Stepping Out of Time: Sandro Chia at Marc Straus
Sandro Chia at Marc Straus Gallery
February 15 to April 2, 2017
299 Grand Street, between Eldridge and Allen streets
New York City, marcstraus.com
If there is anyone familiar with the vicissitudes of art and fashion, that person is surely Sandro Chia. He was an internationally renowned art star of the 1980s, but his shows of paintings earlier this year at Marc Straus and of drawings, a little earlier, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, constituted his first exposure in New York in almost a decade. And to experience his work is to step, somewhat, out of time. He certainly isn’t an artist interested in novelty for its own sake.
Chia, now in his fifth decade of art making, first emerged as part of the transavanguardia, a group of Italian artists championed by the critic Achille Bonita Oliva (he was part of a triumvurate that also included Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi) who reestablished a use for figuration, color and symbolism in their painting. Together with Neo-expressionists in the USA and Germany, they displaced the institutional hegemony of Conceptualism and Minimalism. Bitter arguments about the validity of figuration came and went. Chia weathered the assault on his market value when collector Charles Saatchi dumped extensive holdings of the artist at auction in 1989.
His show at Marc Straus consisted of 15 paintings made between 2014 and 2017, and one earlier sculpture. The dominant motif is of a solitary figure – white, male — walking forwards, often accompanied by animals: birds, ducks, a dog, a horse, a rooster. the depiction of the ‘Wayfarer’, as he calls his man, is strikingly repetitive in terms of style of clothing, scale in relation to the canvas, distance back from the picture plane, and facial expression, and he is always in contrapposto. What changes is the scenery – forest, polar landscape, country road – the pattern on his tight-fitting shirt, and the animals. Chia could perhaps be referencing the trope of computer games that reward your character with a new outfit and environment to explore, each time you make to the next level. Appearances shift, but the character seems unaffected. Chia doesn’t give us new perspectives on the Wayfarer; he is kept at a constant remove.
The light in the paintings, created with an incredible variety of warm and cool grays, sometimes with unexpected pink or turquoise undertones, oscillates between day and night. Close reading of the surfaces suggest an assured paint handling, confident but not showy. Layers are built up with brushy, matte patches of paint to reveal surprising colors underneath in a way that brings Richard Diebenkorn to mind. These paintings delight in skies and clouds whosefleeting, ephemeral quality is contrasted with the solid, healthy muscularity of the Wayfarer. His physique glorified in a figure-hugging T-shirt, is he the white male hero, conquering nature, impervious to time?
Two works on view suggest other motivations. Single Winged Angel (2000), the only sculpture in the show, stands over six feet tall and thrusts forward an offering of a gold heart with two chunky hands. The celestial figure is firmly grounded on a thick, rough-hewn base. Its face tilts upward, an arrow-like nose pointing to the heavens. I notice my reflection in the shiny heart. Nearby, Looking At (2017) depicts a figure also observing his own reflection, in what could be water or a mirror. Areas of green and gray bisect the square canvas horizontally. Unlike traditional depictions of Narcissus, where the reflection is muted in relation to its source, Chia reverses course: His figure occupies a comparatively desaturated space, while the world of reflections is bright and gleaming. Chia’s subjects here are historical and mythological, yet he seems to be getting at something about looking, and the specifically contemporary condition of living side by side with our own representations. The reflections dazzle the reflected.
Chia is telling old narratives with enduring resonance. This casts his use of repetition in a new light. There is a perhaps a parallel with the artist’s own story and the repetitive work of a life in painting. Art history’s role in this earthly, searching journey is displayed in the Picasso-like classicism of the figures, and T-shirt patterns which recall Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Jasper Johns. Color and painting itself are proposed as things to hold onto, via the palette-like object the Wayfarer carries in three of the pictures. In The Prisoner’s Dream (2017), for instance, three birds in primary red, yellow and blue fly upwards, their apparent freedom contrasting with the bound hands of the adjacent figure. Chia folds the history, and struggle, of his medium into these pictures. On one level, this is a familiar story about the individual’s journey, but it is told from the unique perspective of a painter for whom the art form is a life choice, not a passing fad.
In this sense, Chia can be seen to propose a sort of vision quest. Reiterations of looking and the remaking of representation are offered as a pathway, he seems to suggest, that may lead to personal awakening and spirituality. Chia manages to communicate this complex symbolism with simple yet specific pictorial choices.