New York

Carmen Cicero

Graham Modern

The grand tradition of Western symbolic painting lives on, although sharply redirected toward decidedly personal ends, in the work of Carmen Cicero. At 58, this New York artist offers one of the freshest figurative visions around. With an approach that is allegorical in a purely visual rather than any literary sense, Cicero emerges as more the suggester and the seducer than the storyteller. The kind of artist who seems to relish the challenge of tackling difficult-to-describe situations and feelings, he is capable of striking through to the complex and contradictory sensations at life’s core. At the source of the impact of his painting is its extraordinary power as image, a power that in turn results from the active relationship between figure and ground, abstract and representational content. In Provincetown Princess, 1984, for example, a blond woman emerges from a stretch of dark blue white-capped water bordered in one corner by a jutting mass of rock and framed against an expanse of bright blue sky with wispy clouds. Cicero renders the figure in a distinctively bold and inventive, caricaturish style, and her beckoning face, half smiling, half leering, injects a curiously disjunctive note of sex and unknown danger into this picture of clean and pure outdoor pleasures.

Psychological anxieties abound in several other paintings. The surface of Fire, 1982, is dominated by the running figure of a young man with head and hair thrown back in one direction and knees thrust in the other. In his left hand he carries a musical horn, and he points his other arm and hand skyward. Behind him a nocturnal cityscape shows dark against the dim moonlit sky, and, outlined by the brilliant light of flames, a row of riverside structures burns. These buildings, in red and orange, lie far in the background behind the running man; Cicero unifies the painting by coloring the foreground area in the same high-keyed tones, but he also embeds thematic ambiguities in the painting’s pictorial structure. What is the connection between the figure and the scene behind him? Does he carry the horn so as to sound the alarm about the fire? With his orange, green, and blue face and bright red lips, and despite his casual contemporary dress, the man seems a symbol of tragic fright, yet his animated face and pose could be signs of mischievous or irrational behavior—arson, perhaps. And if the viewer focuses on the abrupt change in scale from figure to ground, the scene of the fire may appear as a metaphor for the passion that lights musical or creative talent. Never didactic, always reflective and searching, Cicero’s paintings are independent statements that call for awareness of the self and curiosity about other people.

Ronny Cohen