer. Suddenly, the building, perhaps even the city, has a consciousness. Through all his skillfully-rendered cityscapes, Nick uses a slyly complicated style of realism to explore how we look at the city and, more importantly, how the city looks back at us.
While View from the Highline at Sunset – Gansevoort Street has the only overt set of eyes, all of Nick’s paintings use vision and viewpoint to pinpoint instances of surreality in the context of realism. Crosswalk Reflections is a particularly optically-illusional example. Here, Nick paints an intersection in New York’s Tribeca through windows and reflections of a local restaurant. A city street is a classic subject choice for a realist and, yet, here the viewer is sent on a surrealist errand to untangle the composition and its many surfaces. In two other paintings Staple Street – Looking North and Staple Street – Looking South, Nick treats the same subject with two different viewpoints. Without the central overhead bridge, the same blue-topped stroller pusher, and the geolocating name, it would be extremely challenging to identify the streets in these two paintings as the same. His 180-degree turn has a jarring difference. Viewpoint becomes a shapeshifting force for the city.
The city-setting, ordinary moments, and realistic style are all visual qualities quintessential features of realism, and yet, Nick wriggles out of the confines of the genre. The general calmness is extremely unrealistic of New York City. The writer of this article is a resident of downtown New York and visited several locations of Nick Savides’ paintings as research. I, the writer, can confirm as an eyewitness that none of the locations are as pristine or unpopulated as they appear in the paintings. My experience was not so ordinary either. Sure, I witnessed people consulting maps for directions and gabbing with friends. But, I also saw some very strange and momentous things at or around the very locales featured in the painting. These included an ice cream truck, graffiti, several photoshoots (including one of a man in full Victorian London garb), the head of a mannequin (as if this city needs more disembodied eyes), and a red-carpet event for the dystopian drama film Fahrenheit 451 (coming soon). These peculiarities, in all their flamboyant surrealism, are the types of things that Nick Savides edits out of his paintings. Instead, he favors a low-key surrealism under the serene, clean guise of ordinary city life. He removes the boisterous excess.
Through this unique genre of realism, Nick calls into question what survives the realist’s gaze. Nick’s unique blend of realism and subtle surrealism creates the possibility of constructing your own city. Imposing your own viewpoint is at the core of an urban ideology. We, like the eyes on a billboard advertisement, remain fixed in our own perspective experiencing our environment through our own point of view.