Los Angeles

Nicholas Africano

Asher/Faure Gallery

If Seurat’s dictum that painting is “the art of hollowing out a surface” were true, then Nicholas Africano’s work wouldn’t qualify. Africano paints figures in literal bas-relief, awkward, lumpish characters built up of painted wax on a monochromatic field. The High Wire, a group of four new paintings that are almost identical in composition, presents a figure in mid-stride, balancing precariously on a thin tightrope as he journeys across the gray-blue canvas.

Africano was at one time a writer of short, nondiscursive prose that attempted to create direct, immediate images with words. Slowly, he began to substitute small drawings for some of the words. Now those drawings have become large-scale paintings with a few words pushed out onto the gallery wall: “He’s so brave. When you’re on the wire it’s do or die. Someday, of course, he’ll break his neck.” The legend and the image are blatantly clichéd, and that, frankly, is the source of much of these paintings’ charm. Africano manipulates clichés, reinvesting them with the potency of meaning that made them popular in the first place. The images, both real and metaphorical, are made physical. Shoulder, arm, and leg muscles bulge out from the canvas; the figure stares intently, lips pursed, hands clutching a balance pole; every chest hair on the bared torso is tangibly described; the image is centrally anchored to the amorphous space of the canvas; substantial painted frames isolate the figure’s moment of balance. In this installation Africano painted the gallery walls the same gray as the canvas and trimmed the moldings in the reddish-brown of the frames, placing the viewer into the same space as the daredevil tightrope walker. The effect is blatant, as are the images, without being heavy-handed.

Words and images start down the road to becoming clichés by the very “rightness” of their meaning. As the experience of the meaning is shared, it becomes generalized, losing any impact it once had. Africano’s paintings, however, squeeze out the flab and zero in on the specific experience of a generalized cliché. The “double whammy” of the general and the specific is what succeeds in making these paintings so arresting.

Christopher Knight