Marius Bercea at Blain Southern

November 11, 2011

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

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