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A storage space for furniture, toys, and all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is darkness attached to them, a foreboding, they make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.
—Don DeLillo, White Noise
In Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, published in 1985, a toxic cloud settles over the town where characters Jack and Babette live. In the life of the stereotypical middle-class white family, the opaque gas is a metaphor for their struggles to see reality through the "White Noise" of the microwave, talk radio, and television. When faced with this "airborne toxic event," they have to come to terms with their fear of death in an ironic scenario that pits the boredom of pop culture and everyday stuff against the bleak reality of being human. As with Nic Nicosia's work, the power of this novel is in its witty excavation of the invisible dysfunction lurking within us all, and its presentation of the difficulty in seeing through the playful and irreverent façades we construct to get through the day—an existential conclusion Jack comes to when describing the heavy connotation of objects in his home.
Nicosia's lens-based work, which emerged in the early 1980s, also probes the darker side of the quotidian. In his photographs and films, dramatic and hilarious scenes of suburban domesticity play out: kids lie on their tummies on the living room carpet watching TV, underwear hangs out of the drawer, and husbands and wives lean forward in animated confrontation. The mood is always comical, disorderly, and theatrical. In the photograph Near (modern) Disaster #2 (1983), a laser beam represented by a green string, causes pandemonium in a gathering of people. A lady kicks up her heels while the facial expressions of others indicate distress, and the suited central figure twists in cartoonish confusion, not unlike the ecstatic contortions of jumping bodies in the work of Robert Longo.
Trained as a filmmaker, Nicosia applies his understanding of creating a narrative with a movie camera to his still photography. When you watch a movie, Nicosia says, you know that the drama unfolding is an act, whereas with a photograph, the assumption is quite often the opposite. Thus Nicosia uses elaborate sets, bright primary colors, amateur gesticulations, painted backdrops, and stylized costuming and material—such as string to represent laser light—to create and photograph scenes that are deliberately artificial. Looking at his overly constructed photographs is like watching David Byrne's 1986 film, True Stories, which presented similarly unreal, yet familiar, scenes of life in small-town Texas.
Although Nicosia's work intentionally creates a façade, his work neither embraces nor disdains his subject matter. Instead, it forms a small crack. Between critique and admiration, fear seeps. An example of Nicosia's work from this time that quietly reveals this fracture is Vacation (1986). A woman sits in front of a painted backdrop of an oak tree with a red-and-white checkered blanket and a picnic basket. Two children in the foreground play gleefully under the "branches" of the tree; the outstretched arms and bare feet of one child who is performing a cartwheel mimics the sprawling limbs above. It's an image of suburban bliss, but look closely—a burning airplane is visible through the upper branches of the tree.
Art critic Dave Hickey has written about Nicosia's flirtation with themes of disaster within the context of the "real world." He argues that because of this dichotomy, Nicosia's body of work is comprised of pictures rather than photographs. Having the characters act out a social drama in which subtle threat and banal existence are juxtaposed lets loose narrative possibility, allowing wild stories to spill beautifully from the context of the normal. Hickey calls this phenomenon a "peculiar mixture of joy and discomfiture." We can see how this narrative allure operates in Nicosia's 1986 series Life As We Know It, which inspired Hickey to produce an album of music. Nicosia sent Hickey photographs from the series as they were printed, and Hickey wrote songs based on the work. The lyrics address the dual sentiments of happiness and distress depicted in the photographs, for example: "Life as we know it, deep in the heartland / Laden with riches and tortured by dreams."
Among the photos in this series is Untitled (Sam!) (1986). Little girls in party dresses and party hats sit at a table in a room decorated with balloons and crepe paper streamers. Nicosia's careful staging of this birthday celebration again points out the artifice. For instance, the painted backdrop of a window looking out to an archetypal backyard with the horizon line of lawn, fence, and sky imitates a typical suburban scene—with all of the proverbial material signs of perceived normalcy—that provides the setting for something to happen that is not quite right. Unlike another suburban scene, Vacation, the disruption in this work appears in the foreground, where a boy with red fingertips and vampire make-up grimaces at the camera. On the one hand, the posture and costuming depicts a kid ready for Halloween, playfully getting in the way of his sister's event. On the other hand, the funny situation remains just ambiguous enough that disturbing thoughts linger. There is still the possibility for a more perverse and anxious story to emerge, like an unfinished sentence trailed by an ellipsis.
