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The Burbs

Nic Nicosia's photos aim to prove that bedroom communities aren't always so sleepy

You travel through Nic Nicosia's photographs as a voyeur might through a neighborhood, inspecting window after window for some illicit thrill. Your glance may be quick and incomplete, even hazy. At times you do a double take, not sure of what you just saw. Nicosia's grasp of cloaked emotions and stalled dreams is so complete, you can't help but feel you're privy to someone's private life, that secret world where a person's solid ground crumbles into sand and where a familiar present is swallowed up by a dark past or voided future.

My own response to "Nic Nicosia: Real Pictures 1979-1999" at the Contemporary Arts Museum is immediate and visceral. Here is an artist tunneling through the complexities of a genuine, urgent vision, operating as much from his gut as from his head, and actually saying something about white middle-class America. Nicosia charts the depths of suburban experience -- its moods, tensions and ambiguities.

But like an unreachable itch, Nicosia's photographs and films also frustrate, their meanings constantly biting at you but remaining elusive. His works exert a palpable closeness, an intimacy with the viewer that is disorienting and destabilizing. There is the sense of life lived not as a series of decisive moments but rather as a random accumulation of shrunken ones. To be sure, his most powerful photographs have the authority of dreams, filled as they are with powerful unconscious symbols and emotions.

Hurricamp warning: Nicosia takes a slapstick approach to photography.
Nic Nicosia
Hurricamp warning: Nicosia takes a slapstick approach to photography.

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(713)284-8250.
is on view through November 28 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose.

Looking at these pictures, watching the films, you can almost hear the opening strains of the Twilight Zone theme. Rod Serling regularly set his strange morality tales in a world as ostensibly "normal" as the one Nicosia presents. Having grown up in the '50s and come of age in the '60s, boomers such as Nicosia have a special slant on what makes America tick. It is their sensibility that has shaped pop culture and its vision of the slightly dysfunctional family (one usually watered down to something funny, even adorable). By contrast, Nicosia's photographs show the powerful undercurrents of the nuclear family, its confused motives and mixed signals. Most of the works have a subtle Edward Hopper-like quality; there's always an overarching sense of melancholy just barely kept at bay, balanced with an oddly inviting warmth.

Born in 1951 in Dallas, where he has lived and worked almost uninterruptedly, Nicosia is among a generation of artists whose work made new use of the imagination's unpredictable wanderings and illuminated the way memory, association, innuendo and pop culture can run riot in the brain. Back in the early '80s works by a wide range of photographers increasingly blurred aesthetic lines while intentionally avoiding the unaltered, documentary style of late-'60s photography. Some artists manipulated the site before photographing; others manipulated the print, evoking painterly responses. Rather than adhere to established tenets, these artists demonstrated a concern for idea, content and making a visually significant statement. Nicosia's early images, for example, were photographic setups that could fool the eye. He surprised viewers with carefully constructed environments that moved between the implied sincerity of the documentary and the unapologetic fiction of popular culture.

In those works Nicosia applied color paper to an environment, so that the alteration he photographed fluctuated between illusion and reality, sucking you in with dazzling color and knocking you back with the obviousness of everyday life. Later Nicosia expanded such formally composed still lifes to include real people situated within hand-drawn, cartoonlike settings, all of which implied a particular narrative. Like Cindy Sherman, Jimmy de Sana, Laurie Simmons and others whose works exploited the "look" of mass-media formats -- movie still, soap opera scene, advertisement -- Nicosia assumed the role of director, constructing scenarios that emulated daily life.

The exhibition includes a classic image from his "Domestic Drama" series, which shows a child scribbling on a wall while her parents are preoccupied with changing their clothes. Nicosia's jokey, near-slapstick style continues in the "Near (Modern) Disasters" series, which includes the chaotic image of a father holding onto his daughter, who is about to be blown away by hurricane winds that have already hurled beach chairs and umbrellas out to sea. Nicosia allows all of the artifice to show in the photograph, including the wire rigging that suspends the girl in midair.

The series "Life As We Know It" deals with contemporary forms of violence that Nicosia feels has begun to threaten even his own family's safe suburban haven. One image depicts a well-dressed cocktail-party guest punching a man in the stomach while a woman in the extreme foreground smiles at the viewer. In another, two girls frolic and cartwheel as the mom, sitting next to the remains of a picnic, looks up from her book to check on them. Only on closer inspection do you notice, through the branches and foliage of a huge tree, that a plane is going down behind them.

There is tremendous freedom, joy and confidence in his early work, but in hindsight his spoofs offer mostly an overload of wackiness. Perhaps even Nicosia sensed the monochromatic camp of his big studio photographs, because he soon made the switch to the film-noir edginess of "real" locations using black-and-white film.

In these "Real Pictures," Nicosia transforms the seemingly insignificant into the crushingly consequential. In one image five young girls, standing on a bridge with their backs to the viewer, have attached a doll to a rope and are caught trolling it in the river below. Nicosia seems to be probing those last fragile moments of childhood before that transition into the hardened world of the adult. Nowhere is that captured better than in an image set at the watery base of a rocky cliff where Nicosia played as a child. Here three girls and an elderly man have come upon a dead body floating between the boulders. The man urges the girls not to look, but they're obviously fascinated by it. Nicosia confronts head-on the anxiety and desperation inherent in those moments when a child is forced to face something he or she doesn't fully understand.

A loss of innocence can turn into something darker and moodier as middle age sets in; that's a theme Nicosia explores in his "Love and Lust" and "Untitled" series, which take a poignant, if painful, look at such complex themes as marriage, relationships and growing old. Nicosia peels back the layers to discover what lies beneath the surface of our bedroom communities, where we often think we're immune to life's little displeasures. He has a viewer/voyeur peer over a wall and through some bushes to a patio where a beautiful woman dances in front of a slightly paunchy middle-aged man. She's enjoying herself, and he's definitely having a good time. What's more, Nicosia has tinted the image a luscious green, lending the scene the mood of a dreamy, hot summer night.

Nicosia graduated with a degree in film and communication, so a change of medium seems logical for an artist who has spent two decades working as his own director, actor, cameraman and wardrobe master. His films at the CAM remind you at every turn that surfaces rarely reflect the depths of human reality.

Set to circuslike music, Middletown puts you in the passenger seat as the artist drives through a Dallas neighborhood. You circle around and around viewing the slightly surreal, mundane activities -- a man watering his yard, kids riding their bikes, two businessmen in cowboy hats walking down the road. In Moving Picture, you enter a suburban colonial-style home and circle its various rooms to the accompaniment of lonely Roy Orbison-like riffs. These films, like all of Nicosia's, are many things: sometimes very funny, sometimes eccentric and most definitely loaded with pathos.

It's easy to get sucked into Nicosia's hypnotic, transcendent worlds, much like it's easy to get caught up in the America Dream itself. Nicosia's cyclical approach to his art heightens your sense of inability to differentiate mirage from substance. It's a world where "identity" is placed in question marks, the skepticism arising from the heavy dread, as heavy as an anvil, that often accompanies suburban living. Even in the suburbs, it seems, lives do not move along compass points.

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