As I was to discover one recently passed Saturday in Bucharest, our capital city is not a place where you can easily enjoy contemporary art. In conceiving and organizing events and / or exhibitions, lack of professionalism and especially conceptual shallowness and inconsistency, often pretentiously hidden behind “clever” PR practices, poorly understood and inefficiently put in practice, fake glamour, impressive venues’ facades and bombastic discourses, still impeach significantly on the city’s otherwise vibrant art scene. This is not the case of Bucharest alone, but also of many other places in Romania, without a doubt; however scale can make things more annoying and that is exactly what happens in the big city’s case.

I arrived at the venue of one aggressively self-promoting, recently opened with a buzz gallery on what was supposed to be, according to its own website, the day before the closing of its inaugural exhibition, only to find out that the exhibition had already closed. Closed was the gallery, too,  for installing a new show, as I was kindly informed by the announcement quite uselessly placed on a small piece of paper on the entrance gate. Frustrated but undeterred, I continued my search for art and located another private gallery, certainly a more established one. However, it was another dead end, for I’ve encountered another closed door, this time with no explanatory and ridiculous pieces of paper on it and no one to open it for the visitor (I did rang rather insistently and I was within the opening hours announced by the gallery).

But there was more to come. After just over two wasted hours (except for the beautiful weather and some truly impressive pieces of architecture I encountered) that I’d spent chasing inaccessible exhibitions, I headed for the heart of the city to visit a presumably ambitious group show of Bucharest based artists, revolving around the topic of figuration in contemporary Romanian art. I was taken aback by finding out that the art centre hosting it  was closed during the weekends. In fairness, this is their official program. Still, I maintain that a contemporary art venue which is closed throughout the weekends is a pretty unique place. I abandoned this third attempt in a row and went to a meeting with a fellow art historian. Just in case you’re wondering, yes, she did show up.

I was however able to see art that Saturday, for example, at the National Museum for Contemporary Art. But, as not just once before, it wasn’t a particularly rewarding experience. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting tired with MNAC. And it’s not even because of it being catastrophically located in the Ceausescu’ s “House of People”, with all the well known inconveniences stemming from this. I (unfortunately?) kind of got used to the situation. It’s also not because I would think only bad about the institution. On the contrary, I think it is one of crucial importance for the Romanian art scene, possessing an impressive collection and organizing, from time to time, meaningful and informative shows. I also do respect director Mihai Oroveanu (his numerous detractors may crucify me, should they wish to), as well as I unreservedly respect a few professionals working there, as well as some initiatives such as the recent Salon de proiecte (Projects’ Salon). But I’m tired of being the only visitor in the museum for more than an hour, usually until two or three Scandinavian looking guys show up in the vast rooms or in the cafeteria. I’m tired of seeing the huge spaces filled with art in such a manner that it leaves me the impression that it is displayed for the sole purpose of filling them. I’m tired, in other words, of seeing shows that lack minimal conceptualization, that pose no intellectual or aesthetic challenge to the viewer. I’m tired of inconsistencies, compromises and complacency, of which one becomes bitterly aware when visiting the museum with a more or less scrutinizing eye.

The most ambitious show I’ve seen at MNAC on that occasion was Marilena Preda – Sanc’s solo show titled Crossing Self – Histories 1981 – 2011. It is the last of a series of rather large scale, retrospective or retrospective – like exhibitions dedicated to Romanian, living artists. One of the main problems I have with this exhibition programme of the institution is that it hardly looks like a programme at all. Thus, it remains for me impossible to grasp the conceptual “red thin thread” that could actually link, in a meaningful way, show’s like Gorzo’s (one of the best MNAC has ever displayed), Ghenie’s (which I still maintain that it was less an exhibition than a 3D version of the artist’s Hatje Cantz catalogue), Comanescu’s (an over – theatrical charade, focused on a champion of knee-jerk redundancy who just might still have greatness within his reach) and the current show of Preda – Sanc (which is not as much a retrospective as an overcrowded, somewhat hysterical display of art works).

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t consider the latter to be a bad artist. On the contrary, I appreciate her feverish passion for her artistic endeavours, as well as her commitment to the belief that there is something utterly serious about art. I value the formal coherence and sometimes poignancy of her paintings, as well as her vivid interest in expanding her production beyond the borders of a single medium. Although neither post – constructivist painterly structures that incorporate a sensuality awarded by the very textures of the painterly matter, nor dramatically existentialist renderings of female silhouettes in desolating pseudo – landscapes necessarily fit my personal taste, I cannot but praise the straightforward visual attractiveness of the former and the truly moving melancholy of the latter.

