Sandro Chia

Anthony d'Offay Gallery

In Sandro Chia’s Fratello, one of 42 drawings and paintings in this show, a muscular man stands with arms akimbo, steam shooting from his cranium, and the bulging material of his apron proclaiming a massive erection. In Speed Boy a hefty youngster, with muscles in places where most boys don’t even have places, wears roller skates and seems powered by the violence of his own farting. The mysterious protagonist in Confidential Declaration fires a cannon at nothing, for no apparent reason. Chia’s preoccupation with presenting energy hints at his conception of painting. An explosion exists at a threshold of visibility; while the impulse itself is impossible to discern, its passage is marked by vapor or smoke. In drawing, the force itself may be suggested by haphazard graphic billows or lines of force, which appear in Chia’s work as decorative marks resulting from a painterly horror vacui and as the arbitrary definition of some immeasurable power. In the absence of that power, protagonists pass their time restlessly. Excited by prospects of activity yet alarmed by the incomprehensibility of the universe, Chia’s juveniles seem overcome with weariness or confusion. They could be observing the underlying order of the world and perfecting a science of mapping it, like the Heroic Botanist or Young Stone Age Painter; instead, a boy stumbles over a giants’ causeway of black cylinders (“barrels,” it seems) in Accident, while in Temples and Guns a well-dressed gent is alarmed by a de Stijl design.

Existing fully in neither two nor three dimensions, the barrels and the abstract geometry loom disagreeably, apparently able to materialize or dematerialize by magic. Courageous Boys at Work, Meditation, Anemic Courageous Boys, and Doubts about Color and Form show the hulking juveniles occupying the lower portions of predominantly abstract works—the abstraction suffusing the air that surrounds them as well as works of art that confront them. Idiots seem isolated, unable to change their condition; Anarchist Crowned employs an Anton Bragaglia-like double image to suggest nervous disorder. Between foolishness and aggression, then, passivity is the safest course. If change occurs, it will do so in its own time, out of the air. It will have the qualities of an announcement of the self, a release of pent-up energy, a sexual thrill—even of a spiritual experience. And it will change the world. Speed Boy and Everything is Going Well show the modern city in ruins, as Futurism so often pictured it. How far the individual is responsible is unclear.

Chia’s content bears an allegorical relationship to his method. Waiting to be summoned from the ether is an allusive mannerism in which only figure and ground exist, both raised to a high level of tension and complexity. That the painting style strains under its burden is not surprising. It must maintain the force of caricature while orchestrating a limited range of colors, must conjure figuration out of thin air while simplifying figures severely, must quote textbook Modernism, outdo it, and make it unfamiliar once more. In addition to this, it is subjected to a mysterious deprivation. In an excellent catalogue essay, Anne Seymour suggests that Chia leaves everything to the last minute, then uses a contradictory gesture to call into question what he has painted so far. It may be a mistake to regard apparent spontaneity as a device for grasping that ineffable X-factor around which he circles; perhaps, after all, his allusive mannerism is intended to dramatize the failure of painting in its present form, to emphasize the bankruptcy of Modernist traditions. Yet if this were all he did, the result would be too arty for words. The new monumentality, the odd combination of wonder and satire, the desire that estheticism should be hard won—all of these make Chia’s chosen genre a kind of spiritual burlesque.

Stuart Morgan