Sandro Chia: The Prisoner’s Dream, 2017, oil on canvas, 63¾ by 51 inches; at Marc Straus.

For his first exhibition of paintings in New York in nearly a decade, Italian artist Sandro Chia offered a rather overt reflection on his life, albeit one delivered in the painterly and metaphorical terms for which he is known. Now seventy, Chia was once a bad boy of the Transavanguardia, which included like-minded compatriots such as Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Luigi Ontani, and Carlo Maria Mariani and polarized the international art world of the late 1970s and '80s. Transavanguardia not only reintroduced figurative painting into the predominantly Minimalist and Conceptual scene of the period, but proposed devices like allegory and mythology as valid strategies in contemporary art discourse, much to the chagrin of the art-world establishment at the time. For better or worse, the group helped instigate the art-market boom of subsequent years. 

 

Based on the fifteen paintings on view (all 2017), Chia is a venerable master. The artist has substituted the brash color and florid drawing of his earlier works with a more assured line, a relatively subdued palette, and a commanding sense of composition and emotional content. Many of the paintings feature a nearly life-size lone male in a nonchalant contrapposto stance. Rendered in a realistic but somewhat schematic way, the figure strolls through fanciful landscapes and is often surrounded by animals. Called the "wayfarer" in some of the titles, he suggests a stand-in for the artist.  

Hung near the entrance to the exhibition, Looking At, one of the sparer smaller compositions, at approximately forty inches square, shows a young man gazing down at an image of himself in what could be a pool of water (a reference to Narcissus), a mirror, or a self-portrait tondo. It set the mood for the works that followed.

Typically, Chia's work is full of art historical allusion. The youthful protagonist's shirt in The Wayfarer with Ducks is laden with modernist references: its geometric design recalls Sonia Delaunay; a crosshatch pattern on the sleeve echoes Jasper Johns, who himself had adopted the motif from Edvard Munch. The cluster of colorful ducks at the figure's feet, Chia remarked in a press statement, refers to the work of Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning physician known for pioneering research in instinctive animal behavior, especially that of birds as they leave the nest. 

The Prisoner's Dream depicts a man seated on a rock, his wrists seemingly bound, recalling one of Goya's "Chained Prisoners" from the early nineteenth century. In Chia's painting, three birds––one orange, one yellow, and one blue––fly near the captive's head like a rainbow. Wearing a rumpled skirt, the figure conveys an ambiguous sexuality, and appears emblematic of the struggles of the LGBTQ community. 

In one of the most striking paintings, The Wayfarer with His Cane (Dog in Italian), the figure is shown as a silver-haired doyen strolling through a brilliantly hued meadow. Vermilion, pink, and blue vegetation appears along the path like the foliage in Fauvist landscapes. On the upper left of the canvas, a multicolored bird takes flight against the gray-blue sky. Continuing the Fauvist homage, a bright green line defining the nose of Chia's figure is a nod to Matisse's 1906 portrait Madame Matisse (The Green Line). Neither the pooch at the gentleman's feet nor the cane in his hand diminishes his grace and confidence.