It’s unusual for reclusive artist Nicolas Africano to be so chatty, but last Friday morning, before the opening of his first solo exhibition in 13 years, he was in a social mood.
Clad in loose-fitting black linen, the soft-spoken 69-year-old artist was ready for his closeup. His wife and frequent muse, Rebecca, and three sons all were on their way to the Twin Cities to see his series of glass sculptures, based on Cecil Beaton’s photographs of Greta Garbo as Pierrot the clown, a comically tragic character from Italian commedia dell’arte.
The eight sculptures, ranging from 2 to 4 feet tall, made their presence known inside the gray-walled Weinstein Hammons Gallery. A back room was filled with six drawings and sketches that Africano used to create the Garbo series.
Africano said he always thought the Beaton photos “had a certain powerful charm and resonance. ... I had always been interested in the aspect of ‘role.’ I had never had a sense of belonging anywhere, of being a part of the community. I have never been comfortable. I have never experienced a sense of faith or certainty.”
In displaying Africano’s fascination with Garbo, his glass figures become stand-ins for the self.
Pierrot’s heart is always being broken. He desires the love of Columbine (another commedia character) but she usually leaves him for Harlequin. In re-staging Pierrot with the famous Garbo, there’s a strong sense of both drag and androgyny. Different poses make each of Africano’s fantastic glass sculptures distinct — variations on themselves, in a sense. The 2018 work “Garbo Figure (seated figure leaning on a cube)” is doing exactly that, her hands crossed over her chest, face looking downward.
These are not replicas of the Garbo photos. They are all “various poses that I invented and blended together,” said Africano. “After certain variations occur, they have nothing to do with the original inspiration.” The only work that refers directly to a Beaton image is a drawing called “The Chair.”
All but the largest sculpture — “The Garbo Figure,” which stands at about 45 inches — were cast by artist Melanie Hunter at NA Studios in Normal, Ill., the central Illinois city where Africano lives and works. (He was born in Kankakee, south of Chicago.) Hunter and Africano, who have been working together for 25 years, use an olive or dark green-colored glass, though in photographs it often looks black. The reason is simple: to heighten the visibility of the clown’s white outfit, with its poofy, ruffled neckband.
In his work, Africano said, “there is always this sense of opposition between something that it appears to be and what it may really represent. The image called ‘Smile,’ for example, is obviously an effort to refuse to cry.”
Normal, Ill., isn’t the kind of place you’d expect a famous artist to live, but it has a sense of calm that he desires.
Africano, who was represented by art dealer and pop icon Holly Solomon in the 1980s and ’90s, was a well-known name in the New York art world. He was in six group shows at the Museum of Modern Art from 1977 to 1987. The artist has a long relationship with Minneapolis art institutions. Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman gave him his first solo exhibition, “The Man Who Lived in a Hat,” in 1978, when Africano was 27. For Africano, the Twin Cities offers a sense of home and individualism that he finds familiar. Or perhaps it’s the open-mindedness of Minnesotans.
Before this exhibition, his wife had been his model for glass sculptures based on poses she did — a woman with an androgynous look.
“I had for years always been deeply impressed and interested in identities that were blended,” said Africano. “The androgyny of certain figures in art — my wife — there is a certain kind of beauty that always impressed me.”
Twins have also been a theme in Africano’s work; his wife, in fact, is an identical twin. One could see that in the Garbo sculptures, too, re-imagined and multiplied until Africano himself is satisfied by their existence.