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ART : The Art of Elusion : Nicholas Africano paints in a town called Normal, but his subtle work is hardly bound by contemporary convention

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There’s a scene in Werner Herzog’s film “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser” in which an actor known only as Bruno S.--a severely emotionally disturbed man who spent most of his life in institutions--sits at a piano and struggles to play a simple piece by Mozart. His face is knotted in frustration as he plays, and he bangs the piece out loudly, clumsily--as if he’s playing with his fists rather than his fingers. It’s an anguished performance and a profoundly moving one as well, because what one finally hears is this man’s thwarted attempt to master a song he’s incapable of playing. His hunger for something beyond his reach transforms Mozart’s crisp sonata into the crudely beautiful song of his inability to express himself.

The scene comes to mind when perusing “Innocence and Experience,” an exhibition of work by Nicholas Africano that opens Tuesday at the Lannan Foundation in Marina del Rey. Like Bruno S., the figures in Africano’s paintings struggle to achieve unattainable ideals of insight and form that they’re never quite able to grasp. Cast adrift in the dimensionless space of massive, largely empty canvases, they yearn to make contact with the ineffable something that might make them whole, but invariably fail to make the crucial connection. Finally, they remain alone in their confusion and suffering, trudging on with grim resolve across a psychological landscape not unlike the one described by Beckett.

Africano is further like Beckett in the enormous subtlety he brings to his inquiry into questions of faith and desire. While his work is palpably sensual and intensely emotional, it’s rooted in an elusive, mute poetry that makes the paintings difficult to pin down. This is precisely the effect Africano intends, and he’s not about to unravel the mysteries of his work for the art press.

Having traveled to Los Angeles from his home in Normal, Ill., to install this ambitious show including paintings, sculpture, monotypes and imagery painted directly on the museum walls, the 42-year-old artist begins an interview with a disclaimer. “I don’t have much confidence in my oral abilities,” he demurs, “because the things I feel most deeply about are inexpressible and I find language a very inefficient tool. I feel further unwilling to speak because I’m much less interested in myself as the author of this work than I’m interested in the work itself, and I don’t feel inclined to make myself more available than the work is.”

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On discovering that Africano lives in a place called Normal, Ill., one is apt to conjure a vision of a Midwestern innocent who maybe knows a thing or two about farming, but nothing could be further from the truth. A beautifully dressed man of impeccable manners, Africano carries himself with the elegance of the Old World. His air of erudite sophistication is no doubt partly attributable to the fact that he disdains the thing central to American identity--pop culture. “I rarely see movies,” he says, “and never read magazines--they make me nervous.” However, Africano’s air of foreignness is probably more a result of the fact that he’s a dreamer who resides more in his own imagination than in the cities and rooms he passes through. He seems a remote and somewhat unreachable man.

Though he’s often lumped in with the New Image Painters, a transitional art movement of the ‘70s that never really took off, Africano aligns himself with no school and he does not involve himself with the social politics of the art world.

“When it comes to art I’ve never been able to feel any sense of community at all,” he says as he lights the first in an unending series of cigarettes. “Nor do I feel any affinity whatsoever with any Midwestern artists--there’s nothing ‘regional’ about my work. The only traditions I feel a connection with are certain traditions of the 12th Century. The troubadour poets, sculpture formed out of tree trunks as opposed to the more elaborate Baroque sculpture that came later--certain pre-Gothic ideas are immensely appealing to me. And I see strong parallels between that period and the one we’re presently in--the most important one being the way things are persistently teetering on the edge of disbelief.”

Citing the 13th-Century Florentine painter Giotto as a central influence, Africano works in isolation an old, abandoned orphanage in Normal, a couple of hours southwest of Chicago. “It’s the only place that feels just right to me,” he says of his studio. Music is important for him--he favors classical works, along with such “new classicists” as Philip Glass, Terry Riley and John Adams--and while producing the works for “Innocence and Experience,” he listened mostly to a recording of Benedictine nuns singing Gregorian chants. A voracious reader who also maintains several journals, each of which is assigned a different function, he based much of his early work on classical literature. Storytelling is, in fact, one of the most important features of his work, and most of his paintings incorporate fragments of text in various languages.

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“Stories are a way for us to either record or restructure our experience in the hopes that our experience means something,” he says. “They give us an opportunity to evaluate our experience in a collective sense, but whether or not we come up with some final judgment is irrelevant. It’s the effort to attach value to our experience that’s important.

“Personally, I’ve always been attracted to stories that resist being told,” he says of the oblique narrative style he favors. “Fellini’s stories are a good example of what I mean by that. There’s only the suggestion that a story is being told, and his stories are ultimately without resolution. They’re based only on conflict, don’t offer a denouement, and are all rooted in the idea that we’re fated to always be just at the threshold of something. For me, this approach to storytelling isn’t a strategy or posture--it’s the only position available when you only know how to be at the threshold of something.”

Africano may be unsure of how to resolve the great fables of life, but he’s quite clear and directed in other ways and has succeeded in fashioning an existence for himself that’s a far cry from the world he grew up in.