Focusing on quotidian subjects like picnics and birthday parties, the narrative content of Nicosia's work is autobiographical. He is a husband and a dad, and was, of course, a little kid. He is white, and he grew up and lived (for the majority of his life) in the conservative suburbs of Dallas, Texas. He even lived on a street called Middleton Road, which inspired his 1997 film Middletown, a play on words that the artist hoped would accentuate the "Americaness" of the location. Consisting of a continuous tracking shot of his neighborhood, the footage from the dashboard of his car captures the normal, and rather unexciting, comings and goings of the neighbors as they do things like tend to their front lawns and ride bikes, all to the beat of a carnival tune that lends an uncanny, surreal vibe. Nicosia's work, therefore, is about his self-conscious fit in this middle-class world, a subjective perspective that ignites an interesting discussion about the visual representation of masculinity, class, and race from a point of view rarely examined in visual art. It is self reflective in the same ways as artist Tina Barney's images from the mid-1980s. In her similarly directed photographs, she turns her domestic life, gender, and social standing into the subject of her wor.
Content aside, what is perhaps more significant in understanding Nicosia's practice of making pictures is his theoretical position, which is aligned with a postmodern awareness that seeks to break apart normative ways of thinking and screams, "What is real?" Beginning in the mid-1970s, American photography was changing. As many artists were grappling with questions about truth and the power structures that were reshaping discourses on semiotics and the politics of language, the medium of photography was being used as tool of investigation because it was so closely associated with objectivity. In 1977, Douglas Crimp organized an important exhibition called Pictures at Artists Space in New York. He argued that because we are increasingly governed by images, they have "usurped reality" in such an aggressive way that it "becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not to uncover a lost reality, but to determine how a photograph becomes a signifying structure of its own accord."
One strategy of "using" photography, per Crimp's desire to deconstruct how an image works, became what is called the "directorial mode." Critic A. D. Coleman coined this phrase in 1976 to describe the tendency in that decade to create overtly fabricated photographs. He wrote that the medium's struggle to "free itself from the imperative of reality" resulted in photographs that exploit the presumed credibility of the medium through staged tableaux of people and objects. A fitting way to categorize Nicosia's practice, this method is about the photographer as director, or White Noise, who literally makes the work with an acute awareness that the exaggeration of an unreality, and a subjective hand in the work's creation, confronts the way photography had objectively been read in the past, and can be used more broadly to addresses the idea of truth in art. Reflecting on this urgency, and of the photographer as author rather than documentarian, Nicosia says, "It was necessary to make it obvious that the image was total fabrication and the information was manufactured."
Very aware of his place in the postmodern moment, Nicosia has discussed how important Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977) was to him when he was in graduate school at the University of Houston. In this paradigm-shattering text, Sontag wrote that photography is a language used to mediate and interpret reality; it is not reality itself, nor is it proof of the existence of reality. Thus, specific to the shifts taking place in photography as Nicosia was coming of age as an artist in the early 1980s, and also due in part to his training in filmmaking, his critical self-reflexivity, in terms of his use of the directorial mode, is key to his practice. It is also a way of thinking about photography, carried out through the formal decisions and strategies that remain relevant to his most recent work, which involves dioramas and the construction of imaginary space. These new works continue to grapple with questions pertaining to photographic fidelity, questions that become even more relevant now as digital technology further distances us from the "real," even in our own backyards.
The backyard is the site of one of Nicosia's most well known, if not iconic, images from his late '80s series, Real Pictures. The series embodies the playfulness Nicosia initially brought to his work, and continues to bring today, in order to explore the boundaries between fact and fiction via photography. Perhaps a pun on the word "reel," the black-and-white images in Real Pictures operate cinematically, depicting scenes where something preposterous, yet strangely believable, is happening. These scenes are of course constructed, but unlike his early works, which were deliberately and obviously staged, they seem to be captured candidly by the camera. In Real Pictures #11 (1988), three kids in summer shorts watch a burning sapling tree. We are, of course, presumably in an ordinary suburban backyard: the lawn is (somewhat) manicured, and there is a privacy fence that bisects the horizon line and separates the yard from the proximity of the neighbors' house in the background. Yet, in the middle of the ordinary, there is the presence of the divine: a burning bush with its symbolic weight of religious associations. The unlikely juxtaposition again creates the potential for building wildly preposterous scenarios. At the same time, could this simply be a representation of a run-of-the-mill, albeit dangerous, childhood prank, as evidenced by the gasoline can held by one of the children?
Nicosia's drama of the burning bush in suburbia lends itself to comparisons with other American photographers who have been similarly interested in probing the authenticity of photography by capturing "typical" scenes that quietly reveal problems lurking underneath the skin of normalcy. Joel Sternfeld, for instance, revealed unsettling peculiarities and ironies within a suburban landscape in his well-known series of photographs, American Prospects (1987). One of the photographs is McLean, Virginia, December 1978, which shows a quaint farm stand situated between a burning house in the background and a field of smashed pumpkins in the foreground. Despite the flames, a fireman peacefully checks out the produce, and we are left to hypothesize about the scenario that led to such startling negligence.
