Opening of Paintbrushes Factory

February 2, 2010

The feverishly expected opening of the new art space(s) at the former paintbrushes factory in Cluj took place on the 23rd of October 2009. The event was clearly a success at least in terms of attendance, a crowd of artists, students, various art lovers and art professionals gathered. One could have counted the participants not in tens or hundreds, but literally in thousands, an unprecedented fact, to my knowledge, in the Romanian artistic life of the last decades. A general atmosphere of optimism and that hopeful feeling that something major is happening pervaded the evening.

The Plan B gallery relocated here and opened the new venue with a show by Ciprian Muresan, more or less officially curated by Mihnea Mircan. The show was called LUV and brought together three works by the Cluj based artist, two videos and a drawing, respectively. It has the merit of being somehow a plain and simple exhibition, without that making it a dull one; quite the opposite, one might say.

Dog Luv, recently on view also at the Romanian pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, is significantly one of the most complex artistic endeavours of Muresan up to date. Narrative without being boring and politically charged without lacking either wit or visual appeal, the video is adequately transposing in visual language a text by Saviana Stanescu and it consists of a rather bizarre puppet show with canine characters (realized with the help of excellent puppeteers, by the way). A consistent, though not necessarily striking in terms of originality, meditation on dictatorship and alienation, on absurdity of distorted social relations and the perversely ludicrous banality of evil is what the work has mainly to offer. Displacement of symbolic meaning is the conceptual tool Muresan uses in a very direct and sharp way, as he’d done it before: the doggy puppet is no longer implying innocence, but rather menace, the puppet show is no longer (or at least not merely) a funny story, but rather a bleak one.

The Holbein drawing alludes in a very personal way to the much celebrated and discussed painting by Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors. Muresan’s work kind of turns the historical masterpiece upside down, the anamorphosis of the famous skull in it being annihilated (via visual decoding) so that the skull becomes the main “character”, while all the rest is reduced to patches. The work is smart and poignant, and also leaves the impression of really “heartfelt” one, which is a nice thing to get from a usually cerebral artist; still, after one deciphers its immediate semantics, it seems like it hasn’t much more to offer.

Probably the strongest piece on display at Plan B is the Untitled (Tom Chamberlain) video. Eerie and irritatingly long, without any pejorative implications, the video engages in a reworking of the topic of the artist at work (the master’s studio, if one prefers a higher ground approach). The painter is filmed while seemingly tracing lines on the surface of a future work / masterpiece, but his gestures do not actually leave clearly perceivable marks on it. The whole presumably visually targeted effort gets strangely and elegantly ritualistic; repeated gestures become in themselves meaningful. Thus, the very relation between the (contradictory?) paradigms of art as object and of art as action is obliquely and gracefully introduced. This way, the larger meaning of LUV as an exhibition attempting to reveal a personal, somewhat even arbitrary view of art history is appropriately enriched.

Sabot Gallery opened its exhibition programme with a show of Alex Mirutiu, namely Manifest of Flaw. The exhibition confirmed Mirutiu’s ability of intelligently deploying a variety of artistic media in order to circumscribe a conceptual proposal: video, photography, drawing and sculpture were the means used to build up Manifest of Flaw. It also showed a sensitive and genuinely reflexive artist at work, one that can relevantly address issues such as queer status in contemporary social perception, the politics of the body or the abyss of sheer feeling and suffering.

The flaw is aptly the main concept to underline his works. Almost all of them retain an experimental quality which itself constitutes a manifest against the fixity of the standard, against society’s claim to define and impose legitimate behaviour and levelling normality. At the core of this experimentation lies the body. As in our social life precisely, in Mirutiu’s art the body, or, better said, his body as epitome of the body, is functioning at the same time as object of scrutiny, as tool of expressivity and as symbolic (with reference both to the social and the psychological realm) battlefield. What is recurrent in the works exhibited at Sabot is that this body is always under pressure, under siege, it is squeezed and somewhat victimized.

