DALLAS ARTIST NIC NICOSIA was one of the Young Turks who transformed photography in the early eighties, ending half a century of documentary realism and ushering in a new era of flagrant photographic fictions. Casting and staging his shots like a movie director, blowing up brightly colored prints to the size of abstract paintings, Nicosia rocketed into the bellwether Whitney Biennial in 1983 and has stayed on the cutting edge ever since. After amassing a lengthy résumé of prestigious international exhibitions, he has finally come home in style—as one of those rare Texas artists, and the first-ever Texas photographer, to command a major retrospective at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum.

“Nic Nicosia: Real Pictures 1979—1999” (at the CAM through November 28 and at the Dallas Museum of Art May 25 through August 27, 2000) may well be remembered as the most compelling one-person exhibit of a Texas artist during this decade. But what’s most remarkable about this 59-piece visual narrative isn’t how far Nicosia has pushed the envelope but how close to home his art has stayed. A lifelong Dallas resident who has raised his own family in the same North Dallas suburbs where he grew up, the 48-year-old Nicosia has dared to go where few avant-garde sensibilities have gone before: behind the closed doors—and into the hearts and minds—of middle-class Middle America. Deftly skirting both sentimentality and condescension, he plumbs the hopes and fears of ordinary people with an empathy and an insight rarely found in any medium.

Nicosia may also be the only internationally renowned photographer who owned a camera store before he owned his first professional camera. The son of a Dallas dentist, he says he “stumbled” into radio-television-film studies his junior year at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, turned down a couple of chances at TV work after graduating, and finally accepted a loan from his father to open a camera shop in Denton. Utterly inexperienced as a still photographer (“I got my first 35mm camera because I felt I needed to be able to talk to my customers”), Nicosia got an education from the local photojournalists and photography students who dropped into his shop. After a frustrating attempt at the densely detailed, documentary-style street photography popularized by virtuosos like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, he enrolled in graduate classes at North Texas in the late seventies and soon focused on the nascent trend toward fabricated photographs. Cityscape #1 (1980) began as a straight shot of the view from his camera shop, teeming with a Friedlander-esque visual argot of traffic signs and storefront icons. But Nicosia proceeded to obscure much of the detail by pasting swatches of colored construction paper on the print, then photographing the resulting collage, producing an image as simple yet surrealistic as a cartoon.

Nicosia’s openly contrived streetscapes and interiors only hinted at the psychological richness to come. But in an art world desperate to escape its seventies languor, they brought him overnight success; by the end of 1981 Nicosia had been in eleven group shows and had already had a one-man exhibit. With his career suddenly in overdrive, he took what might have been a career-ending detour, moving back to Dallas and settling down with his wife and two young daughters only a mile or so from the neighborhood where he had spent his own childhood. “The word ‘conservative’ comes to mind,” says Nicosia of his hometown. “I’d have loved to have done New York. But with two kids, it’s something I never could have swung.”

That he would find an enduring muse in the Dallas suburbs certainly wasn’t Nicosia’s expectation when he began the Domestic Dramas series in 1982. His subjects, drawn from his own family and friends, were patently posed and the sets built from scratch, the artifice emphasized by the poster-paint palette and flattened perspectives he borrowed from his daughters’ coloring books. The themes—extramarital temptations, messy kids, starter-home blues—are addressed with mordant wit. Domestic Drama #3 (1982) takes place on a blueprint for a new house, blown up to the size of a large carpet and spread out on the floor like a giant game board; a husband and wife argue furiously in the middle of it, interactive tokens in the game of life. “The Domestic Dramas were about being as openly fabricated as they could possibly be, as far as possible from seventies documentary photos,” he recalls. “But I never made a conscious decision on the subject matter. I just used my life.”

By the mid-eighties Nicosia had gone farther afield, using strangers as subjects and probing their psyches with increasing acuity. Bill and Pete (1985) is chillingly prophetic; pistol-packing Pete, wearing a camouflage cap and posed like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, seems to embody the wacky backyard survivalism that would  soon metastasize into full-blown Middle American militancy. But Nicosia’s real breakthrough began with the Real Pictures series; though the photographs are every bit as staged as their predecessors, here he turned to black and white film for a convincing photojournalistic immediacy. “The Real Pictures were meant to look real,” Nicosia says. “When you eliminate the color, you eliminate the fantasy.” Real Pictures #11 (1988) captures three children watching a sapling burn in a suburban yard; one of the boys holds a gasoline can, while the lone girl confronts us with an ineffably conflicted gaze, conveying in equal measure wonder, menace, and sorrow. Nicosia’s torched sapling may not be the burning bush as it appeared to Moses, but it is a metaphor for a similarly potent revelation, the moment when a child discovers the godlike power to destroy that can dwell in the most innocent soul.

Nicosia’s pictures continued to become more revelatory as their formats became more restricted. The Untitled series (1991—1993) was shot entirely at night, in Nicosia’s own house or his previous Dallas home. The subtle lighting in these oversized prints is transcendent, the velvety blacks are as mysterious as deep space, the rituals of everyday life endowed with an almost sacramental significance. An older man naps on a sofa, a row of crucifixes on the wall above him, a newspaper covering him like a shroud; a little ballerina poses incandescently atop a kitchen table, as though illuminated by the expectations of the parents who stand, barely distinguishable, in the shadows behind her; a husband and wife share a lonely supper, absorbed in their separate worlds.

The most recent series on view at the CAM, Acts 1-9, draws on Nicosia’s experience with portrait commissions (he’s done hundreds since he began accepting them in 1989) to further reduce the dramatic elements. Act 4 (1994) centers on a young boy dressed for a formal portrait who faces the camera with the stoicism boys show in such situations—slightly bored, slightly belligerent. But caught in the frame is a seated woman just old enough to be the boy’s mother. She’s dressed in a suit and pumps, her legs slightly spread in a pose both casual and provocative, her head tilted back in a reverie that might be sexual or merely the grateful repose of a harried young homemaker. A decidedly Oedipal mom, she’s also an even more archetypal feminine presence, a stand-in for all the women who will shape and transform the boy’s insouciant face during the life ahead.

For the past several years, Nicosia has returned to video and film, producing at least one classic of that too-often opaque genre, the artist’s video. Middletown (1997) was shot on his own aptly named Middleton Road. In a single fifteen-minute take, to the accompaniment of spooky original music, the camera tracks several times around the neighborhood, watching as life in Middletown seems about to run off the rails: A stranded minivan belches smoke; a girl pulling a wagon throws a tantrum; a swimsuited siren poses with her pooper-scooper. Yet the little community escapes imminent breakdown, and at the end of the allegory we recognize the life most of us lead: a repetitious journey through a psychological minefield of insecurities and fears, somehow completed with our dignity and even some of our hopes intact.

It’s that sense of redemption that ultimately makes a visit to Nicosia’s middle realm so rewarding. We enter with eyes half shut, discover a fictional portrait of ourselves more truthful and penetrating than any mere fact, and leave in something akin to a state of grace.