Couch Potato Classicism

The problem with "Sandro Chia: New Work" is not the art itself, some of which is quite impressive, but its presentation. The show, which runs through March 15 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, feels haphazard, thrown together, as if someone had hastily put up some pictures in the foyer just before the guests began to arrive.

There is no literature to help steer visitors through the show's two dozen or so works, and the little placards alongside the paintings and drawings provide only basic information: title (although many of the pieces are untitled), medium, and dimensions. There aren't even dates, which makes it difficult to determine just how new this "New Work" is or in what sequence it was created. A couple of large panels mounted on the walls make a halfhearted stab at an overview, but the anonymous text tends toward the vague and nebulous.

A decade and a half ago it was common for Chia, an Italian transplant to America, to be lumped together with two of his fellow expatriate countrymen and contemporaries, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, as the "Three Cs," despite their very different styles. Today Chia, who's in his early fifties, is better known than Cucchi and less familiar than Clemente, but he's hardly a household name.

I'm not proposing that the exhibit be explained to death in a brochure. Nor is it necessary to have a well-meaning but tiresome museum guide prattle on endlessly about the art. Still, some grounding would be welcome. But unless you're willing to shell out nearly $12 for the show's skimpy paperback catalog (I wasn't), you're pretty much on your own.

There's a sameness to much of Chia's work that's initially a little off-putting. His subject is almost exclusively the human figure (no longer the novelty it was in the days after abstract expressionism had had its say), with males far outnumbering females. The same few poses are presented again and again with only minimal variations.

But as you move through the show and warm to the pieces, it quickly becomes obvious that, despite his preoccupation with the human body, Chia is not concerned with portraiture. The largely expressionless faces and rounded bodies are in many cases virtually interchangeable. The lack of individualizing detail, the unnatural quality of the light, and the bright, almost garish colors keep them at a slight remove.

And yet these almost faceless people, sprawled languorously on the grass or crouched at water's edge, are eerily familiar. They're actually figures and poses taken from classical Greek and Roman art; what Chia has done is replace their marbled firmness and muscularity with rounded, more voluptuous shapes. (The critic Robert Hughes has noted that these forms are the result of the direct influence of the lesser-known Florentine painter Ottone Rosai.)

The huge oil on canvas called Reclined Bacchus, for instance, pushes the voluptuousness almost into caricature. An alarmingly fleshy man is stretched out in a pose more readily associated with female nudes: arms thrown back and crossed, his head resting on them, beefy chest, legs coiled provocatively, a small swatch of fabric covering his groin. Whatever sexual vitality this big slab of a man once had, it's been drained out of him, leaving behind what looks like a star jock gone to seed.

A great many of the paintings in this show dwell on pairs of men, often nudes, sometimes an older man with a younger one. Stripped of their original classical context -- say, an elder philosopher engaging in debate with a protege -- some of these pairs take on a faint homoerotic tinge. In a couple of cases, the suggestions are less than subtle. For example, I thought that 5 in the Woods, a tempera and oilstick on paper, was mistitled until I finally spotted the fifth figure intimately engaged with someone else in the background. And in one of the small untitled drawings, Chia presents five well-built fellows in briefs in what could easily be a bathhouse.

For all the sexual ambiguity in his pictures, however, Chia declines to make his subjects fully anatomically correct. Ironically, the effect is not calculated coyness but a heightened charge, an eroticism that owes something to mystery.

A rear view of a reclining male nude, propped on his left elbow, draws on that mystery and serves as an extraordinarily versatile image for Chia, who uses it in at least four of the paintings here. Rendered in the peach flesh tones of Dialogue in the Woods, it's another throwback to classicism. In Happy Lonely Figure, the man with his back to us needs neither a conversational partner nor an audience. And in the witty Watching the Other Work, he's a cool-blue idler taking in the lumpy laborer and city landscape in front of him.

The show includes one sculpture, a disastrous bronze called Dialogue Between Single Winged Angels. The clunky figures, slightly less than life-size, stand holding hearts in their hands, and the hearts and the figures' eyes are smeared with gratuitous dabs of brightly colored paint. The overall effect is ghastly.

There are also seven drawings or, more accurately, mixed-media works on paper; Chia typically splashes on a few blotches of paint, which does little more than detract from the drawings themselves. (For some real virtuoso works on paper, step into one of the adjacent galleries, where the Dr. and Mrs. John J. Mayers Collection includes 51 works, mostly on paper, by, among others, such giants as Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Georges Seurat.)

It's difficult to come out of this show with much of a sense of where Chia has come from, let alone where he's headed, thanks to the seemingly careless way the exhibit has been mounted. This lack of resolution, of course, says more about the institution than about the artist, who deserves better.

"Sandro Chia: New Work" will be on display through March 15 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 801 W. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-392-2500.

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