Donata Wenders (born 1965) and Roberto Bosisio (born 1963) were, in June 2010, the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca’s choices for two of the genuinely good exhibitions of contemporary art the institution has organized during the last few years. The symbolic and literal juxtaposition of the works by the two artists proved to be meaningful and able to raise more general and challenging questions about the place and viability of what one could call (modernist) classic approaches to respectively photography and painting in the artistic context of our times.
Donata Wenders displayed some forty black and white photographs in a show titled Absent Presence, many of them revolving around the topic of the portrait. The compositional approach is simple and inscribes itself into a long tradition of the photographic portrait, without attempting to seriously innovate or to critically question it. Rather, the way Wenders understands and uses the topic seems an epitome of her faith in the expressive power of that type of classicised photography. There is nostalgia in her endeavour, as there is a sort of charming oblivion of the imperative of the new, which still holds an important role in contemporary art practices. From this perspective, one might even find Wenders’ works somewhat naïve, but savoury naïve. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that: a bit of naïveté, combined with a strong belief, never killed anyone’s art. Quite the contrary, sometimes such a mix of naïveté and faith might render someone’s art more meaningful, and that is pretty much the case with hers.
Another sure thing about Wenders is that she’s not afraid of beauty. She searches for balance, strives for visual poignancy and subtlety and aims to produce in the end an eye stopping, refined image. Milla is such an example of a simple, splendid photography. Milla Jovovich’s face is presented to the viewer in black and white, in rather large size. The actress carelessly holds a cigarette between her lips, her eyes are closed. Sensuality is epitomized with a minimum of visual props, and the usually dollish looking Jovovich becomes plainly beautiful and hauntingly attractive. Wenders reminds us, intentionally or not, of a time when photography might have been considered magic. The portraits of Omara Portuondo from 1998 and of Pina Bausch from 2004 envisage other aspects of beauty: the mature, more intellectualized, even spiritualized beauty, which also comes with –or from– inner strength. The image of the famous Cuban singer and dancer presents us with a far from young, yet utterly vivid and impressively delicate person, her clearly delineated facial features being set in an almost eerie juxtaposition with her long, fragile and aristocratic looking fingers. Pina Bausch appears as a severe looking, composed woman, whose gestures reveal both confidence and a reflective stance: her portrait is firmly establishing itself as an item in the gallery of images of strong minded, creative and uncompromising intellectual female figures of the twentieth century.
Other photographic works by Donata Wenders deal with yet another old function of the medium, namely that of capturing and “immortalising” the fugitive –and presumably relevant– moment. The choreographic spectacle is of obvious interest for her, but her attention is not captured by the glamorous moments, but rather by the concentration and the tension in the backstage (Backstage III from 2003) or by the architectural settings related to the spectacle, in which commonplace characters sometimes act in a dynamic and natural manner (the images of the series dedicated to the Havana Ballet School). But the museum show’s masterpiece approaching the topic of the arrested moment is Triad from 2002. Three men, seemingly engaged in a conversation, are ascending an outdoor, stone made stairway. The play of the light makes the horizontal lines of the stairway look strange, artificially white and uncannily bright. The men seem projected on an abstract alignment, in a virtual, arbitrary space, where geometry is present, yet geometrical perspective is not functioning. The sheer mimetic quality of the image is revealed only to a closer, attentive and eventually surprised look. Again, Wenders’s photography performs a kind of optical magic.
All in all, Donata Wenders is an artist with obvious strengths and weaknesses. She produces compelling images, she is able to capture beauty and the tensed eeriness of the commonplace, and she has the undeniable courage to assume a plainly traditional approach to the medium she uses. On the other hand, her art is, in terms of perception and of assigning value, fundamentally dependent on the circumstances of its perception: thus, one is likely to enjoy, even to love, her art if one already likes this kind of art.
Regarding Roberto Bosisio’s presence in Cluj, the first positive thing to remark is that it is the result of a collaboration between institutions of various types and driven by various goals, activating in the field of culture. Sign, I dare to hope, of normalization of the Romanian art scene, or at least of the Cluj art scene, his exhibitions were realized thanks to a more or less formalized partnership between the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca (a public cultural institution), the Sabot gallery (a commercial gallery) and Laika art space (an artist run space). Two challenging exhibition resulted of this collaboration, one at the museum and the other at Laika art space, respectively titled Roberto Bosisio. Painting Exhibition and Light Always Falls from Above.
