New York

Nicholas Africano

Holly Solomon Gallery

These recent paintings from Nicholas Africano’s “Petrouchka” and “Evelina” series possess a haunting, otherworldly grace and beauty, like that experienced with Old Master painting but rarely with contemporary art. The remarkable strength of these works depends on their urgency as images. Africano has been known for his narrative interests since the ’70s; in these recent series he has sought to give expression to a deeply humanistic content involving nothing less than the ineffable conditions of existence. The means, however, are emphatically visual and iconic, relying on pictorial qualities to produce the exciting afterglow that is the mark of visionary painting.

Relying on such elements as gesture, scale, placement of figure within ground, contrasts in texture, and relief, Africano creates a magical mood while building a distinctly majestic presence in each of the large paintings. The Sparrows’ Quarrel, 1984, reveals Africano’s complete personalization of the diptych, a format he has also used with great success in earlier work. Here, the left panel is occupied by a female figure dressed in a long, old-fashioned day gown and wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat. She sits on an openwork metal, florally ornamented chair, beneath an extended bough of blossoming flowers. The apple green background extends into the right panel, whose lower portion holds two sparrows in conflict. Africano’s reading of Evelina, a novel about female experience written and published by Fanny Burney in 1778, inspired the painting, but the work’s content goes beyond literariness. Its subject is its emotive content, the feeling kindled in the viewer by the oddly disjunctive qualities of the diptych—the abrupt changes in scale from the large figure to the small birds, the contrast between the specific description of the figures and the hieratic nothingness and timelessness suggested by the psychically neutral monochromatic setting. On the most universal level, The Sparrows’ Quarrel is concerned with past, present, and future, the cycle of life. Africano draws our gaze to the figure of the seated woman, urging empathy with her, inviting us to fill in the features of her masklike face with our own ideal. Made of lightweight cloth cast into draped and pleated form, her body has a palpable dimension which adds to her substantiality both as idea and metaphor.

Ronny Cohen