Thus, in the photograph titled Heaven knows I feel miserable right now, this (beautiful) victim is placed in a spatial surrounding equally defined by the so bourgeois look of the props and the slightly perverse baroque quality of lighting and chromatic. The piece of sculpture in the show presents a distorted, yet pristine white body lying on the floor as if it were a precious, yet paradoxically disposable item. The drawings reveal it in all its frailty, taking the form of trembling, somehow feverish lines. In regard to these, one is to acknowledge that the added lines of the textual insertions in the works do not add anything significant to the meaning of the work, but rather tend to flatten their peculiar and charming pathos by artificially overcharging it. Finally, the short video called Tears are precious presents us with a sort of a flaubertian self-portrait, with tears slowly flowing on the artist’s face, without any other physiognomic indication of feeling being detectable. The work is visually arresting and savvily approaches dialectics of inside – outside, felt – shown or expressed – repressed.

In the case of the drawings, as well as in that of the mentioned video piece, references are almost inevitably generated in the mind of the viewer. This referential slip may carry the spectator towards rather broad cultural and aesthetics paradigms such as conceptual art, queer visual politics and so on, but equally towards much more clearly determined contributions to contemporary art (the graphic works of Tracey Emin or Bas Jan Ader’s masterpiece from the early seventies, I’m to sad to tell you, for example).

Present in the opening show at the newly relocated laika art space in Cluj was the British artist Tom Chamberlain, with a show titled Clockwise from the left. Young but already gaining some noticeable international appraisal, Tom Chamberlain is an artist which aims at exquisite elegance, which is, in his view, to be attained by optically challenging the spectator.

Chamberlain’s interest is mostly placed in abstract painting. In his case, the abstract works are characterized by an almost obsessively repetitive covering of the painterly surface. The strange and appealing effect of this procedure is that one is left suspended in between perceiving it as mainly as a “surface” or a “painting”. Thus, as Flash Art contributor Jane Neal rightly puts it, his work “is mesmerizing because it’s paradoxical”.

The same subtlety and indeterminacy are deployed also in the works presented at laika art space, although they are not paintings, but a series of mono prints and a watercolour. The images, if they can be designated as such, tempt the viewer into the perceptive game of getting closer and taking a certain distance from them, in an unsuccessful but aesthetically rewarding attempt to reach a perpetually elusive adequate point of view. Thickness seems once more to be attained by frantically overlaying thin interventions, the result being an unexpected richness of the offered visual field. Thus, the overall impression is that of an art which is strangely generous to the spectator, while it keeps itself composed at all times.

Zmart gallery debuted on the very night of the Paintbrushes Factory’s opening. It proposes itself to the public as a space open mostly to bold melanges of fashion design and other artistic media. The inaugural show made plain this sort of agenda, by bringing together fashion design, fashion styling and photography and making the whole thing look like a witty and meaningful installation. The exhibition featured four artists, namely Lucian Broscatean, Ramona Gliga, Rinad Muti and Stefana Zdrenghea and was titled Who am I ? / Where do I come from ? / Where do I go ?.

The title might seem a little tedious and even naive at a first glance, but it actually circumscribed quite accurately the topic of the show. It was an exhibition about the efforts of the young Romanian people / artists to build up, reflect upon and then again reconstruct personal –intellectual or affective– identities, as they’ve come into contact with various cultural challenges while travelling abroad during the last several years.

Within this conceptual framework, Lucian Broscatean’s clothes fitted with forceful elegance. The pieces in the show were part of his Nomad collection, which takes upon issues like contemporary global mobility and operates, with rather spectacular visual results, an analysis of what can happen when the postmodern cultural concept of deconstruction is deployed in the field of fashion design. Neat and smart, the styling pursued by Rinad Muti and Stefana Zdrenghea (which are also the coordinators of the art space) managed to enhance the visual effect that the clothing pieces induce, remarkably emphasizing their potential and somehow unexpected sculptural qualities. Ramona Gliga’s photographical works helped envisioning the possible relations that might occur between the cloth and the human presence, while using a generally well balanced contrast, both in visual and in cultural terms, between the pseudo-romanticist look of the characters in the images and the minimalist appearance of architectural, urban elements.

All in all, with the above described exhibitions as most noticeable components of the event, the Paintbrushes factory’s opening proved to be a promising start for the courageous endeavour of the over thirty Cluj based artists which are loosely associated within the project. The newly de facto constituted contemporary art centre is the most significant initiative of this kind in Romania in decades and it stands a good chance of proving in the future the cultural efficiency of private, associative action, with all the inherent hardships and conflicts it supposes. Moreover, this efficiency is more than desirable in a cultural context where the public cultural policies are inert and inept and so many private initiatives have way to quickly become patronizing and blunt.

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