When the second phase of Manhattan’s High Line Park opened last summer, painter Hyemi Cho was anxious.
Her apartment in a rundown brick building overlooks the once-abandoned rail line that has become a flashy international tourist attraction. “I was worried about the loss of privacy,” she says.
When she moved in six years ago, this was an industrial neighborhood where it wasn't necessarily safe to venture out at night. Now, thanks to the cachet the High Line has brought to this part of Chelsea, the gas stations and scrap yards of 10th Avenue are being crowded out by chic restaurants and fancy apartment buildings. One just down the street from Cho touts a “Bohemian-Nouveau” lifestyle and promises, “You don’t have to live like a starving artist to feel like one.” Whatever that might mean.
A studio in the building is listed at $670,000; two-bedrooms are going for north of $2 million.
Cho has been living an older style of bohemianism. She’s a shy, soft-spoken woman who prefers New York to her native Japan because of the artistic freedom she has found here. At the top of several flights of crooked stairs on 28th Street, she has created an intensely personal body of work, including paintings of slight female figures clad in elaborate armor from the waist up and naked below. Her only companions, most days, have been the voices of NPR.
What would it feel like to have hordes of tourists just 20 yards or so from her windows, watching her paint? Would she be like an animal in the zoo, she wondered?
The animal decided to look back. Instead of closing the shades, Cho played a painterly trick. She created a self-portrait that shows her peering out from behind a curtain, smiling and waving. And she put it in the window, facing the very crowds she was dreading.
When she looked out now to see how the passers-by reacted, she was delighted. They would point, and laugh, and take pictures. She would smile and wave at them for real.
Then she painted more of the pictures for her neighbors. The man across the street is shown lifting his blinds, looking like he might have just gotten out of the shower. The little girl downstairs puts her hands against the glass and smiles.
Cho is trying to find more neighbors who want their portraits to keep watch over the elevated urban park. She approaches people as they enter their buildings; she hands them flyers saying, “Let me paint YOU for your windows on the Highline!” Shoe designer Ruthie Davis, whose towering heels have been worn by celebrities including Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, is the latest Cho subject to survey the High Line. For Cho, it has ended up a relief, she finds, from the solitude of painting.
At her first solo show, which opens January 26 at Nancy Margolis Gallery, the High Line pictures will be part of the work she exhibits.
“At least five times a day I peek out,” Cho told me as we sat at her kitchen table, surrounded by her paintings. “And people are looking back at me. Now I don’t feel isolated anymore.”