Chicago

Nicholas Africano

Dart Gallery

Nicholas Africano’s sparse and redolent pictures depict things that are hard to name, but that are immediately recognizable by their indeterminacy of emotion and hint of crisis. His poetic images reflect small and precise revelations; they are sentient illuminations into the recesses of the heart. Whether very large or very small, the 20 paintings on display here follow a basic format wherein a figure—usually alone—is set against a richly textured, grisaille background of tan or gray. The figures are rendered in a washy monochrome that betrays Africano’s sensitivity to anatomy and posture. Every image is accompanied by words scrawled across the upper part of the composition, as if they were hurriedly scribbled on with Africano’s finger. Word and image come together here in peculiar symbiosis, amplifying one another and setting the ensuing drama into ineluctable motion.

The states of being Africano exposes run throughout our moral, emotional, sexual, and religious existence. His pictures speak of an assailed self, tossed and turned about; they speak of conditions of self-deprecation, self-abnegation, self-abjuration. His figures cavort in isolated despair, or vexedly try to cajole meaning out of their situations. They moan in grief (“Where are you, where are you”), they writhe in agony (“Billy, Billy, can’t stop shaking”), they exhibit themselves in deepest shame (“His vile body, his face without beauty”), they try to assuage their loneliness (“Je suis beau, je suis beau, je suis beau”). In Ha Ha Ha Ha, 1989, a group of 20 drawings, the lonely figure in each laughs in panic, convulsed with a riotous glee that transports the individual beyond self into some kind of collective, self-induced, cruel anarchy.

Saint Francis and Saint Anthony are the subjects of several of Africano’s smaller paintings, providing a historical context and parallel for the discourse in all of his work. The emphasis these two saints placed on direct emotional, spiritual, and sensory experience reflects the artist’s concerns with the fundamental significance and meaning of human life. Africano attempts to reconcile absolute faith with absolute guilt. His art is a siren’s song, a profound reminder of the charged episodes that make up this vale of tears.

James Yood