Robert Bosisio is an artist in his forties, who is far from fitting the profile of a nowadays international art star, while nevertheless being significantly active in the European art world during the last two decades. His art, just like his presence, is rather discreet. He is constantly, one might say even obsessively, preoccupied with painting as expressive medium. He is sincerely committed to it and one look at his works is enough to make one grasp the degree to which he truly believes that painting not only still has something to communicate to a contemporary viewer, but it is even a privileged way to attain an understanding of the essence of perception, to produce meaning and to generate aesthetic experience.
One consequence of the above described attitude is that Robert Bosisio’s art requires from the spectator to share with the artist the faith in the relevance of the realm of aesthetic for contemporary culture in order to actually enjoy or be willing to seriously reflect upon his artistic production. Also, his art requires attention, because a hurried gaze would probably completely miss the subtly hidden spectacular quality and the chromatic richness behind the apparent simplicity of his deceivingly simple painted surfaces.
After intensely looking, even for a short while, at almost any of Bosisio’s paintings at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca, but also at some of the works displayed at Laika art space, I had a strong sensation that “I’ve seen that somewhere before”. And indeed, when analytically reflecting upon his works, one starts to remember various moments, figures or features in the history of painting. You can detect compositional traits that recall the early Flanders Renaissance and especially Rogier van der Weyden. The simple interiors with open doors are decidedly similar to scenes depicted by Peter de Hooch or Vermeer. The synthetic, strangely deserted interiors and landscapes (which I’ve only seen in the remarkably beautiful and insightful artist’s catalogue realized by Folio Verlag Wien / Bozen, since they were unfortunately absent from both solo shows he proposed in Cluj) bring to mind at the same time Pittura metafisica, the uncanny rural images painted by Andrew Wyeth or Peter Doig’s ambiguous approaches to the outdoors. The savoury, savvy, enchanting way he deploys paint as it was a magic, forcefully evoking substance cannot help but make one think of Giorgio Morandi. The rather strict geometrical precision of the compositional schemes he uses almost compulsively, especially his (conscious?) use of the golden ratio give the abstract, somehow purged interiors a Renaissance recalling atmosphere. When human figures appear in his paintings, they reveal a Romanticist vein. And so on and so forth … Thus, Bosisio’s works are somewhat paradoxical: he appropriates a sufficiently broad array of painterly styles and manners to save him from the danger of being a mere epigone.
He might be coined, to paraphrase the famous novel by Graham Greene, the quiet Italian. He is an artist who can, in his soft, patient manner, bring about serious questions and interesting hypothesis in the mind of someone trying to assess the meaning and the attainability of painting today. He can forge valid, maybe somewhat utopian, propositions by means of blending and reformulating several painterly traditions. Thus, in more than one way, the only title given to Bosisio’s solo show at the museum –the modest, neutral, apparently unassuming and maybe even downplaying Painting Exhibition– might just be the best way to accurately circumscribe the Italian’s art displayed there.
And still, again after looking at his paintings for a while, it is hard to escape the feeling of redundancy. Bosisio’s works exhibited in the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca are impressive displays of technical mastery, of love for painting, of formal qualities and of subtle visual enchantment. His use of several layers of painterly substance definitely produces exceptional visual results. But there is almost always the same kind of splendour repeatedly revealed and it risks becoming meaningless after a while. Too many works give the impression of being little more than variations on the same topic and the artist sometimes appears trapped in his own story. Bosisio’s museum show left me equally with a strong admiration for his determination, faith and mastery and with the impression that, in his case, to reverse a famous Warhol title, one is better than thirty.
In a fortunate way, Light Always Falls from Above, the smaller yet dynamic exhibition at Laika art space completed the image of Bosisio as a truly creative artist, open to experimentation and research not only in the technical realm, but even in the conceptual one. One sees in the Laika show a painter whose creative laboratory is poignantly revealed, and one can confidently endorse, after seeing the show, that this laboratory is rather rich and not lacking rewarding surprises. A small, oddly geometrical abstract painting is convincingly, yet in such a humble manner, showing us the authentic colourist that Roberto Bosisio can be. Plastic sheets with colourful grids are superimposed to form an optically arresting object, with real painterly appeal. Nonetheless, a small shelf with dusted painting and drawing instruments and props stands both as reified ars poetica and as a glimpse at further possible developments of his art.

It’s working. The Paintbrushes Factory has successfully come to the end of an important period in its functioning, the first crucial months in which it had the rather difficult task of establishing itself as a significant art centre. As it happened at the opening of the cultural venue, in October 2009, pretty much all the galleries and artist run spaces involved in this endeavour proposed some event or action in the same evening. The afternoon and the evening of May, the 29th benefited from a quite large attendance, a friendly, yet professional atmosphere, and the acute presence of that fundamentally productive feeling that good things can happen and that things are moving into a good direction of development. All these were serious indicators that this type of joint cultural ventures are by far the best way for the young and dynamic Paintbrushes Factory to get in touch with the general public and also with the professional milieu.
