Heady art

Among the obsessively searching self-portraits in Craig Paul Nowak's engaging solo show at Ferndale's Next Step Gallery, one may typify all that he's about as an artist and person. As if floating over us in an impressive athletic leap, or perhaps floating in existential ether as he searches for his identity, Nowak depicts himself lit from within. His face beams with a Renaissance-like angelic light. His tawdry, white "wifebeater" T-shirt may stereotypically signify a tie to working-class origins, but his emancipated flight joyously shrieks of a quest to answer big questions, posed in his artist's statement:

"I was interested in the self/self relationship (the physical versus the spiritual and emotional) because I didn't understand it. Who am I? What is my purpose? Where did I come from? Would the world be the same without me?

How is it possible that I am alive?"

Like his unpretentious, seemingly innocent and candid writing, Nowak is forthright in manner and downright refreshing to be around. In his last year at the College for Creative Studies, about two years ago, he beckoned four mentor-professors into a darkened room and turned on a black light. On the wall, gloriously luminescent portraits of each of them honored their dedication as teachers and their impact on his education. Painted in laundry soap (its phosphate content glows in black light), the homages were invisible in ordinary light and probably are still there. This inventiveness is typical of Nowak: "Painting is actually a bland process," he says. "I'm always looking for a way to change it up."

True to his energetic approach, 50 or so dripped self-portraits and other smart experiments fill the gallery. Reminiscent of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock (he actually looks a little like him), Nowak began with "drippings" of friends but became engaged with searching for who he was. While his approach is athletic, Nowak has uncanny control of his dripping. He's a good painter. His leaping self-portrait (entitled "I'm Going to France!") is extraordinary among his new work: Skillful, dappled scumbling emanates the spirit of the painting.

On one wall is an arrangement of 37 dripped self-portraits with the collective title "Blend in/Stand out." Each painting has a distinctive ground color — a la Warhol — and individualized palette of dripped colors, expressing a tremendous range of emotional states, from soft and gentle to confused, hurt, comic, amused, uncertain and dark. The permutations, Nowak says, represent the "nature of the hybrid conditions that make us who we are. While they are self-portraits of me they really are about how complex each of us are. They are portraits of everyone."

Nowak pushes the self-portrait genre by employing materials from popular culture and including autobiographical writing on canvas. His series "Prized Possessions" are a rare collection of comic books and NBA cards — with his head painted on the bodies of Spiderman and famed basketball players. In a small series called "Orientation Paintings," he handwrites confessions, meditating on his inner life and his relationship with the world. Writing by painters on canvas usually falls terribly flat; however, these journal-like entries are intuitively engaging and ferociously honest. They are also painfully altruistic, but if anyone can fulfill his promise to pay back the world for its gifts to him, as he wrote in a painting, it seems Nowak might. In a recent interview, he said when he was a kid he promised to become a "rich and famous painter so that he could buy his mom a Corvette."

What he's doing seems to be working. "I'm Going to France!" refers to his invitation to be in Docks Art Fair at the Lyon Biennial, where he was chosen as one of 40 up-and-coming artists. He's also in Art Santa Fe this month, Chicago's SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) expo in November and another solo exhibition at Moka Gallery in Chicago in October. His Brighton high school teachers, whom he also honors in the "Orientation Paintings," should be proud of Nowak. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.


Craig Nowak's one-man show runs through July 28 at Next Step Studios and Gallery, artist Kaiser Suidan's gallery devoted to discovering new artists, at 530 Hilton Rd., Ferndale; 248-414-7050.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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