by Jacinda Russell
Nic Nicosia seduces his audience with rich, Cibachrome color and a 48" x 68", larger-than-life scale. Whether spotlighting a ballerina's private performance on top of a kitchen table or casting shadows on a bedroom wall, Nicosia uses light to create dramatic mood. He constructs illu-sionistic stages, painting two-dimensional backgrounds to resemble three-dimensional spaces, then fills them with people whose presence alters the perspective even further. He carefully controls every element within his camera's viewfinder — the position of a chair, the tilt of a glass, the expressions on his participants' faces as well as their gestures — creating complex compositions that border on chaos. He knows all the technical "tricks" to make a photograph aesthetically sound. With the emphasis placed on the intricate details of the scenario and the concentration on how it is photographed, Nicosia neglects to expand his 20-year exploration of a singular idea. His depictions of the banal abnormalities and sociological dysfunctions of middle class suburbia do not penetrate further than the overemphasized actions within the photograph and remain boring and contrived. Nicosia deconstructs typical notions of suburbia by exploring lust, violence and death. These elements have the potential to effectively comment on the oddities found in the otherwise mundane underbelly of middle class America, but the Contemporary Art Museum's survey lacks mystery,portraying incidents all too common to be abnormal. Consider the following examples: In a suburb outside Dallas, pre-adolescent, bored children burn down a tree in a fenced backyard; a family discovers a body, too-clean-to-be-authentic, in a drainage canal; and a clown gives the finger to a couple of men in an automobile. In an unnamed Midwestern town, ayoung man stops to examine an object hidden in the weeds and finds a dismembered human ear covered with insects,rapidly decaying in the warm air. After alerting authorities who respond too casually, the man begins his own investigation and enters a world of violent sex, murder and perversities imbedded far beneath the facade of small town, innocent America. In his 1986 film, Blue Velvet, David Lynch terrorized the suburbs with the unpredictable — bizarre characters with erratic personalities — deviants who entice the naive into a world of their own.
In his gallery talk, Nicosia stated that he "presents an image and relies on the viewer's life experience to interpret it." The scenarios in his photographs, however, require little explanation as we have seen them before on television, movies orNan Goldin monographs. In Real Pictures #2 (1987—88), gunmen chase a man on foot who is either caught or escapes, killed or set free; he is good or he is evil, or perhaps a combination of both. Love + Lust #6 examines some of the same issues as Goldin's documentary work from the previous decade except Nicosia's characters are posed and less convincing. We know the sexual dissatisfaction on the woman's face, the man's potential avoidance by feigning sleep, and the indicatedsecrecy of the hotel room surroundings. Even though Nicosia's series is fictitious, his replication reveals nothing new in thegenre — he merely duplicates a scene interpreted numerous times before.
Many of the situations are commonplace enough to have experienced ourselves though undoubtedly not in such an exaggerated manner. In Violence (1986), a well-dressed man at a party punches another man in the stomach while five spectators stand by, some oblivious to the disruption. The other guests function as props, exhibiting little emotion, while the action appears as false as the surrounding personalities. It is an overacted depiction of a climax without foreshadowing, yet another scene with a predictable outcome. These images are devoid of complexity, replicating stereotypes that are not interesting.
The use of humor affects the interpretation of several of the pieces. It often seems misplaced and in other instances, outrightly unamusing. In Near Modern Disasters #8 (1983), three characters in an invisible gale hold on for life on a two-dimensional backdrop. The hurricane force of the imagined wind normally ends in tragedy yet the actors' exaggeratedexpressions indicate that this situation should be funny. The video, So ... You Want to Be an Artist? (1997), ridicules the audience to the point of insult. The resounding laughter of a silhouetted man projected high above the viewers reverberates through the museum after he asks the rhetorical title question, creating an aura of condescension. Nicosia claims that when he created the video he was asking himself the question. The overall tone of the piece, however, implicates his audience in making a wrong decision.
The series, Untitled (1991—1993), comes the closest to thorough investigation of the underbelly of suburbia. Photographedin both his past and present houses, the images are more spontaneous and less contrived than the other work in the exhibition. The black-and-white oil-toned photographs are encased in deep shadows, photographed at night with careful attention placed on the source of lighting. Untitled #10 (1992) reveals a man looking at a glow on the other side of a fence. He is enraptured by the smoky haze of exploding firecrackers. A young girl watches sparklers set off in the foreground as the man is oblivious to the "fire" in his own backyard. In this photograph, the characters stand on their own more so than the actors of Nicosia's other series. They do not rely on each other to support their existence and maintain an individuality absent in much of the other work. Mystery extends beyond that of technical qualities into the characters themselves. They are less contrived — poised in their surroundings as if Nicosia let loose of some control. The characters are more fully developed although their actions are still predictable.
Staged photography is not a new venture into the medium. The late Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Nicosia's contemporary Jeff Wall have effectively worked with arranging subjects, creating multilay-ered, fictitious narratives before the camera. Meatyard, who lived the middle class life in suburban Kentucky, photographed his family in the 19605 wearing props,sometimes blurring his subjects beyond recognition. The humorous masks worn by his wife and children became villainousand disturbing as they stare calmly at the camera. He expanded the psychosis of the characters in his photographs by portraying the innocent as grotesque — developing his realities through fabrication.
Nicosia's Untitled (Sam!), 1986, from the Life as We Know It series depicts a young boy in vampire guise grimacing before a birthday party table of girls as a mother watches over in the background. He wears red, plastic fingernails and fakeblood, displaying his fangs for all to see. His presence contrasts sharply with the girls dressed for a party and their red-heart-adorned tablecloth — he is the overacting brother desiring attention and the ensuing mayhem — the antagonist among ten-year-old girls. Unlike Meatyard's masked children, Nicosia's vampire boy wears a thin disguise. He is a stock character who offers description not discovery — his blatant pose erases any psychological depth, revealing all there is to know about the photograph without the need for further exploration.
Jeff Wall, a Canadian photographer, bases his constructions on modernist art and theory, exploring social and ethical issues in narrative format. Like Nicosia, Wall will build elaborate stages, controlling an entire neighborhood of activity down to the most detailed placement of a piece of trash. He will emulate famous paintings in a contemporary, theatrical style with characters that often exaggerate their gestures. In contrast, the subjects in Nicosia's photographs are contrived beyond definition — gestures and movements overemphasized to the point of disbelief. The interactions between Wall's subjects create nervous tensions and discomfort in a strange, often unfriendly environment. Nicosia's actors are placed together for support as very few are able to stand on their own. Wall delves deeply into the psychology of the people he portrays, causing viewers to think strongly about their own actions. The references to art history add to the multi-layered complexity of Wall's photography while Nicosia creates situations that do not penetrate beyond the climax portrayed before us.
Nicosia's work flows from series to series, from photograph to video, into a cohesive unit. It is not difficult to see where one piece stemmed from and where the next will go. The monotonous activity in the videos — the camera as passenger in an automobile, boiling water on a kitchen stove, a child lying face-up on a pool table — incorporates the same characters and actions as in the photographs. It is unfortunate that each resides on the same intellectual level, never quite capturing the psychological mishap that takes place in the banalities of daily activity. The search for abnormal in the familiar and the psychological in the mundane produced a trivialization of the ordinary, contrived dramas that lack new commentary on a subject explored many times before. Over the course of 20 years, Nicosia photographed a valid theme but sadly did not disperse his effort evenly as the concept never progressed beyond the first couple of series while the technical and stylistic proficiencies soared ahead. •
Jacinda Russell is an artist living and working in Houston, Texas.