However, the show itself is simply misconceived and rather inconsistently realized. There are too many works on display, rendering the show suffocatingly  demonstrative. One is left with the impression of redundancy, as the retrospective equally fails to coherently articulate phases, turning points and even encompassing topics in the artist’s production. Distances between the works on the walls are often scenographically wrong, while the selected videos are acutely uneven in terms of quality. All in all, what you get from the show is the impression that you are not offered the artist at her best, or even a comprehensive overview of her production, with ups and downs. Thus, both aesthetic pleasure and the possibility of meaningful assessment are drastically limited.

The parterre of the museum was occupied by two tribute exhibitions dedicated to the recently passed away artists Theodor (or Teodor, as I’ve been told to be correct) Moraru and Mircea Spataru. The idea is totally commendable, its execution, however, is not. Moraru’s paintings were placed in the larger hall at the entrance, appearing irritatingly far from the viewer as one enters the space. On the other hand, as you get closer to the walls, you realize the works have been crammed. All you can actually see is that he was a good artist, whose works in the MNAC collection were brought out from the depot and displayed without much, if any, research or problematization.

Same goes for the Spataru display (as it could hardly be called an exhibition), in which case matters are made worse by the hideous mismatch between his rather daring works and the bluntly ridiculous decoration of the walls. Now, I do believe that a Spataru retrospective is probably a must for the museum (just as Marilena Preda – Sanc’s probably wasn’t); but the current improvised display, though quite masterfully done, I must admit, in terms of its “composition”, so to speak, is certainly not a proper tribute. Instead of being an homage, it is rather an obituary; Mircea Spataru, controversial as he might have been or be, deserves more.

Bringing the MNAC survey to its end, little do I have to say about Alexandru Solomon’s retrospective of documentary movies. Solomon is truly a very good director and has produced some of the most relevant Romanian documentaries of the last decades. Nevertheless, projecting several rather long films in an exhibition space within a contemporary art museum is, in my view, never a good idea, no better than, for example, showing Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forrest at the Venice Biennale. People would simply not take the time to stay and actually watch the movies, while posters on the walls hardly add up to form an exhibition and poorly compensate the mentioned glitch.

My weekend search for contemporary art however was to be more consistently rewarded as I’ve participated to the opening of Gili Mocanu’s new show at Independent 84, a space that actually came to existence with this very show, titled Fara mine (Without me). Challenging result of the fortunate collaboration between the artist and the curator Oana Tanase, Fara mine  follows three other solo exhibitions of Mocanu from the first part of the passed decade, respectively titled Fara titlu (Untitled), Fara inspiratie (Without inspiration) and Fara tehnica (Without technique). Thus, the show at Independent 84 coherently continues  the conceptual endeavour of the Bucharest based artist of trying to convey / question the difficult topic of the “zero degree” of art. In a manner that is as humorous as it is desperate, as ironic as it is utterly serious, his attempt to practically or symbolically leave aside items and instruments that are often and by many considered compulsory in order for art to occur is actually a daring effort to circumscribe nothing less than the (illusory) essence of art.

Three works by Gili Mocanu and several other pieces from the artist’s collection were displayed. The latter (maybe not even the former) are not necessarily pieces of art, in the common sense of the word, but rather objects that embed personal memories, that more or less hermetically refer to one or another moment in the artist’s professional and personal trajectory. The guided tour of the exhibition performed by him and the curator at the opening was an excellent instrument put at the viewer’s disposal, with which to penetrate precisely this idiosyncratically originated hermetism.

A drawing by a Scandinavian artist of an African looking female nude bought by Mocanu in a restaurant, other clumsy drawings realized by kids in the historical city of Sighisoara, trying to represent its medieval towers and sold on the street, a collage made by the artist by juxtaposing a (stolen) collage by Ion Barladeanu and a fragment from a printed reproduction of a painting by Theodor Aman, four one – minute – made, quasi – identical small painted landscapes by an artist in Constanta, these are the kind of ambiguous objects on display. They are accompanied by three paintings by Gili Mocanu, the most impressive being the rather large canvas presenting a black swan throwing up some violet matter in murky green waters, a work that I’m irresistibly tempted to view as a metaphorical self-portrait. What was striking for me was the ability of such objects, especially when put together, to speak about seemingly irreconcilable worlds, habitus and cultural realms. Fara mine is not really an exhibition; it is a metaphorical tower of Babel, where radically different expectations and beliefs about art are brought together, conflictingly and somewhat tongue – in – chick  insanely, by rather humble objects. It is also a statement of Gili Mocanu, beautifully catalysed by the curatorial input of Oana Tanase, about his inability to make art without stubbornly trying to philosophically make sense of it. Paradoxically, this inability is, most likely, at the same time his perdition (for it can be paralyzing) and his salvation (for it can make his art meaningful).