The Traiectoria fair for fashion and accessories was open most of the day: it was small, rather chic and truly welcoming. It offered good quality products and, besides the hardly bearable warmth in the space, it was a really nice place to be. The fair also most probably attracted some public who wouldn’t usually be present at the exhibitions or performances organized at the Paintbrushes Factory.
Navid Nuur was the artist presented by the Plan B gallery, his solo show in Cluj being titled Phantom Fuel. He is clearly one of the most impressive (if not the most impressive) non – Romanian artists officially represented by a Romanian gallery so far. It’s maybe not much and one shouldn’t mistake the charming Nuur for a star of the international art world. But the collaboration between him and the Cluj based gallery certainly is a symptom of the gradual, albeit slow, professionalization of the Romanian agents acting on the international art market.

Born in Teheran in 1976, living in The Hague, represented by a gallery in Amsterdam and one in Cluj, exhibiting in Milan, Sankt Gallen, Gent, Kassel or Sarajevo, the (Iranian) Navid Nuur is a perfectly international artist. He belongs –behaviourally, in terms of professional status and maybe even in terms of the way he is perceived– to a typology of contemporary artists that also includes personalities such as his more famous fellows Tiravanija or Abdessemed.
He is quite keen in describing his works as “interimodules”. Now, there has been a long history of artists who were renaming the game, so to speak, and refused the simple medium based definition of their art products. So, in this respect, Nuur is neither particular, nor spectacular, when he refuses to acknowledge his works as sculptures or installations. However, when coining them “interimodules”, he does fairly coherent offer a legit key for reading his art, for deciphering its semantics. If “module” is not necessarily very clearly linked with the features of his artistic products, “interim” aptly alludes to the strong link his works have with temporality, even if they are not necessarily site specific endeavours. The absence of a tendency towards permanency properly adds poignancy, freshness and wit to his art.
Finding and revealing the lyricism of the commonplace is what probably strikes as the strongest and the most charming feature of his artistic production. He uses everyday materials and objects and reveals their eerie poetical potential. Take for example Hold on the Hollow, one of the most complex pieces in the display, consisting in an apparently unstable, suspended assemblage of jars, tied together by a belt, some of which are filled with soap dissolved in water. The viewer is invited to remove the top of those jars, which has a wire structure initially submerged in the water, and to place the structure upside down on the jar. Temporary “sculptures” of wire and soap bubbles result and they then stand as fragile products of the collaboration between the artist, the viewer and pure chance.
Welcome / Welcome is composed of two pseudo draperies made out sandpaper stripes, placed at the entrance / exit in between the two rooms of the Plan B gallery space. The work is ironic as it is surprisingly beautiful; it is conceptually engaging and refreshing, while at the same time remaining challenging in a very physical way. The physicality of Nuur’s art can make one literally uncomfortable, the immediate proximity of some of his works being somatically difficult to bear for some spectators, especially in olfactory terms.

The rather large scale “monument” made out of washing powder boxes (Untitled), from which the content has been generously spilled onto the floor is one perfect example of this sensorial dynamics. Roughly to the same typology belongs Forrest with no view, certainly the most subtle work in the show, in more ways than one. An air freshener was embedded in the wall, whose only perceivable action is to spread its smell into the air by two tiny, barely visible holes. Another remarkable work, wittily approaching the double nature (physical and psychological) of perception is Light Licker. A neon tube is painted black; it is positioned in a corner of the room as an elegant minimalist sculpture. But it still tantalizingly remains in between what Groys would call the field of art and the field of the profane: one can still rather easily identify the object as neon tube and if he or she is to look at the ceiling, he / she would probably notice the tube actually missing from there.
Maja Borg was Sabot gallery’s choice for the show opened on the 29th of May, titled Construction work: the pornography of world peace. As it was the case also with the previous two exhibitions of emerging artists (Alice Tomaselli and Ylva Ogland, respectively) that were hosted by Sabot, the choice proved quite inspired. Still, perhaps more than in the cases of the other above mentioned collaborators of Sabot, what strikes the viewer with regard to Borg is the astute maturity and the almost uncanny seriousness of the 28 years old Swedish artist.
