On ViewMarc Straus Gallery
February 15 – April 2, 2017
Sandro Chia’s romantic expressiveness in today’s contemporary art climate is taking a chance. At a time in art when the embrace of sentiment is almost always rejected, Chia, not risking mawkishness, in truth emphasizes the vulnerability of being human. Belonging to the Italian movement, Transavanguardia, composed of neo-Expressionist artists well known in New York in the 1980s, Chia—a painter and sculptor—rose to recognition together with such artists as Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi. Echoing his penchant for Romanticism and tradition in art history, Chia’s exhibition of new paintings at Marc Straus Gallery—the first in New York since nearly a decade—equally refuses to partake in an intellectualized orientation. Predominantly featuring self-portraits (or what appear to be representations of an “everyman”), as well as a single sculpture, the show is notably distant from the high-speed aesthetics of much contemporary art today, with increasingly complex technological trajectories and conceptual motivations. One of the unusual attributes of Chia’s art is that it is meant to be taken in slowly, unlike the momentary gaze we give to so many works, regularly registering in even a quick glance. It also goes against the contemporary bias toward abstraction, enforcing that figuration still holds sway in New York. But these differences in theme and formal variation are far from troubling. The emotional directness and advantageous technique of Chia’s current work—that is, the transparency of feeling we experience through brushwork so fine as to the point of invisibility—don’t push him backwards in time, so much as evidence a link to the historical resources of painting.
It is hard to read Chia’s inclination for forthright feeling in an environment like ours—dominated by the market and mostly biased against a recognizable awareness of art history. In contrast, in a painting such as Looking At (2017), an image of a man gazing at himself in a large pool of water set on grass, the classical story of Narcissus is immediately referred to. Indeed, the work is an illustration of a mythic tale, but it can also be seen as a story for our time—a judgment of current life, obsessed as we are with ourselves. The shirt that the man wears is abstractly rendered, composed of a striped pattern that looks remarkably similar to a stylistic effect found in mid-career to late works by Jasper Johns. If a conscious decision by Chia, the picture is positioned very much within the trajectory of the history of contemporary art.
In allegory, art has a hidden agenda: the presentation of a moral truth. But sometimes it is difficult to parse its implications. In the work titled The Prisoner’s Dream (2017), a barefoot man in a cerulean-blue shirt and brown shorts sits on a gray-blue boulder. Three birds ascend in the upper left of a variegated grey sky: the bottom one is colored orange; the middle, olive green; and the topmost, a vibrant dark blue. The man sits pensively, smiling and looking up at them as they travel freely through the sky. What is he dreaming of? The prisoner’s whimsical demeanor indicates a certain lightness of heart, but the title demonstrates a more serious import, creating a tension between the ostensible image and its suggested meaning. The title pushes perhaps towards a universal, symbolic reading: we are all prisoners on earth; the image thus conveys the longing we bear in light of limits. It is a strong painting.
The only sculpture in the show, entitled Single-Wing Angel (2000), describes a standing figure in dark-gray bronze. Looking up toward the skies, the angel holds a large, golden heart in his hands; attached to his back is a single wing, rising from his knees to the middle of his head. An extremely lyric image, the figure chances bathos with the inclusion of the golden heart. Yet the poetic effect overwhelms the implications of emotionalism, something that also happens in the paintings. Transcendence is key to Chia’s sensibility, which resonates here with a higher order. It would be quite difficult to measure the public response to a show like this; spiritual matters are often a cause of embarrassment in contemporary art, not exaltation. But poetry echoes in all of Chia’s efforts, which illuminate a way of thinking scarcely present in contemporary art now. For Chia’s audience, his works may delineate a kind of inspiration not easily available in current circumstances: to direct one’s gaze toward the skies.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.