In the Studio with Nic Nicosia

Adapted from a conversation with Anna Smith, Nasher Curator of Education | Photos by Kevin Todora

Dallas native Nic Nicosia became internationally known in the 1980s for his staged photographs, which played against the documentary nature of traditional photography by creating believable but fabricated narratives. Over the course of his career, Nicosia’s oeuvre has expanded to include films, drawings, and ultimately sculpture. We spoke to Nicosia in his studio about working across media and coming to sculpture through photography.

I always made the sets that were used in my photographs. I was envious of, just, being able to make something and show it. And Sandy Skoglund—who I knew—she was basically a sculptor. I always thought that was cool, but at the time I wasn’t showing the sets as part of my exhibitions because they’re never that cool. They’re only made to be seen one way. They’re not made to be walked around. Even my sculptures are really meant to be seen from one side for the most part. I’ve been working on trying to make that different.

I love taking pictures. I get really jazzed when I photograph. I kind of get a little something that I get when I see a really good piece of art or something. But I go through periods of hating the work and loving the work as it’s being made. And with my photographs, it got to the point where I didn’t feel there were any stories to tell, and I was just so bored. It was too easy to come up with an idea and make the picture. It took me about 10 years later to figure out why that happened, and it was the portrait commissions I was taking, because I couldn’t really come up with the crazy shit I saw at people’s houses, and it sort of took away my need to direct and have people in front of me. So I stopped making staged photographs and just started to use photographic elements to make collages. I have a really good friend, Sue Graze, who used to be a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, and she’s very honest with me, and I was showing her these things, and she goes, “Why are you doing this?’” I told her, “I just don’t want to make photographs anymore,” and she says, “Why? That’s what you do.” And when I heard her say that, I stopped working completely for a few weeks. I looked at the catalogue from my 20-year retrospective, and I thought, “Okay, if I do stop just making the staged photographs, what is it that I want to give up?” I kept looking at my own work and I realized that I didn’t want to give up messing around with light. I love lighting stuff. It was that simple.

So that’s why I did a series about drawing, but it was photographed. And I did one about painting and I did one about lighting, and I did one about sculpture, and that’s when I was like, “This is cool.” For the first sculpture, I just made this thing out of—the art store guy said, “Try this Paperclay, it’s self-dry”—so I use Paperclay because I’m afraid if I make something in clay and take it to have it fired, it will blow up and I will have wasted all that time. I think the white surface looks good, and I like the handmade quality of it as well.

Artist Spotlight

Then the sculptures just kind of became it for me. Because now I can make my characters. I don’t have to cast them. The photograph came before the sculpture, and now it’s kind of gone the opposite direction.

My sculptures are all about emotions, that’s really what they’re about. These characters—they’re things that I see in a coffee table… [laughs]. It’s kind of hard to explain. I have pareidolia, right? Most anybody visual does. We have this pine coffee table in the room where the T.V. is, and also the room where I meditate in the morning, and so I’m not totally focused and I see the knots and the shadows kind of make these things, and I just draw them really quick. And then I make them.

Here’s the good thing about doing drawings and doing sculpture: I can work every day on something. With the photographs, it was like, you build the set, you have to wait to have people come over. I take the picture and there’s nothing physical left over, and I would just destroy the sets. They’re only made to be photographed. And, actually, the first set of sculptures were made just to be photographed. I wasn’t intending for people to see them or to collect them, but they did.

I never felt comfortable being called anything like a “sculptor” or a “photographer.” I just like that general idea of an “artist,” you know. I guess people see that as a pretentious term, but I never felt comfortable with an individual term. I think I’m good as a photographer. I like taking pictures and l love looking at photographs, but it’s just that I have this vision of what that is and I’m not that.

Nic Nicosia will be a featured artist at the sixth annual Great Create on April 29. Learn more about becoming involved with the Nasher’s family fundraiser.  


Kevin Todora is a frequent contributor to The Nasher. He is an artist and photographer who lives and works in Dallas, Texas.



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