It is true, on the other hand, that her maturity and seriousness require an attentive viewer and a reflective effort. No, she does not propose cryptic metaphors, but quite complex ones. Her displayed works possess a layered semantics and ambitiously refer to issues such as utopian beliefs in a common survival solution for humanity, sex in the age of mechanical reproduction of pornography, systems and chaos, and the beauty as result of tension and dialogue. It is equally true that there is directness in her art that represents its main flaw. Thus, Maja Borg gives us riddles; we put some intellectual effort in deciphering them, because we definitely need adjacent information in order to fully grasp their meaning, and we take or not visual pleasure in what she shows us. What she is not allowing us is our own hermeneutic space, though; she is denying us the possibility of encountering the liberty of imprecision, the charming unknown. Maybe paradoxically, her art is sometimes simply too focused.
The three works in the show at Sabot are titled On Your Back Woman! (By Wolf Madame), Construct – Two Moments in Beauty and Ottica Zero. The first is a five minutes short film, depicting nude or very casually dressed female couples wrestling in bed, in funny, intense and overtly erotic manners. The video work is part of the twelve films selection made by the Swedish director Mia Engberg. Titled Dirty Diaries, her project has as primary goal the production and presentation of “feminist porn”. On Your Back Woman! (By Wolf Madame) decidedly inscribes itself in the paradoxical logic of that concept. Borg’s film constitutes a poignant questioning of the way rules get generated in an erotically charged relationship, of the border between intensity of feeling and violence, and of the possibility of porn to be feminist and progressive, after decades of rejection by the feminists of this type of allegedly degrading imagery.

However, the most consistent work in the show is Construct – Two Moments in Beauty. It is the most beautiful, in the very immediate meaning of the word, art work in the exhibition. It has a strong collaborative feature, Maja Borg’s visuals being paired by three soundtracks made by artists from different parts of the world: AVI Dabach from Israel, Andrea Herrera Catalá from Venezuela and Teodora S. Vlad from Romania. The sound responses to the images proposed by Borg are varied in tone and mood, adequately showing the semantic openness of the flow of images constructed by the Swedish artist. The images are played on three monitors, with a slight time delay. Strong colours and graphic traits are juxtaposed, in a sensuous succession, which somewhat reminds the works of Pipilotti Rist. The moments of sheer beauty are generated at the breaking point of forms, in those moments of interval between formed and formless, between visual comprehensive convention and colourful chaos.
Clujest gallery hosted a solo show of Feleki Károly, called Hóstát. Some tens of black and white photographs produced by the reputed Cluj based artist were displayed, their subjects being somewhat classical for the medium: (sub)urban landscapes and portraits. Good photo exhibitions have been, in my opinion, rare events in Cluj during the last decade, therefore seeing good quality photographs, especially in a solo show, was a rewarding experience.
At a first glance, the photos may seem rather formalist exercises: the camera surveys, in an artistically coherent, compositionally attentive manner, the borderline between the urban, modern space and the evanescing remnants of the rural picturesque. They could function as metaphors of progress and melancholy. But when one remembers that the pictures were taken between 1975 and 1984 and that they all refer to one of the peripheral (at that time) areas of Cluj, known by its Hungarian denomination as Hóstát, the meaning significantly changes. The works artistically document the destruction of the traditionally agricultural area as result of Ceausescu’s aggressive policy of forced urbanization. Thus, Feleki’s works reveal themselves as being not innocent, charming depictions of the presumably universal picturesque, but politically, yet also aesthetically, charged recordings of a historical drama.
I will not go here into the topic of the opportunity of aesthetic approaches in an art that proposes itself as politically focused. I will remark however a visual flaw of the display: far too many pictures for the available space, albeit generous. The negative result of this broad selection was the difficulty to perceive each work in itself and to assess or enjoy its intrinsic quality as, I believe, the artist fully intended them to be acknowledged.

Zmart gallery invited London based artist and Central Saint Martins student Alexandra “Lou” Plesner to show a video work and the accompanying photographs in a show titled There Is No Somewhere Else In This Room. The combination of an YBA – type focus on issues of identity and an existentialist mindset is what defined Plesner’s project, who overtly, yet a bit pathetically and redundantly, speaks mainly of loneliness, of the alleged impossibility of profound communication. Visually, the exhibition revolves around the figure of the person “wearing” a bird cage on his or her head, several photos of various people with such bird cages being displayed in the gallery space. Also, a blog was launched at the opening of the show at Zmart, which is supposed to offer the viewer the opportunity of interactively contributing to the artist’s project (http://www.thereis, though, when accessing the blog, I didn’t quite understand how.
Finally, Roberto Bosisio was present at Laika art space with Light Always Falls from Above. The Italian is a refined and mature painter, who assumes the medium in a painstakingly laborious and technically masterful manner. Just days after the opening at Laika, a larger yet equally jaw dropping solo show of Bosisio opened at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca, and the two exhibitions fully deserve a distinct discussion, which I’ll propose another time.