Radu Comsa is a nice person. That is something almost everybody in the art milieu of Cluj knows him would most probably agree on. That is something that is almost always being said by someone, in one form or another, when his name is brought into discussion during a friendly chat. He is a smart, talented and funny fellow, people would go on. As well as his art is concerned, well, you know Comsa … It seems he just can’t shake the nasty habit of imitating the fashionable and / or the stars of the day, especially when it comes to painting (and he is primarily a painter). Fingers were pointed at him -never very aggressively, because, again, he’s a nice guy and he didn’t really hurt anybody, remember?- for mimicking Gerhardt Richter, Luc Tuymans, Wilhelm Sasnal, Victor Man, Adrian Ghenie and so on.
Radu Comsa’s solo show at the Sabot Gallery, a space opened in October 2009 on the premises of the already famous Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj, is titled “Being Radu Comsa” and it courageously tackles that very kind of allegations mentioned above. The gallery space is inhabited by two wooden constructions, in the form of slightly reclining platforms. On their surface, respectively three and four round shaped paintings by Comsa were inserted. The images in the paintings were familiar to anyone who is well acquainted with the recent years’ endeavours of other Cluj based painters. Thus, he overtly appropriated details or even full images of paintings produced by his colleagues and friends (Ghenie, Bercea, Savu, Man among others) only to paint them as his own works, in stylistic manners which near, but not fully replicate, the original painterly approaches .

Comsa’s solo show startles the viewer from the very beginning, because of the gentle, friendly, and somewhat unassuming way in which it violates several more or less strong taboos of the art world. For example, any artistically literate person nowadays would probably know that decades have already passed since originality was considered a fundamental criterion for assigning artistic value. However, especially when it comes to such a historically charged medium as painting, imitating others is still commonly regarded as a major flaw of one’s artistic production. On another level, just as publishing in a magazine you owe, exhibiting in your own gallery might easily be considered at least suspicious. Radu Comsa is more than an artistically literate; he actually possesses a good understanding of the contemporary art practices. So what drove him to do such things? What made him present the public with such an apparently direct admission of cultural guilt(s)? Comsa has put himself in front of the public in such an abrupt manner, has showed himself so openly as being vulnerable, that he left the viewers with the alternative of admiring him as boldly self-conscious or suspecting him of being sophisticatedly hypocrite. After all, can an artist really escape the accusation of being mimetic in relation to fellow painters by getting mimetic in relation to the work of conceptual artists (such Sherrie Levine)?
Maybe some clarification can be found in the journal – like booklet, which accompanied the exhibition (the same format has been also used at the previous two shows which were hosted by the Sabot Gallery). Leaving aside some problems with the English translations of at least two of the texts in the printed material, the booklet might held the key to a better understanding of Comsa’s aims and stakes. The first text compiled in it is an excerpt from the writings of Chekhov, which summarily presents the thoughts and the life style of a (not so) young painter yearning for success, dreaming of fame. The name of the painter in the original text is overrun by a line and the name of the Romanian artist is written down instead. The third person used by the Russian author is replaced by Comsa with the first (I, we). True enough, some passages in the wittily selected text can easily be read as a description of some aspects of contemporary art life in Cluj, the almost obsessive desire for (fast attained) fame and glory being one of them. The artist is described / describes himself as unable to coherently conceive paintings, his imagination being almost painfully engaged in building projections of the future social success: “I could not imagine my future works, but I could see distinctly how papers would talk of me, how the shops will sell my photographs, with what envy my friends would look after me”. And further in the text, a gathering of artists is described. The outstanding literary abilities of Chekhov make it a plausible description regardless of the precise historical moment when it might take place (as long as it belongs to modernity and postmodernity, of course). Comsa’s wit turns the same description into a bittersweet and still plausible image of the very contemporary and local art scene: “To listen to us it would seem we had the future, fame, money in our hands. And it never occurred to either of us that time was passing, that every day life was nearing its close, that we have lived at other people’s expense a great deal and nothing yet was accomplished; … We were gay and happy and looked the future boldly in the face”. Is one supposed to understand that being Radu Comsa means being the consciousness of the flaws and dangers carelessly sheltered by an optimistic, predominantly macho and often self indulging approach to art and life characterizing the school of Cluj (whatever that might mean)? However one would answer this question, it is certain that “Being Radu Comsa” is a truly provocative show. This is due also, if not mostly, to the fact that it questions in a daring manner not only his own art, but also the specific conditions under which art is being produced in his cultural environment and even the practices deployed in contemporary art in general. And although this might be less obvious, I believe the show at Sabot Gallery is doing all that while embedding an irony which nears cynicism.
The final text in the booklet is an appropriation of a few pages in Eugene Ionesco’s “Fragments of a Journal”. The text contains some of the author’s reflections on his role, status and personal relation with his art. I’ll take the liberty of imagining what is like to be Radu Comsa in the following passage and make some replacements of my own in Ionesco’s text. Thus, I’ll change “literature” with “painting”, “readers” with “viewers”, “I” with “Radu (Comsa) / he”. One paragraph I’ll obtain by means of this procedure would go like this: “Radu Comsa is constantly relapsing into painting. The fact of having been able to describe these images, of having put them into paintings more or less satisfactorily, flatters his vanity. He reflects that it may be well painted. It may give pleasure to viewers or critics. Comsa says this, he tells himself this, and then he relapses into painting. The fact of being conscious of it does not save him. The fact of being conscious that he is conscious of painterly values only makes things worse. He has to make a choice, though: vanity, the road to failure, or the other thing”. And we can continue to use Ionesco’s text, modified this way, to further imagine Comsa’s situation: “He shall paint no more dramas henceforth. He shall only paint to amuse himself. He really ought not to paint any more at all, but he has to make up paintings and stories because he is a professional painter, since that’s his function. But really it’s all worth very little … Painting brings him relief, it’s an alibi, an excuse for not acting. He will not paint any more … except to construct objects, little make – believe worlds”.

I think the result of the above mentioned substitutions is more than a gratuitous game and that it might actually be able to aptly describe the artist’s situation at the moment. After this exhibition, the artist is in a difficult, kind of tricky situation. After assuming his identity as someone who consciously feeds on the products of others, what kind of imagery can he deploy from now on? “Being Radu Comsa” was less an exhibition than an act. It is an unrepeatable act and at the same time one that makes it impossible for Comsa to ever meaningfully paint in the manner of any of the cited artists in the show (or others, for that matter). He cannot be a scavenger once more without becoming histrionic. On the other hand, how much trust could one have in the future in the painting of someone who has so blatantly stated his unwillingness or his inability to forge a painterly manner or artistic topics of his own? Comsa has put himself in the position of having to avoid, from now on, “making up paintings and stories [only] because he is a professional painter” and of having to face the suspicion that this is just what he does. By one single show, he silenced the gossip, while offering his art to the critical discourse and asking us to fire at will. Yet, his act was not just an act of courage, but also constituted a manifestation of acute awareness and that could mean salvation. The fact that he put himself in such a risky and paradoxical situation might just be the condition for the further development of his art in a creative, intelligent, poignant way. Being open ended and problematic, by offering dilemmas rather than answers, by raising questions and eyebrows, “Being Radu Comsa” might just have offered him the possibility of becoming Radu Comsa.