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Anthony Goicolea's early-career survey at the NCMA covers a decade of world building

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We're out in the woods somewhere, far from the inhabited world, in a place that was never supposed to have been seen. And yet somehow we've stumbled onto this remote outpost, a forest clearing flanked by nondescript living quarters, a controlled environment that appears to be some kind of juvenile detention center.

In a sudden onslaught, we're confronted by a barrage of more than 30 adolescent males, a virtual army of societally excommunicated misfits. As we look into their faces we realize they're all the same person: the artist Anthony Goicolea.

This wall-size black-and-white photograph, "Warriors" (2001), is one of more than 40 works that comprise Alter Ego: A Decade of Work by Anthony Goicolea at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. With its schizoid iterations of multiple selves and composite spaces built from found fragments of wilderness and the ruins of global architectures, this is a fantasy born of the digitized real, and it's a riveting example of the kind of work with which Goicolea has made his mark on the art world.

Goicolea flaunts a virtuosic command of digital technology, a technology originally designed to enhance images, but as wielded by Goicolea it becomes a world-building tool, enabling him to hijack our minds and fill them with memories and dreams we never had. One psyche at a time, Goicolea triggers a neural network of his own making, a collective unconscious born of his own.

The central form of "Tree Dwellers" (2004) is a huge, impossible tree, a trumped-up digital conception of something that reminds us of the idea of a tree. Nevertheless, this synthetic construction is breathtaking—wide, magnificent, close enough to a worldly tree to make you want to climb it, with a massive root system, a visible circuitry that winds along the tree's base, fluidly erupting and returning into the earth. This is another Goicolea space in the middle of an imagined nowhere. It's in the wild, and yet the grass is lawn-green and pristine. A few neat piles of cut tree branches interrupt the sterile verdant expanse. Picturesque black-and-white cows punctuate the green in the middle distance, but the main event of this picture is the tree-dwellers themselves, a cadre of young males in ski masks that signal criminality or insurgency, hanging out in and around the branches of this gargantuan tree that serves as their home, a multiplex dwelling that is echoed in the imaginary apartment complexes that appear throughout Goicolea's work.

Indeed, in Goicolea's more recent photographic works, he and his army of clones have exited the scene altogether and have made room for evacuated habitats and barren landscapes populated by packs of dogs or aging seniors. The centerpiece of "Deconstruction" (Almost Safe series) (2007) is a cross section of a blown-out building, a composite architecture culled from multiple sites that include Paris, Greenland, New York and Vancouver. By infusing a single site with the many, Goicolea undermines our static, immutable conception of place. It isn't that we're not in Kansas anymore, but rather, we're in Kansas, Copenhagen and Nairobi in the same instant, in the same space. Makes your head spin, but you've just got to deal with it—it's a gedanken experiment that situates the global and the local in the same place.

"Deconstruction" exists in a landscape that is neither apocalyptic nor heavenly, but it is somehow a synthesis of both. This effect is achieved partly through Goicolea's expert, almost painterly handling of darks and lights. In the distance the sky grows dark, tempestuous, the effects of volatile weather or perhaps the black smoke of war. The exposed white stone infrastructure of what remains of the destroyed building glows with a milky luminosity, piles of white, bleached-out rock and rubble echo the snowy environments favored by Goicolea, a blinding whiteness verging on the celestial. Ink-black wires and exposed dark girders scan as wilderness, brambles and overgrowth. Goicolea's embrace of ruins can be directly linked with the historical romanticism of Thomas Cole's 1836 Course of Empire, with a few key differences—white-haired aging seniors slung in mesh hammocks hang from the ruins, suspended in air and in time.

Alter Ego is an early-career survey that also includes installation work, drawing and video. Goicolea's drawings are not nearly as destabilizing or impactful as his photographic works. The hand of the artist is apparent. The drawings, done in acrylic on Mylar, feel primitive and crude in comparison with the photographs. They can't compete with the compellingly seamless photographic worlds achieved through Goicolea's digital mastery—and therefore it is difficult to think of the drawings, especially when presented side by side with the photographs, as much more than elevated illustration. On their own terms, the drawings convey Goicolea's world-building impulse, presenting parallel universes that reflect the artist's interior world, not unlike the obsessive imaginings of Henry Darger.

The drawing "For All My Days" (2010) frames a young boy from the torso up, at the base of the composition. His hands are raised, his head cast down, fingers held in front of his face in a kind of claw position, perhaps some kind of invocational gesture (or, given the bright red stains around his fingernails, a revelation of guilt). A large black cloud, replete with the telltale spatter and drip of spray paint, dominates the upper half of the piece, associating the image, if tenuously, with the graffiti that appears on various surfaces within Goicolea's multiple worlds. Look carefully at this black mass, however, and you find faint hash marks that have been etched into the paint, a nod to Goicolea's numerical compulsions. From his sequential selves to the accumulations of objects, birds, fish, rocks, windows and grave markers that populate his images, Goicolea invests his work with repeated multiples that are subject to indexical register. This numerical impulse correlates with the idea of counting to 10 to deal with one's own rage, as a way of making sense of the world, as an incantatory path into trance, into sleep, as a compendium of repeated actions, what one might call acts of obsessive-compulsive order. In Goicolea's video, "Kidnap," the narrator speaks of counting his steps in order to find his way back home.

"Related 1a & 1b" (Related series) (2008) comprises two discrete objects, a photo-realistic graphite-on-Mylar portrait of a woman from a series that tracks Goicolea's distant Cuban and Cuban-American relatives, and a black-and-white photograph of that drawing nailed to a telephone pole in a manner that unflinchingly suggests crucifixion. Photographic sunspots double as luminous spheres that cut across the composition in the guise of transient haloes. The framed Mylar portrait on view is riddled with puncture holes from where it had been nailed and therefore demands to be read as a religious relic, albeit a deeply personal and metaphoric one.

"Related 1a & 1b" is the only work in the exhibition in which a drawing serves as the subject of a photograph, and in which a drawing and a photograph are integrated into one piece. Gone from this work is the lush hyperdensity of Goicolea's composite photographic worlds. But we are left with the hint of something equally tantalizing: the glimmer of an aesthetic in which drawings are cast as surrogate performers in photographic passion plays.

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