Nic Nicosia

Since the start of the decade, Nic Nicosia has made the garish artifice or staginess of his constructed photographs overt and central to the viewer’s experience. In these set pieces, suburban melodramas are typically caricatured as comic tableaux—chaotic scenes of upwardly mobile, middle-class life out of control. The culminating series in this buffo mode is “Near Modern Disasters,” 1983; in “The Cast,” 1985, the actors/entertainers/performers become the subjects (as played by “real” people) of his photographs. The latter series takes a further step in the presentation of reality as pure theater and synthetic display by focusing on the dramas of the players within the photoplay, but at the expense of the pictorial dynamics that consistently animated the previous work. “The Cast” was followed by “Life As We Know It,” 1986, a not-very well-received attempt to shift the mediating form from the vaudevillian stage to the media itself and its role as spectacle enabler.

The eight large photographs (only six of which were on view here) comprising the newest series, “Real Pictures,” 1987–88, mark the most thoroughgoing change in Nicosia’s work in recent years. The John Candy-ish color and hyper-theatrics have been relinquished in favor of black-and-white renditions of certain “events,” all set outdoors. This apparently retro move to a traditional photographic look is actually a strategic relocation into a different neighborhood of signs and cues. Nicosia has traded off visual parodic excess and put himself in a position of being less clever, more resourceful; for example, in his choice of sites (backyards, elevated freeway, park pathway, rocky ravine, commercial district, open woods) and vantage points —ground-, waist-, and eye-levels, and through a second-story window.

Real Picture #8, 1987, looks down through a window on a distended scene of latent violence, an absurd exchange between a polka-dotted, balloon-peddling clown and an unshaven young man, charging from the passenger side of a vintage Chevy. In one of Nicosia’s most wonderful inventions, the clown gestures emphatically with his middle finger toward the young hood, who raises a whisky bottle over his head at the bulbous-nosed, shaggy-haired object of his aggression. A third figure, the male driver, thrusts his left arm out of the car’s window and seems about to launch a beer can, grenade-style, over the roof of the car in the direction of the clown.

We—all of us as eyewitnesses—watch this macho transaction from behind a metal-framed window, unseen, unaddressed by the protagonists. While we wonder about the origins of provocation, cause and effect, and eventuality, as we consider the disparity of gestures (flipping the bird versus hurling the bottle), we consume the details of a brilliant representational construct and slip willingly into Nicosia’s “real picture” world, colored in the subtle tones of black and white.

Virtually all of these images warrant the same attention as Real Picture #8, not least for the wide range of photographic skills Nicosia demonstrates: command of pictorial space, select deployment of cultural signs, and dry wit. Through their toned-down, deestheticized approach, these photographs serve as effective containers for a covert essay into the multi-levels of violence that characterize so much of our social world, both upscale and down. Furthermore, for at least as long as these “captured moments” provoke curiosity about what’s going on here, they also raise a theoretical issue: how do pictures simulate scenes that we take to be “real”? In the process of reflection, it may be that we come to suspect our own complicity in the identifying of Nicosia's most recent acts of artifice as “Real Pictures.”

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom