“Nic Nicosia: Real Pictures 1979–1999”

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

You travel through Nic Nicosia’s retrospective like a voyeur through a neighborhood, peering into window after window for illicit kicks. You catch a glimpse—brief, partial, even hazy. At times you do a double take, unsure what you just saw. Nicosia’s grasp of cloaked emotions and stalled dreams is so convincing, you can’t help but feel you’re privy to things you weren’t meant to see. Here is an artist who operates as much from his gut as from his head, and who actually says something about white middle-class America. Nicosia gauges the depths of suburban experience, as critic Dave Hickey writes in the catalogue, “with a cold eye and a warm heart. . . . He has nailed it, arranged it, interpreted it, and redeemed it.”

But like an unreachable itch, Nicosia’s photographs and films also frustrate; meanings suggest themselves but remain elusive, lending his most powerful images the authority of dreams. Looking at these pictures, you almost hear the theme from Twilight Zone; Rod Serling, after all, set his strange morality tales in a world as ostensibly “normal” as Nicosia’s. Having grown up in the ’50s and come of age in the ’60s, boomers like Nicosia have a particular slant on what makes America tick. It is their sensibility that shaped pop culture’s version of the dysfunctional family as something funny, even adorable. But Nicosia’s photographs bring out ambivalent undercurrents: In most of his pictures there’s an overarching sense of melancholy oddly balanced with the inviting warmth.

Born in Dallas, where he has lived and worked almost uninterruptedly, Nicosia is among that generation of photographers whose images blurred the lines between the arts, challenging the documentary status of photography. Some artists manipulated the print, others manipulated the site. Nicosia surprised viewers with carefully constructed environments that moved between vérité sincerity and the unapologetic taste for fantasy typical of much pop-cultural imagery. In those early works Nicosia applied colored paper to an environment, so that the alteration he photographed fluctuated between crafts-class illusion and straight-up reality. Later, Nicosia inserted people into his hand-drawn, cartoonlike settings. Like Cindy Sherman, Jimmy De Sana, and Laurie Simmons, Nicosia assumed the role of director.

His jokey, near-slapstick style is already apparent in the image (from the “Domestic Drama” series, 1982) of a child scribbling on a wall, her parents otherwise preoccupied, and it persists—perhaps even peaks—in the “Near (modern) Disasters” series, 1983, which includes the chaotic image of a father holding onto his daughter, who has been lifted off her feet by gale-force winds. Nicosia allows the artifice to show—even the wire rigging that suspends the girl in midair. The series “Life As We Know It,” 1986, looses the violence lurking just beneath the suburban veneer. One image depicts a cocktail party, where one well-heeled guest punches another while a woman in the extreme foreground flashes the viewer a toothy, see-no-evil smile.

There is a tremendous sense of freedom and confidence in his early work, but in hindsight these spoofs offer mostly an overload of wackiness. Perhaps even Nicosia sensed the monochromatic camp of his big studio photographs, because he soon adopted a film-noir feel, shooting on location in black and white. In one image from “Real Pictures,” 1987–89, three girls and an old man come upon a corpse among the rocks at river’s edge. The man tries to wave the girls away, but they remain transfixed. Loss of innocence turns even darker, more brooding, as middle age sets in; ravishing and moody, “Love + Lust,” 1990–91, and “Untitled,” 1991–93, offer creepy embodiments of unresolved fears and desires.

Nicosia’s shift to film in the late ’90s seems logical for an artist who has, after all, spent two decades working as his own director, cameraman, and wardrobe master. His four films remind you at every turn that surfaces rarely reflect the depths of human experience. Set to circuslike music, Middletown, 1997, puts you in the passenger seat as the artist drives through a Dallas suburb. In Moving Picture, 1998, you tour a suburban home room by room to the accompaniment of lonely, Roy Orbison–esque riffs. You pass by a teenage girl in workout clothes and happen on her brother playing with a laser gun. You watch the family convene at the dining-room table for a meal straight out of Norman Rockwell—and then you’re led out the same way you came in.

It’s easy to get sucked into Nicosia’s world, as easy as getting caught up in the American Dream. His art seduces us, even as it calls attention to our inability to separate reality from mirage. In Nicosia’s world, as in our own, identities are tried on like costumes and feelings set off by quotation marks. Even in our secure and manicured suburbs, lives don’t proceed on compass course.