Tiny thought-provoking portraits at Framingham gallery mix humor with dead-on realism

Chris Bergeron

Salvatore Schiciano is the Henny Youngman of portrait painting. Using oils on canvas, he paints authors, artists, celebrities, philosophers and history's movers-and-shakers in their most recognizable and iconic poses with a dead-on realism.

Then the first generation Sicilian-American from Toledo, Ohio, zaps the likes of Charlie Chaplin, T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud and himself with visual banana peels, wisecracks and comic captions that abruptly change how we perceive them.

Gloomy gothic author Edgar Allen Poe wears a "Smiley Face" button in a painting called "Have a Nice Day." In "Gas Prices are to Blame," Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks gazes out a bus window as the image of a gas pump hovers above her shoulder. With a nose stud, dangling earrings and an outrageous Mohawk, painter Grant Wood becomes his own "American Gothic."

Welcome to the funky, provocative and occasionally outrageous world of "Salvatore Schiciano: The Iconic Puns"' at Gallery XIV in the Fountain Street Studios in south Framingham.

An MFA candidate in painting at Pennsylvania State University, he is showing and selling 60 small images in the third-floor art gallery jointly founded and owned by Will Kerr and Paul Riedl.

Kerr described Schiciano's miniature portraits as "shocking, funny, thought-provoking and sensitive."

"These works are themselves both historical and timely in challenging established ideologies and historical narratives," he said.

The show, which runs through Nov. 29, represents the first solo exhibition of Schiciano's work in the Boston area.

Measuring about 5 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches, each painting features a largely realistic portrait of a famous person in a familiar pose almost always undercut by small ironic flourishes meant to subvert their popular images.

Schiciano's ironic and sometimes gonzo humor reveals itself in virtually every portrait.

Looking troubled, painter James Whistler imagines his dour, disapproving mother via a speech balloon in a 7-by-5-inch painting titled "The Oedipus Complex." Resembling the advertising logo for Planter's Peanuts, scientist George Washington Carver is depicted wearing a monocle and top hat emblazoned with "Mr. Peanut."

Hanging at shoulder height, the 60 canvas-mounted paintings extend around the gallery's burnt sienna-tinted walls like a cavalcade of famous faces.

Above a portrait of reclusive poetess Emily Dickinson, Schiciano has added the Facebook logo to the 5-by-3-1/2-inch image titled "Social Butterfly." A benign Mahatma Ghandi dreams up a cloudburst of A-bombs in "From India with Love."

Hilarious or merely a chuckle? Astute social commentary or just a gimmick out of "Trivial Pursuit?" That depends on you.

Kerr described Schiciano's paintings as "masterpieces like little jewels."

"Hanging pieces like these makes a great narrative. I wanted a big show of small pieces," he said Wednesday. "Sal's paintings are so appropriate to this space. This space is so haunted. It becomes so charged because what's coming off the wall."

Kerr said he's followed Schiciano's development since he submitted work when Gallery XIV was in Boston. "Sal was an artist I wanted to work with. He was like an artist from the 18th century. He had technical skills, ability and craft. And Sal's really an ideas guy," he said.

After initially opening in Boston's South End, Gallery XIV moved to its present location in a spacious gallery in 2008 where it hosts exhibitions of emerging and established artists often with an international flavor.

Rarely resorting to the obvious, Schiciano's portraits work on both a visual and intellectual level.

In "Paint by Number: 1. Chinese Red," Chairman Mao is depicted as a paint-by-numbers image in which everywhere is supposed to be red. Gazing into the ink blots for which he's known, Hermann Rorschach sees his own mother in a demonic mask.

In "Cameo Appearance," Schiciano sets filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock's familiar silhouette into a circular setting like the namesake jewelry.

In general, "getting" the jokes embedded in these portraits with their punning captions sometimes requires more cultural awareness than getting the questions right in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

Schiciano inserts in the portraits several literary teasers worthy of "Jeopardy."

To understand why Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky is wearing a dunce cap, viewers would need to know he wrote a novel titled "The Idiot." Readers of Robert Frost's poetry will know why he's looking at a dead end sign in "Is that why it's less traveled."

And to understand why Czech novelist Franz Kafka has an insect's head in "Kafkaroach," a visitor needs to know the fate of Gregor Samsa in "Metamorphosis."

In his most distinctive works, Schiciano makes inspired connections between his treatment of iconic portraits and their subversive captions.

Titled "Just a Nip and a Tuck," a portrait of "Elephant Man" Joseph Merrick with prep lines drawn on his face and hands for plastic surgery satirizes the contemporary cult of cosmetic surgery.

Perhaps Schiciano's slyest joke is his portrait of Che Guevara imagining himself, not as he really looked but as the world-famous iconic image of the martyred Cuban revolutionary. The portrait's title "!Viva Il Icono," or "Long live Icons."

That ought to be this interesting exhibit's title.


Gallery XIV is in Studio 3 East in Fountain Street Studios, 59 Fountain St., Framingham.

Salvatore Schiciano will be at a special reception Friday, Nov. 13, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Gallery XIV will be open 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13 as part of Fountain Street Studios' Second Friday Studio Stroll. The gallery is also open by appointment.

For information, call 508-735-1016 or e-mail gallery owner Will Kerr at will@galleryxiv.com.