New York

Sandro Chia

Sperone Westwater Fischer

Sandro Chia presents himself as a conjuror, but in fact he is only a confectioner. He puts on a virtuoso display, wielding his brushes with élan, hoping to create an illusion of authenticity. But there is too much virtuosity, not enough substance, and as a result we are left with some rather gorgeous icing but nothing to sink our teeth into.

Over the past couple of years Chia has demonstrated considerable bravado in his appropriation and manipulation of images and styles loaded with cultural meanings. He re-presents these in odd combinations, and on a greatly inflated scale, thus denaturing them. The paintings look to be engaged in historical discourse, but it is history turned to myth through the operation of a dissembling innocence. The paintings look primitivist, but very consciously so.

Chia’s sources are diverse. They include Mediterranean folk tales, from the Sisyphus legend to bawdy one-liners that might have come from Boccaccio as seen through the eyes of Pier Paolo Pasolini. His painterly sources are more concise but equally wide-ranging, running from the neoprimitivism of the Cubo-Futurists in Russia to the neoromanticism of Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico in Italy during the Fascist period. Such are the props Chia uses with a great deal of razzle-dazzle, in the hope of bewildering his spectators enough so that they will begin to see his attempt to deal more adequately with the tainted and contradictory history of Southern Europe in this century.

But it is an attempt that, by removing its sources from their contexts and failing to provide a new, suitably critical frame for them, dismisses the particularities of history in favor of a generalizing mythology. Chia’s work succumbs to nostalgia. It sets out, perhaps, to deal with the currently prevalent attitude which reconstructs the past in sentimental terms, but in the end it participates in this same reconstruction. Chia’s paintings are simply good-looking and sentimental.

They could, however, be a lot worse. Similar work produced by American artists (one instantly thinks of Julian Schnabel) is numbingly self-important, so terribly serious in its pretensions; the kind of work that comes with a certificate guaranteeing “historical value.” Chia is by no means free of this kind of bombast, but at least his display of virtuosity is lightened by a certain wit. Because of this, one can look at his paintings without wanting to burst out laughing.

Thomas Lawson