Nicholas Africano

Nancy Lurie Gallery

It would be easy to dismiss Nicholas Africano’s work as the soap opera of New Image painting. Because his figures act in dramas of friendship and the family, their situations may seem clichéd, their emotions exploited, their privacy infringed upon. However, soap opera gloats over pain and passion and delights in sleaziness. It stimulates voyeurism, draining everyday life of emotional depth while pretending to show crises. Soap opera fails to understand the significance of events or feelings and becomes pacifying and monotonous, but Africano plumbs the emotional intensity of crucial moments and banal rituals. Thus the paintings are exacting in his careful choice of situation portrayed and their demand that we identify with it and involve ourselves.

Certainly no soap opera would show two men, one in his underwear, in close emotional quarters. In The Scream, an installation of three paintings (one to a wall), Africano does just that. On another wall he writes in a calm hand a not-so-serene story about the scenes themselves and their background: a good friend “went crazy” over a woman; Africano felt helpless but tried to give succor by embracing him; the man screamed. Sympathetically distressed, Africano nonetheless concludes, “I hate people who go crazy.” The simplicity and bluntness of his language may sound childlike; unadulterated anger and tenderness recall the virgin intensity of a child’s emotions, the rock bottom clarity of feeling we harbor but have all too frequently learned to suppress. But his intent is anything but naive or immature.

The images themselves are ingenuous and keen in their crude technique and elemental emotion: Africano stands behind the screaming man and holds one of his hands; the anguish reaches a crescendo as he tries to contain his flailing friend; the two are separate, their distance uneasy. While Africano knows how to narrate pictorially and concisely, he apparently wants to make the content inescapable and impossible to misinterpret; thus the summary as well as the brusque captions alongside two paintings. This reliance on words focuses rather than limits attention, increasing expressiveness and individualizing the everyman subject.

Africano, however, treats uniformity as well as uniqueness. The flat blue gray fields may derive from Minimalist painting, but they conjure space and time—the eternal arena in which we play out the particular instants of our lives. Africano’s vast areas seem lonely, indefinite, and discomfiting. By placing his small characters in these limbolike zones, he suggests the neutrality and emptiness of existence outside the emotional heat generated by mutually caring individuals.

Using deliberately clumsy human figures, he punctures and punctuates the formal coolness and emotional detachment of Minimalist space, personalizing and revolutionizing its visual and ideological literalism. Though painted in relief, acrylic coated with many layers of oil and wax, Africano’s figures are as primary, unadorned, and obvious as a Robert Mangold painting. More importantly, in Africano’s partially representational equivalents of Minimalist plainness only these fleshy, figurative, physically substantial elements—his people—manifest directly human, easily identifiable content.

Africano’s paintings are not chiefly about painting or art. They are about life, human interaction, and the absurd importance of intimacy. Despite his connections with Minimalism, thick, idiosyncratic painting, and modes such as performance and installation, Africano tries to establish an art of accessibility and ahistoricism. If he were to polish his technique, glamorize his figures, or adhere to any art-as-art esthetic, he would become remote, even esoteric.

With their inelegant rendering and schlumpy attire the characters seem comical, not cartoonlike but pathetic. In fact they share the we’re-all-schlemiels humor of much Chicago Imagism. Though Africano lives near Chicago and shares the Imagists’ interest in the human figure and their vehement emotion, his work is more awkward than funky, more poignant than theatrical. Where Imagism transmutes the everyday into a costume fete, horror show, or raunchy spectacle, thereby distancing the viewer, Africano leaves the banal untransformed, thus inviting entry. Both stylize the human figure, the former into a sexual object or a monster, the latter into a clearly troubled person, with whom we can more readily feel kinship. Indeed Africano seems to define being truly human as having the capacity to experience unity and bonding—love. In The Scream he implies that others’ pain pains us, and that if we can understand the most personal of sufferings then perhaps we can extend that understanding to humanity.

Joanna Frueh