A lissome teenage girl lies draped across a pool table, crucifixion-style, in the center of an elegant and expensively furnished room. You can't actually see her until she rises up, hops off the table, and disappears stage right. A shadowy figure of a man appears at the French doors that lead to the patio, behind the now-vacant pool table. He seems to be struggling to get in, hunched over the place where the locked doorknob would be, squirming, straightening, bending again. Lightening flashes outside the den, revealing that the mysterious stranger has disappeared and only darkness--relieved occasionally by the bolts that flash in the storm--remains. Just another Pleasant Valley Sunday? Just middle America, says Nic Nicosia. "It's just a slice of life in suburban Dallas," the artist-filmmaker says. "I just used my life."
Moments of Nicosia's alleged life are being critically hailed this year as stinging takes on this American life, and the 48-year-old artist who's never lived outside of Dallas is body-surfing a wave of notoriety both for his newest work, like the above-mentioned "Moving Picture" featured in last year's Dallas Video Festival, and for his earlier set pieces in still photography. Examples of his David Lynchian visions are showing in three different museums this month and at his Dallas gallery. The Dallas Museum of Art is hosting a 20-year retrospective of his work; the Whitney Museum of American Art selected one of his films for its Biennial 2000 showing through June 4; and Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum is featuring Nicosia's Whitney-selected film, "Middletown, 1997" in its current and highly ironic and entertaining Natural Deceits exhibition. Nicosia's most recent work, a film called "Circles and Squares," inspired by a commercial photography job he had for Neiman Marcus, debuted last Friday at Dunn Brown Contemporary Gallery to open Nicosia's monthlong solo show there. Everywhere you look this summer, you're likely to run across Nic Nicosia.
Yet the artist remains patently unaffected by this flurry of recent successes and is humbled because he does not support himself by selling his edgy fine art. He primarily makes his living through portrait commissions and the occasional cool commercial gig, like the W Magazine fashion insert for Neiman's that spawned the most recent film project. Only a handful of collectors favor video art; his local fans seem content to own the portraits.
Nic Nicosia's work
Through July 1
Dunn Brown Contemporary
5020 Tracy St.
Through August 27
Dallas Museum of Art
1717 N. Harwood
Through September 10
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
1309 Montgomery St.
"I want validation," he says thoughtfully, then adds, "I'm not working in a vacuum or in Tahiti." He seems uncomfortable about being lumped with the art world's new filmmaking darlings, like Doug Aitken, who showed last year at the DMA and almost simultaneously won "best young artist" honors at the Venice Bienniale. "I think there are artists that make motion pictures that don't know anything about film or motion pictures," Nicosia says. "I'm not one of those. My goal is not to make a little art piece that makes no sense. Mine's more cinema-driven. That may not be looked at very importantly in the art world; that may not be what they want to see. But 'Middletown' somehow struck a chord in everyone."
The Modern's chief curator, Michael Auping, submitted Nicosia's "Middletown" in his role as one of the six Whitney Biennial curators for the New York City museum's esteemed--and generally maligned and misunderstood--high-profile exhibit and also insisted that the piece be included in the local show. Auping quotes surrealist painter Rene Magritte as a jumping-off point for Natural Deceits and an apt reference for Nicosia's brand of visual art. "There is a familiar feeling of mystery that we feel for the things that are conventionally called mysterious," Auping says/Magritte wrote, "but the supreme feeling is the unfamiliar feeling of mystery that we feel for the things that are conventionally thought of as natural and familiar..." Auping says the gray areas between reality and fiction that can't be easily understood are part of what attracts us to art. "Art is a beautiful lie," he says. "Definitions of terms like 'natural,' 'real,' and 'artificial' seem to slide into each other to the point that they become almost meaningless."
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And so it is with Nic Nicosia's humorous, ironic, mysterious, and sometimes irreverently sinister works--which he began creating almost by accident nearly 20 years ago. As he adjusts the film screen in the former Kitchen Dog Theater space at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, where he is set to give an art talk, Nicosia explains how he stumbled into photography and film.
"I graduated from North Texas in 1974, not in art, but in film and television," he says, moving the screen a little farther back so that one of his "Moving Picture" stills fills the white space evenly. He doesn't look like he's pushing 50, but he is--49 next month. He has smooth skin over nearly chubby cheeks, bright eyes, and dark, curly hair. He wears glasses and a boxy, short-sleeved shirt that's so retro, it's practically Ricky Ricardo. "I owned a camera shop and ran it in Denton after that," he says, still futzing with the slides and the screen. "I sold the camera shop in 1979 and went back to graduate school in art because I thought that's what you did." Nicosia put in one semester at the University of Houston before earning an MFA in photography. By semester's end, in 1980, his work was included in eight shows around the country.
The 2000 Biennial is his second Whitney appearance; his first was in 1983. DMA assistant curator of contemporary art Suzanne Weaver coordinated Nicosia's DMA retrospective, an exhibition that originated at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum last fall and that thoroughly chronicles the artist's phases of work. "Nicosia came of age during the 1970s, when such artists as Cindy Sherman were exploiting photography's ability to tell stories," Weaver says. Revealed in his "Domestic Dramas" and "Near (modern) Disasters" series from 1982 and 1983 are the artist's first Whitney-worthy, colorful, staged photographs that Weaver says "represent a split second from an ongoing narrative." Also on view at the DMA are Nicosia's later still and recent film works. "[There are] darker images from the mid-1980s and 1990s that explore intense emotions in dramatically lit black-and-white photographs," Weaver says.
Meanwhile, back in the flagrant film fiction the artist calls "Moving Picture," Nicosia's wavering, hand-held 16mm camera leads the viewer up a shadowy staircase. The film soundtrack beckons with seductive original music. "I think it's the music, if you really want to know," Nicosia says of the growing popularity of and fascination with his films. "I think it hypnotizes everybody that watches it."