Real Pictures #11 (1988) poses a similar task for the viewer, but what sets Nicosia apart from an artist like Sternfeld is that he does not rely on the image, or the picture, to do the work alone. That is to say, the absurd theatrical content or drama unfolding in Nicosia's work—what he is representing—is in quiet harmony with his formal maneuvers—how he constructs the representation. Such gestures literally and figuratively scratch the surface of his work to gracefully unhinge the ordinary and to punctuate normalcy. In short, his representations fall apart on themselves. Through hyperbolic staging, a figure's gaze lets us in so we can pull the photograph apart, or, through the use of theatrical lighting, where contrast creates a formal rupture in the narrative, he draws our attention to the construction of the photograph.
If we look again at Nicosia's burning bush, we note how the little girl is turning to face us. She is positioned in a way that pierces the skin of the print. Her conspiratorial gaze pulls us in and lets us know that this is not real, nor is it trying to be entirely believable. In comparison, the found happenstance and cunning irony of Sternfeld's landscapes, which also rely heavily on skepticism, are convincing despite their absurdity. Unlike Nicosia's work, they are also backed by the credibility of a nonfiction narrative because Sternfeld works on site and finds his photographs; there is no staging. The house on fire, for example, was a training ground for the local fire department.
It should be noted that Real Pictures also marks a major turning point in Nicosia's career. Whereas his previous work was about overtly forged scenes as a way to quickly point out a construction by the artist as director, this series is quieter. Not only are the images black and white, which creates a stronger association with modern photography, but there are also not as many clues in the work that immediately lead us to read it as a fake. The efficacy of this series is in the subtle reveal of the staging.
Because of this break from his previous work we can see how closely aligned the images in Real Pictures are with the work of Nicosia's contemporary, Cindy Sherman. In her compelling series Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980), Sherman appropriates the look and feel of old Hollywood film stills by using herself as the protagonist in the theatrically charged black-and-white images. She is so successful with her mimicry that with the exception of some of the works where she is holding the pull cord to take the photograph, such as Untitled Film Still #34 (1979), there is little information within the picture that allows us to see her masquerade. Instead, she relies on the generic idea about what a female body looks like within the filmic genre that already exists in the viewer's imagination. Piecing together the referent, therefore, such as naming the film you think the still could be from, is impossible. Believability disintegrates, and the viewer realizes that the image is only a representation of a representation of someone acting.
This postmodern revelation of the photograph as a construction versus the modernist tradition of finding an authentic moment, as epitomized by Sternfeld's practice, is also evident in some of Nicosia's earliest works that depict banal neighborhood scenes. Organized with symmetrical and linear precision, the compositions are disrupted by pre-Photoshop interventions that play with how we read the photographic information. For instance, Mailboxes (1980) shows a pair of actual Mailboxes that have been covered with blue paper and a stop sign that has a red square of paper with the word "Stop" scrawled on it. These manipulations give the image a strange impressionistic feel, a graphic flat disruption within the illusion of a photograph.
In Painting (1980) from the same series, Nicosia applied strips of white paper over the slats of a white shed. Placing a ladder and paint bucket in front of the shed, and several black brush strokes on one of the doors, he captures a moment at the beginning of a household chore. Yet, along with the subtle visual distortion caused by the hung paper, the perfectly aligned black strokes look as deliberate and self aware as the marks of post–abstract expressionist painter Robert Ryman. Like Ryman, Nicosia uses the hyperbolized sign of a gesture to punctuate the surface of the illusion and draw attention to the medium itself. That is to say, if Ryman's paintings are about painting because of the way in which he reveals the mechanisms of the medium itself, then Nicosia's photographs are about photography because of the way in which he points to the artificiality inherent in making a picture with a camera.
Therefore, in Nicosia's constructed tableaux, it is not so much the narrative-based elements of the "picture," but rather the how of his photographs that asks you to look twice. They rhetorically provoke the viewer to ask not "is this real?" but instead, in a far more expansive and even existential way, "what is real?"—just as the little girl who turns away from the burning tree so inquisitively challenges the viewer. Drawing attention to the construction of an image, and therefore the artifice and irreverence of daily existence, the formal disruption in the work becomes not so much a critique of American idealism and the foreboding weight of the human condition (the content) as much as a claim that belief in the fidelity of photography as a medium (the form) is misguided.