But, finally, let’s leave aside my Saturday pursue of art in Bucharest, for it is truly irrelevant, when compared with the importance of Grupul Sigma – secvente si interferente / The Sigma Group – Sequences and Interferences show at the Cultural Centre Palatele Brancovenesti in Mogosoaia, near Bucharest. Dedicated to a crucially important section of Romanian post – war art, still insufficiently known and appreciated, in my opinion, the exhibition certainly deserves a coherent, distinct review, which, though, I will not write. And this is simply because I don’t fell competent to do it. Yes, I love Stefan Bertalan’s art, but I am not yet confident that I can actually grasp its full magnitude, nor its sickeningly pathetic component. I discovered in the show the work of Diet Sayler, an artist about whom, to my embarrassment, I knew nothing. His collages of small, colourful pieces of paper, deliciously minimalist, neurotically beautiful, and eerily fragile, simply thrilled me, but admiration is not quite critical assessment. I have been admiring Constantin Flondor’s art for some time now, but only at Mogosoaia did I encounter his solarograme and these exquisite works of art made me think I should reconsider my views on his production. And, above all, the main reason I am not going to review the show is that it left me somewhat dumbfounded in front of the complexity of the background / context from which “111” and “Sigma” groups stemmed in the late sixties, as well as by disquietingly complex and sometimes movingly naïve ways in which the envisaged artists reacted to that particular context.

I could, of course, deplore the absence of an exhibition catalogue or the difficulty of actually getting to Palatele Brancovenesti in Mogosoaia (if you don’t drive there, this is). I could question the curatorial decisions to include works done by the artists long after the demise of the Sigma group, as well as of Sayler’s, who was not truly a Sigma member. I could praise, on the other hand, the good display of the works in the rooms of the palace, achieved by, I presume, its curator, namely Andreea Palade Flondor. But all these appear to be small talk, when faced with art works from a time in (Romanian) contemporary history when some could still view art as something of lifesaving importance and with artists who –so strangely for us now, after the deconstruction of all great narrative– honestly and somewhat childishly believed that art can be a path to some fundamental wisdom. These are forceful artists, but who, one can suspect, probably wouldn’t get the irony embedded in the famous neon work by Bruce Nauman which states that the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.

For photos of Gili Mocanu’s and Sigma group’s shows, go to http://www.facebook.com/bogdanteodoriacob

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The beginning of the new exhibitions season in London this Autumn was marked, among other things, by the two solo shows of Cluj based artists at major (albeit very different as far as their history, strategies and even profiles are concerned) galleries in the United Kingdom’s capital city. Thus, Adrian Ghenie’s exhibition at the widely reputed, yet struggling for image improvement Haunch of Venison and the solo show of Marius Bercea at the new, already important and controversial Blain Southern were opened to the public on the same evening (on September the 7th) and at some two hundred meters from each other, in Mayfair.

As tempting and natural as it might appear (though falsely so), I shall refrain from comparing the two shows and the two artists. It has been already done, mostly in a few texts that are strongly market driven and that pay too much attention to building a media rivalry between the two, where there isn’t really one, anyway nothing comparable with the fierce rivalry and even loathing between the two galleries representing them. I still prefer writing about art and artists than about galleries and gallery strategies, as I consider this to be more meaningful in the long run, although definitely not so glamorous or journalistically sparkling. However, the choice to write about Marius Bercea’s exhibition should by no means be understood as an implicit assessment of the two shows, the outcome of which would be to consider his necessarily better that Ghenie’s. It is just that the here reviewed show was more inspiring for me, as simple as this might sound; also, the fact that I’ve already written somewhat often about the latter artist during the last two years or so is another factor influencing the current choice.

Titled Remains of Tomorrow, Marius Bercea’s show at Blain Southern is a compelling demonstration of painterly forcefulness as well as of artistic inquisitiveness, impressively paired by an emotional touch that is too subtle and complex to be hermeneutically circumscribed as being simply generated by autobiographical references. The exhibition also proves the constant progress undertaken by Bercea’s painting during the last five years or so. To put it briefly, the most important evolution in his art consists in the fact that he managed to move from painting about something to implicitly, yet poignantly questioning the status and the “essence” of the medium of painting, while still meaningfully circumscribing one or another topic. Thus, from depicting consumerist scenes or blurred and touching childhood memories, the Cluj based artist has impressively moved to confidently depicting a world marked by utopian ideology and defined by people’s efforts to resists and / or cope with the pressure of ideological commandments. Also, his manner of applying paint to the surface became significantly more energetic, bolder and, in a way, one could be tempted to say, more instinctive. The result of all these is a delightfully loose figuration, sustained though by very solid  compositional structures, in the most classical meaning of the syntagm and by seemingly raw, yet refined chromatic contrasts. It is simply good painting, heartfelt and uncompromising, a convincing clue that we face an artist that is reaching artistic maturity.

