Nic Nicosia: One-Frame Movies
By April Rapier
Nic Nicosia: “Domestic Dramas” and “Near Modern Disasters.” The Houston Center for Photography. September 6- October 20.
No news is good news: Nic Nicosia is sticking to his original explanations (strict, academic, formal), not throwing any curves to those in pursuit of understanding him. This is very good — it signals a continuance of the work that has progressed in so orderly a fashion, along the same lines — with no abrupt switchbacks to divert either artist or audience from what goes on. As far as what goes on is concerned. I suspect that there is an alter-ego at work/play here (Frankie Paul as Nic, being interviewed by Life and Newsweek magazines). It has been said of the interiors he creates that they are patently false, modelled after movie sets or cartoons; I find the actors who populate them to be equally implausible. They are, under Nicosia's tutelage, playing out social, personal, and political dramas in a manner fabricated and intended to make the viewer contemplate and react to that which one might ordinarily ignore. They also guide the drama, altering it beyond his control, which suits him fine. He has an unabashed regard for his influences (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, John Divola, John Pfahl), yet no state of the art, obligatory homage is apparent. (The intelligent child at play is pure Linda Robbenolt in spirit.) The only conclusive parallel he can be persuaded to draw is between his and Bernard Faucon's work.
Inserted in the text of this essay are excerpts from a discussion with Nicosia. My questions were glib; his answers, insightful and sincere, weren't terribly satisfying. Nor do they have to be, as long as the work continues to move. His most recent images, under the series title The Cast, are honed down a bit, focusing on an interesting person with tableau as backdrop, rather than an explosive situation. He foresees a possible integration of both. Being, as he puts it, "one-track minded," is perhaps a great blessing.
The extent to which Nicosia's involvement in his work is physical (creating everything but the makeup) dictates his zeal for referential, all-inclusiveness, from sit-coms to coloring books, ideas ranging from those of Christo (who, by hiding something temporarily from the public renews it or adds to its importance) to Eileen Cowan's psychodramas, childhood cartoons to art class. He wholeheartedly wishes the work to be entertaining first, provocative and intelligent second, and ultimately lasting, so that one's perception of the ordinary or mundane is permanently altered. The exaggerated views he portrays enable the humor in a bad situation to come forth; after all, weren't the early Disney cartoons sometimes violent and macabre? When I mentioned that sometimes people didn't “get” what he was trying to do, he said, "I don't get what they're trying to get. It's all right there.'' Emotional response is the key, not examining topical clues within the sets. (Apparently, the Akron Museum audience "got" it — they thought the work was funny.) Perhaps one of Nicosia's most revealing aspirations for an image is that it be a movie in one frame. "Near (Modern) Disaster #6," a hotel lobby more closely resembling a ward for loony Californians, seen from inside an open elevator door, illustrates this narrative quality well.
When asked to comment on his meteoric rise in recognition (publication in Life, Newsweek, and The New York Times,inclusion in numerous distinguished exhibits and collections}, he touched on timing, publicity, and the support and enthusiasm that Linda Cathcart (director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston) has for the photographs, but speaks of himself as indistinguishable from the work. Thus he tries to get people to know him, a pleasant experience because he is absolutely guileless and solicitous about what he does and why.
Although he crosses many media lines in creating a set, the finished piece is photographic. The confusion generated by this has granted him the most success in museums, where emphasis is less on medium than content, with marginal response in either conventional or photography galleries. That there still exists a rabid prejudice against photography as art was demonstrated when Ultra magazine called Ms. Cathcart for suggestions as to excellent new artists. As she began describing Nicosia's work, she was interrupted by the writer exclaiming, "But that's photography," as though the two were mutually exclusive.
Nicosia's formal training is in film; in his pictures, any and everything can and does happen, as in the movies, or comics,or pop paintings. He has adopted a perfect balance between being as innocent as he seems and as astute as his work and success would indicate. That he relies so heavily and confidently on fantasy to impart a stronger, more lasting sense of reality seems a contradiction until one examines his own opposing mechanisms, which makes one a believer in the powerof an interior, whether defining a physical space, or an interaction/ violation between strangers on the street. Opposing forces prevail — he accomplishes what is essentially unsuitable, unsuitable for close scrutiny.