Africano, born in Kankakee, Ill., in 1948, recalls his childhood as “reasonably happy. I had three sisters but they were much older than me so I was basically raised as an only child. My father came to America from Sicily and my mother’s family was from southern Italy, so I had a very ethnic childhood. I grew up in a neighborhood of blacks and Sicilians, and my parents were very poor and uneducated. I was raised a Catholic, which is an unfortunate religious upbringing--aspects of Catholicism are charming and fun, but one can hardly take it seriously--and the first art that made an impression on me were the statues in church. I thought they were really sensual. However, my relationship with culture really began in school and in books.”

Africano’s early creative goal was, in fact, to be a writer, and in the early ‘70s he studied English at Illinois State University in Normal with an eye toward a literary career. At the time he was experimenting with a style of fragmented, digressive prose that incorporated small illustrations in place of sections of texts. On discovering that he found the illustrations more compelling than the text, he went on to earn his masters degree in painting in 1975.

His early works were spare interpretations of volatile encounters between himself and his friends and family. Africano usually depicted these intense outbursts passively, from a distance, and the subtext of these works was the idea of emotional paralysis--the inability to make contact or feel what one is expected to feel. A series titled “The Scream,” for instance, was composed of various depictions of the artist attempting to comfort a grieving friend.

In 1980 he stopped drawing on autobiographical information (partly because of the death of a friend) and turned instead to metaphorical narratives from opera, dance and literature. Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West” provided the point of departure for the first in this series of visual novellas, followed by bodies of work based on R.L. Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Fanny Burney’s “Evelina” (an 18th-Century novel about a young woman stifled by societal conventions), William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” and the ballet “Petrouchka.”

All these works explored the perils and rewards of human relations, as well as the various ways society’s rules of conduct negate the interior life of the individual. And it was here Africano introduced the basic format he continues to develop. His paintings have a spectral, ethereal otherworldliness, and his characters seem to float like apparitions through supernatural fairy tales. There’s little or no illusory space in his paintings, no light or shadow, and in a sense he converts the canvas into a sort of proscenium stage; his figures seem to stand at the bottom of the picture plane like actors in a play.

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Africano has a sketchy, primitive drawing style and his prototypical character, at once noble and pathetic, is evocative of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s apotheosis of theatrical pathos, the tragic clown Gilles. (One is also reminded of Watteau, a French iconoclast of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, by Africano’s palette, which is a heavenly wash of golds, pale blues and greens). His paintings have the intimacy of drawings, yet he operates on a large scale because, he says, “working big allows me to have a more natural relationship with the figures in the paintings.”

Asked how he sees his work evolving, Africano says: “I don’t get ideas then work them through to conclusions. Rather, my work is about emotional abstractions that never really change. As to my relationship with ‘ideas,’ my journals are an important source for the artworks, and each of the journals deals with something different. There’s one called ‘Innocence and Experience’ that’s about three years old, for instance, and there’s another one just about music called ‘Gnossienne.’ ”

In light of his devotion to his journals--which evidences some faith in the written word--Africano’s attitude toward the text that appears on his canvases is curious.

“I don’t acknowledge any particular meaning in the language that appears in the paintings,” he says, “because for me it’s the desire for meaning that’s important, and language represents the effort to speak. Not the ability to speak, but the effort.”

Snippets of Africano’s journal will be featured in the Lannan show (which runs through May 18), along with a portrait of the medieval troubadour Arnaut Daniel, a series of works based on a collection of stories about St. Francis, and works inspired by George Sand and Erik Satie. (Though Africano admires William Blake, he says the poet’s well-known work, “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” has only the most tenuous connection to this show of the same title).

A concurrent exhibition of his sculpture goes on view at Tom Solomon’s Garage Gallery on Feb. 2, so Africano should make quite a splashy showing hereabouts. Though he claims his lifelong residence in Illinois has led to his having only “a modest career,” that doesn’t seem quite true. With his paintings presently selling for $120,000 each, and a steady schedule of exhibitions around the world, Africano seems proof of the fact that one needn’t live in a major art center in order to have a serious career.

Asked what effect he hopes to achieve with this show, he responds rather wistfully. “I think all the time about what I hope to give people with my work, but it seems that what I have to offer is never what I intended to give.”

One assumes Africano intends that his work raise the issue of faith, because it permeates everything he does. Faith, of course, is a mere puff of wind against the granite laws of nature, but the question of what to believe and the drive to organize life into some sort of manageable system haunts us nonetheless.

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“I still haven’t managed to create a workable system of belief for myself, and at times it’s impossible to live without one,” Africano concludes. “Perhaps art functions that way for me. I don’t want to sound cynical because I don’t feel cynical, and faithlessness does seem to be too bad, but I’m not willing to say that the lack of faith eclipses the desire to live. Perhaps I’ve replaced faith with the idea of desire.

“As to how my work comments on the subject of faith, it does so by remaining silent. Silence is the best one can offer when one doesn’t know.”


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