In the paintings featured in the London show, architecture is often viewed by the artist both as epitome, as embodiment of ideology and as visual frame for some rather commonplace human activities: strolling, chatting, reading a book or a newspaper, having fun by the pool and so on. The solemn character of architectural structures that capture Bercea’s interest is undermined by these seemingly random and decidedly banal human actions and by the rather unassumingly looking human figures in his paintings. The architecture’s ambition to embed a glorious ideology is convincingly captured by works such as Fraternity Arches, where the arched silhouettes deployed in the foreground give the image an almost Renaissance – like rhythm. However, as one can also detect in the painting, the emphatic, modernist rhetoric of the architectural shapes themselves is significantly downplayed by their very domestic context, that of a proletarian quarter, where some patches of vegetation are pathetically striving to give the urban landscape a friendlier look.

Utopia translated into phantasmal shape is the apparent focus of works such as Elegant Rationalism. The most prominent silhouette that dominates the painterly field is a building in the background, with its neat, geometrical modules springing out of the main body of the edifice in a sort of crazy expansion. The compound looks like something out of a science fiction movie, but, paradoxically, it is also utterly familiar for anyone used to the urban environment of former Socialist countries (and with wild modernist architectural endeavours, for that matter). Thus, what we are looking at is a mixture of phalanstery ideology, Le Corbusier aesthetics and Communist biopolitics gone mad. Modernist soberness is completely abandoned in favour of overwhelming and strident spectacle, as in a desperate attempt to institute the illusion of freedom.

On the other hand, in Untitled (Swimming Pool), architectural elements appear more like props in a strange theatre play or in a bizarrely shot movie than like strong visual elements that should be able to structure the landscape. Still, the rather decrepit status of such elements do not automatically render people free or significant; rather, the vaguely shaped human figures depicted on the painterly surface are painfully anonymous, just as those one would see in old family photos of complete strangers, like, for example, the ones used by Boltanski. An acute, yet imprecise melancholy stems out of such images, where the landscape acutely lacks personality and people are devoid of individuality. Under these circumstances, the paint itself becomes, in a way, the main character of the scenes, as the eye becomes more and more tempted to follow the energetic brushstrokes rather than to detect contours and to identify anecdotic episodes or accidents.

This process of privileging the inner, constructive and expressive, essence of painting over its mimetic abilities becomes more obvious, more abrupt with works such as Do Not Take Risks and especially Sunset. In the former, two silhouettes are feverishly and sketchily rendered amid what looks, in a way, like a landscape destroyed by a cataclysmic event. The (social?, political?, technological?) risks appear as they’ve already carelessly been taken, with catastrophic, irreversible effects. The latter work can be coined as downright non – figurative, although the context produced by the other works in the show makes it difficult for the viewer not to engage in a Rorschach –  like mental endeavour, as he or she strives to find architectural or even anthropomorphic shapes on the surface. Yet, the search for mimetic references proves vane in the end; pigment is all that remains, as if it was the final, only possible result of the dissolution of the (ideological) order, as if colour would be the only possible thing to blossom on the ruins of a world whose meaning has been forgotten long ago.

Throughout the show, the use of colour is truly arresting and daringly refined. Strong, vivid tones, seemingly stemming right out of the local Transylvanian landscapes, as well as unctuous accents that remind one of the old Flemish painterly finesse (the Romanian artist is, for that matter, a savvy admirer of artists like Jan van Eyck, Breugel the Elder or Rogier van der Weyden) are inserted as challenging, distorting notes in what looks like a chromatic symphony inspired by the eerily toxic, post – catastrophic landscape of Chernobyl. Thus, the chromatic choices and the use of colours fully supports Bercea’s attempt to circumscribe entropy at multiple levels and it becomes apparent when one scrutinizes the show that this is, consciously or not, somewhat his main metaphorical signified. From this perspective, the whole Remains of Tomorrow exhibition also looks like a convincing demonstration of the fact that painting, if confidently and intelligently deployed, could be a privileged medium for artistically circumscribing entropy, disarray and melancholy, given its very physical nature, its creamy, fluid and organic consistency.

Thus, Marius Bercea’s recent works, those exhibited at Blain Southern included, paradoxically relate, in a complicated yet visually appealing, sentimentally evoking and intellectually stimulative manner, to both the cold, titanic sterility of decaying, evanescing utopia and to the core identity of the septic, organic medium of painting. It makes one perceive it as being equally driven by history and embedding / secreting memory. The “story” though becomes rather irrelevant, narratives are somewhat expelled from the paintings in favour of atmosphere, factual accidents make place for imprecise reveries, the works thus gaining a mysterious archetypal quality. And probably the most important thing that Bercea finally succeeds to achieve is to produce something that might be coined “painting as painting”, one that catches the eye with the same immediacy with which a spell catches the soul, while still maintaining and compellingly proving the utter evocative character that  indelibly lays at the very core of the medium of painting.

For photos of Marius Bercea’s work, go to http://www.blainsouthern.com