Following his move from Texas to Santa Fe in 2004, Nicosia entered a new phase in his work. Perhaps no longer encumbered by the theoretical weight of postmodern tropes, or inspired by his move to an austere desert environment, he wanted to start afresh. Following a period in the 1990s marked by many portrait commissions and experimentations with landscape-based photographs and films, in 2007 he began working on his "drawing" photographs—black-and-white images of the artist standing in the middle of a room with a curved white wall. They are literally his tabula rasa. Each work shows the artist in silhouette executing a drawing in black pigment on the white paper-covered walls of a curved space. In one, he swings a ball on a string so that it ricochets against the wall, splattering the surface like a series of staccato notes. In another, he holds a stick with a marker on the end. Sweeping it across the surface in broad gestures, the marker makes repetitious horizontal lines.
According to the artist, these photographs deal with the act of drawing, that is, the artist at work, and they are key in his decision to make a fresh start because of the way in which the process of drawing stands in the history of art. It is one of the most primordial ways of making art due to the physical presence of the hand of the artist, or the trace of an action. For example, we can think of the task-based actions of a postminimalist artist such as Richard Serra rhythmically catching falling lead with his hand, as a way to understand the elemental inquiry about the nature of making apparent in this work. Going even deeper into the past, scholars have long traced the action of drawing to ancient cave painting, and Nicosia's translation of this lineage was a perfect practice for his new beginning. Additionally, going back to the basics meant no longer having to employ the elaborate feats of production required for his staged works, which involved hiring actors, building sets, and assembling a crew of technicians. He wanted to figure out what it would mean to simply work in his studio and just make things in a more intuitive and emotional fashion.
Following his "drawing" photographs, he embarked on a series combining paint and light, as if forging on through the evolutionary stages of art making. In this series called Space Time Light, he built diorama-like spaces made of wood, paper, and cardboard. Within these box-like constructions, he dripped and flung paint, and molded, projected, and shaped light in elaborate and abstract compositions for the camera. Untitled (Black Rectangle) (2008), for instance, is an image of an empty wallpapered chamber. Casting striped shadows, light beams in through horizontal slats in the ceiling, where the artist has also dripped black paint that accumulates on the floor in a patterned rectangular puddle.
The "room" photographs are like looking straight into in a shoebox or a Joseph Cornell sculpture, with floor, ceiling, and three walls clearly delineating an architectural space. At the same time, scale is completely distorted by the illusion of the lens. We have no idea, for example, how large the space really is, how deep or shallow the space is, or whether or not the perspective has been forced. While some of the other diorama-based works in his subsequent series, including I See Light from 2009, contain things like thumbtacks and flashlights indicating that the model is indeed in miniature, we are still left with an unclear understanding of scale. Moreover, for the first time, the artist has completely eliminated the figure, further lending ambiguity to the environment.
Following these photographs exploring drawing and painting, Nicosia has come, quite naturally in his trajectory, to photographs exploring sculpture. As I write, he is working on a series called in the absence of others, which he began in 2010. For these black-and-white images, he molds men with skinny clay bodies, wide hands and feet, and articulate yet generalized physiognomies. He sets the rounded, three-dimensional figures in scenes—some in plywood dioramas and others in a more ambiguous dark space—where their equivocal actions of fighting, thinking, pointing, and dreaming are reflected in the titling of each photograph. In concentration in bits (2011), a clay man raises his hands to the lens, dwarfing his disproportionate body and cautioning us to stay out of the space, which contains a psychedelic swirl in the background, implying that the haze of the psychic environment prohibits entry.
Reminiscent of his early work in which he arranged real people into scenes, Nicosia again asks us to fill in the rest of the story of these images with a narrative that might explain the uncertain gestures and the strange positions of the cartoon-like guys bending, propping, and stretching. Yet, at the same time these images are quite different from his earlier work, which uses a suburban vocabulary to tell an important story about the medium in the postmodern era. What remains consistent to his entire practice is how he understands his work in terms of making pictures. "Making" is the operative word here, for he continues to make photography in a way that proclaims its construction as opposed to its opacity—or its window on reality—and he continues to make in terms of the physical and tangible practice of literally building his images. He does this not only in the creation of a scene but also in the hands-on fabrication of sets, props, figures, and dioramas, much like a sculptor or painter with which he also identifies. Simply put, Nicosia makes, rather than takes, photographs.
We are now far removed from the intellectual desire, or even task, of having to interrogate photographic truth, which once defined Nicosia's generation. Such ideas about truth seem antiquated. Perhaps like other media that at one time artists had to fight for in order to show that power and signification were always already embedded in the work, like painting, photography can relax in the weight of its own history, as can Nicosia. His most recent work is at this point. It is far away from his early suburban theatres of the absurd, yet what does remain forms the crux of his position as a maker who wants to question how we see, while still believing that art can have meaning and create something new. In a moment of altered landscapes and virtual realms, where tangible reality and truth are dissolving and digital technology has obliterated fidelity, such faith in making pictures indicates photography's, as well as Nicosia's, vital role in an evolving conversation.