Chicago

Nicholas Africano

Dart Gallery

There’s something modest and unadorned about this new work by Nicholas Africano. The sculptures that were in the show are cast glass or bronze figurines small enough to set on a table. And although the paintings done in relief are large in some cases—as in three diptychs in which each panel is 90 inches high—the subjects and renderings are simple. These are studies of brown men who are either nude or wearing only baggy pants and, sometimes, a straw hat.

In the paintings they appear mostly against a brown ground the same hue that they are. Titles like Lost boy, laughing man, 1986, His Tears, 1986–87, and Goodbye Johnny, 1986, indicate that these subjects’ emotions and experiences are as basic as their appearance. Yet there’s also something hidden and elaborate going on here. It’s a bit of voodoo, perhaps, an impression the pieces convey that their maker yearns for powers more magical, mysterious, and vital than a mere artist’s. The handling of the materials gives the work a fetishistic feeling, as if Africano fancied himself a maker of little surrogate golems or zombies. He would like to create life if he could, not just imitate it.

In most of the paintings and the sculptures, the figures look like forms crudely fashioned out of mud. They’re the kind of objects that a high priest might try to turn into a race of Ur-men through incantation. Africano has implied this supernatural possibility in a variety of ways. The glass sculptures, for instance, transform the dark figures of the paintings and bronzes into creatures that are luminescent. Carefully lit in the gallery, they seemed to glow from within. Moreover, the paintings themselves are sculptural. The figure in each panel is built up with a Celastic relief that allows it to step out of mere representation into three-dimensional life. The brown canvas becomes a bare earthen plain from which a quickening figure emerges, an effect enhanced by the pants that the artist’s wife has sewn out of real cloth for the figures in some of the paintings.

Unfortunately, where Africano is most ambitious—in the large, finished paintings—the magic in these pieces seems thinnest to me. The strange tubular form of the “lost boy” and the misshapen hump of a shoulder protruding from the back of the man who waves “goodbye” to “Johnny” are crude in the wrong way. They seem poorly executed mechanisms, like a cinematic special effect that doesn’t quite work. They make us aware that what we have here is a very sophisticated modern artist who’s trying to trick us with his assumed primitivism. More satisfactory is a series of quick studies and small sketches that preceded the finished versions. In these, because of the reduced scale, it really was possible to form the raised figures just from oil paint mixed with a bit of wax. They look as if they have actually been sculpted out of the primordial ooze. They swell from and disappear into the canvas with a seamlessness that the large machines never achieve.

Africano is well aware of the dual role he has chosen for himself as both artist and shaman in these pieces. The creation myth his paintings contain is clearly modeled on his sense of his own self-creation through his work. The “laughing man” reveals the parallel, for his head consists of a rectangular piece of canvas stretched over a miniature, beveled-edge frame. This echoes the larger canvas on which the figure is painted, which is also stretched over a beveled-edge frame. Ironically, however, Africano has realized himself as an artist more powerfully in the smaller, less self-conscious studies. There the inchoate man, the mythological being he longs to create, comes more truly to life for us.

Colin Westerbeck