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Best Books - Book Reviews: Nic Nicosia

Nic Nicosia. By Nic Nicosia.
University of Texas Press, 2012.
Nic Nicosia
Reviewed by Judy Natal

Nic Nicosia
By Nic Nicosia. Introduction by Michelle White, interview by Sue Graze, fiction by Philipp Meyer.
University Of Texas Press, Austin, 2012. Hardbound. 264 pp., 160 color and black & white illustraitons, 12x10".

Nic Nicosia truly understands, nay passionately embraces, the artifice of the image and the fact that photography is a hybrid medium. It's not motion picture, but it does tell a story through narrative in time and space. In this case, the stories are more short staccato forms of fiction than epic novels or factual biographies depicting the drama of everyday life. It's not reality, but it is drawn from real life. The veracity of the photographic image collides with painted backdrops, stage sets, and every type of theatrical lighting imaginable, paired with everyday contemporary suburban life. So, it is no surprise to learn that Nicosia started out as a filmmaker. His photographs clearly demonstrate a life long habit to act as director of the films he creates, which in his case, are still photographs. The lavishly designed book collects Nicosia's images in his first major career retrospective simply titled Nic Nicosia. He does make moving images, both emotionally and conceptually, literally and figuratively, but they always utilize the stop action of the still camera. Like all great creative directors, he will go to any means necessary to tell a convincing story.

Nic Nicosia, by Nic Nicosia. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2012.

A.D. Coleman, the first photography critic for the New York Times, coined the term "directorial mode" to identify and define a photographic artist and genre where photographic images are constructed, often but not always in a studio, to imagine and interpret life's universal questions rather than going out into the world to find the answers. For these photographic directors, making pictures are acts of interpretation of reality rather then an accurate transcriptions of the thing itself, that are willfully, intentionally and unabashedly subjective rather than objective. It is the studio and the constructed frame, not the world, that is Nicosia's oyster.

Nic Nicosia, by Nic Nicosia. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2012.

Once viewers relinquish themselves to the photographic raison d'ĂȘtre of Nicosia's brain and reconcile with the fact that the conceptual framework is driving all the aesthetic choices, you are in for quite a ride. More is decidedly more! Nicosia's photographic subjects are as varied as his techniques. The unifying principles that hold the work together are the driving force of narrative, and often humor. In the service of playful caricatures, human subjects of all ages are portrayed with exaggerated expressions and comic book styles. He alludes to themes of disaster, both internal and external, with an ever so slight sense of foreboding. But his innate playfulness, use of bright primary colors and inventive materials, seeps into most of the images. 

Nic Nicosia, by Nic Nicosia. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2012.

The one exception to all the imaginative photographic chaos and cacophony of styles are the stark series of "drawing" photographs. This series is unlike anything else in the book. Minimalist in nature, breathtakingly in their restraint, this series is profound and redolent of the existential angst that oozes from the photographs. Nicosia becomes the maestro as well as subject, with the simplest of instruments; human silhouette, mark making, curved wall, dim light, appropriately recorded in contrasty, grainy, black and white images. These refer to "tabula rasa," Aristotle's notion of the mind as a blank slate that is written by sensory experience. With uncharacteristically direct eloquence, Nicosia portrays all the wonder, magic, and tragedy that life embodies. These photographs are as remarkable as they are concise, modern day "cave paintings" with the potential to survive the ages. While comparing Nic Nicosia's photographs to the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo, Michelle White, in her excellent and insightful introduction, theorizes that the power of the novel is "the witty excavation of the invisible dysfunction lurking within us all… toward its existential conclusion." These photographs are haunting, compelling, and unequivocal, and unlike a lot of Nicosia's photographs, unforgettable.

Nic Nicosia, by Nic Nicosia. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2012.

The editorial decision to include so many bodies of work, each represented by only a handful of photographs, does not serve Nicosia's work well. Clearly, the selection of work goes for breadth rather than depth, though perhaps a more judicious selection of images, less interested in demonstrating his virtuosity with the medium, and Nicosia is indeed a virtuoso, would allow viewers the opportunity to sink below the surface glibness of most of his work, and invite the viewer to know Nicosia's concerns better. Monographs work well when the artist has a unifying vision that commits to one idea and spends a lifetime exploring these themes. It is hard to call this book a monograph because it feels more closely aligned with a group exhibition. Design strategies such as image size, position of image on page, etc., that could have assisted in teasing out the unifying themes to address the widely divergent styles and themes that Nicosia explores, are ignored and instead indulges in the same inclusive nature of the work itself. A colleague recently suggested there are finely drawn distinctions between a monograph and a retrospective. This book decidedly falls into the camp of a retrospective, meaning a collection of artworks, rather than a development and revelation of an artistic oeuvre.

Nic Nicosia is a breezy ride across the country of Nicosia's photography that maps his artistic brain. You never stop for long, but you are certain to delight in the joyride, even with the pratfalls and mishaps along the way.—JUDY NATAL

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by Natasha Egan.

JUDY NATAL is a Chicago artist and author of EarthWords, and Neon Boneyard Las Vegas A-Z. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and are in the permanent public collections of the the Museum of Contemporary Art, California Museum of Photography, Center for Creative Photography, among others. She has received numerous grants and fellowships including a Fulbright Travel Grant, Illinois Arts Council Photography Fellowships, Polaroid Grants and New York Foundation for the Arts Photography Fellowships. Natal has also been awarded numerous artist residencies nationally and internationally, most recently in Iceland and the Biosphere 2 for her current work Future Perfect. Her work can be seen at her website