New York

Constantino Nivola

Byron Gallery

Constantino Nivola’s current exhibition at the Byron Gallery is dominated by the more than a dozen reliefs though there are a fair number of free standing pieces to be seen as well. The reliefs are the more successful pieces, because of their convincing nature imagery and delectable technique. What is sumptuous in the reliefs becomes fussy in the small free pieces, and the inventions in the latter are on the whole comparatively enervated.

Most of the reliefs are concerned with Nivola’s personal cosmographic, or at least meteorological, allegories. The artist’s experience of nature, or his reflection upon that experience, has led to a display of inventiveness wherein natural elements appear in recognizable form, but have been granted a persona. The earth as a vulnerably sprawled female is presented in Summer Day with an organic lyricism that surpasses the labored Surrealist puns of, say, Tchelitchew. The difference between a dumb sight-gag and an authentic personification of nature is a matter of spiritual authority. In the one, certain analogical possibilities of form are flaunted as an amusing device, to delight and provoke, and in the other, an identity in nature, recognizable as soon as it is perceived, is manifested. For Nivola, these identities are almost always beneficent to the senses. Spring Air is a lofting dream of smudged forms and volumes that merge pictorially with the relief ground. Rippling bulges, still very much in the process of becoming, articulate the indeterminately active mood of Weather’s Dilemma. All this sounds rather sweet, as indeed it is; however, the artist must be given credit for forbearing to introduce gratuitous klutzy touches and gaucheries in an effort to “balls up“ his poetic dream. The vigor and energy of the forms themselves push aside any effeteness, although there is considerable self indulgence in the matter of patinas, tending as they do to sunny gold.

Two explicitly figurative reliefs, Silent Thoughts and Waiting, are afflicted with terminal over-literalness and too much drawing with a point in the relief ground to indicate an interior space. It is all right for reliefs to be pictorial, but the artist must never come to think that they are pictures. The figures too, pensive and thought-struck, are so specific as to end in condescensions to the acuities of the viewer.

Among the free-standing pieces, the best is certainly Night Party, a flattish piece which is really a relief panel turned through ninety degrees. In it the artist has dealt with a very difficult problem of scale (it is a nocturnal beach party) and skillfully brings off a remarkable interrelation of figures, wavy water, and the strand. A lone Bathing Figure is best of class for single figure pieces, preserving with pathetic clarity the friable nature of the worked clay in shimmering golden bronze.

Nivola’s clear hits lie with the pieces having to do with nature and landscape-like ideas rather than in his brushes with the problems of figure sculpture. In fact, usually he is prudent enough not to become directly and exclusively entangled with the problem. Landscape can assimilate his high degree of personal psychic projection, but the figure, presupposing as it does the possibility of a sentience somewhat independent of the artist, will not gracefully bear it. Because this is so, Nivola’s figure pieces here seem overburdened with Emotional Import, and the expressive gesture becomes theatrical posturing.

Dennis Adrian