I strongly believe that the Art Museum Cluj has undertaken some significant changes for the better during the last few years. They took place under the essentially smart, although not without its downsides, directorship of Calin Stegerean, an art professional who is definitely to be esteemed for both his honest and undeterred will to improve the institution and for the sturdiness he demonstrated more than once in pursuing this goal. The institution has thus become more attentive to its relationship with the local, but also national and even international contemporary art milieu is concerned. Although its relation to the wider Cluj community still needs considerable improving and further work, although reflection upon its collection is as necessary as an intelligent facelift of its permanent display, the museum has managed to present the public, during the last three years or so, with some challenging exhibitions. Just at one brief retrospective glance, one could easily remember, in this respect, shows like Perjovschi’s solo project, Ioachim Nica’s necessary retrospective, Donata Wenders’s problematic and challenging, situational and partial featuring with Robert Bosisio, the fresh and poignant look upon the locally praised Baia Mare School, the sharp Cel ce se pedepseste singur show, curated by Erwin Kessler and even the somewhat controversial presentation of a part of Mircea Pinte’s collection. On the whole, if I was to briefly describe the museum’s development over the envisioned period of time, I would say that, although it has not, perhaps, become popular enough, in the most positive meaning of this term, it has at least become more functional and definitely sexier.

The most recent international show opened at the Art Museum Cluj inscribes itself perfectly in the line of the aforementioned development. Modern Talking is, so to speak, a spin-off of Nicola Trezzi’s project for the Prague Biennale in 2011, called Overall Painting, previously restaged also in Warsaw. As a result of the collaboration between the initial curators and Daria D. Pervain, the Cluj episode of the project included three Cluj – based artists, namely Florin Maxa, Radu Comsa and Dan Maciuca. Also, one is to remark the fruitful collaboration undertaken, in order to organize the show, by the public museum and the private, increasingly credible institution that is Sabot Gallery. Sabot was a main institutional partner which made the exhibition at the Art Museum Cluj possible and, I am inclined to believe, a partner whose contribution was crucial in rendering the exhibition solid and relevant. This is all the more commendable as the gallery also managed to open, shortly before the debut Modern Talking show, a truly impressing exhibition in its own venue (namely the solo project of Radu Comsa, titled, rather ambitiously, Things as They Are, one of the best achievements to date of both the gallery and its versatile and stimulative artist), as well as another remarkable one, Collector, shortly after the mentioned debut. Sabot thus imposes itself as the most active and poignant private artistic institution in Cluj, at the beginning of 2012.

The exhibition is not necessarily conceptually groundbreaking, nor is it visually exhilarating and it does not, I presume, intend to be a superlative and exhaustive response to otherwise exciting and very actual artistic questions, quests and doubts. Nevertheless, it is a very solid show, truly coherent and meaningful, excellently enforcing the general curatorial framework. It is pleasant to see and offers “food for thought” about some important aspects of the contemporary artistic practices, of the various deployments of painting in the contemporary context in particular. In a city whose artistic life and especially fame is revolving so much around the medium of painting, the exhibition aptly hosted by the Art Museum Cluj is even more relevant. The main purpose, fully attained, of the curatorial endeavour is to bring forward various oblique approaches to painting, undertaken by a significant number of contemporary artists, more or less definable as “some of the most visible emerging artists on the international artistic scene” (as they are coined in the host institution’s description of the show).

Their endeavours fall into the field of what was called expanded painting, a formula that acknowledges a move of many artists away from the traditional and even modernist understanding of the painted artwork as a flat and geometrically regular coloured surface. The notion stems actually, on one hand, from Rosalind Krauss’ approach of the developments in the field of three-dimensional art in the late fifties and the sixties (see her famous essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field) and, on the other hand, from the very observation of the ways in which some artists repositioned themselves in relation to painting during the recent decades. Nevertheless, for the rather widespread recognition and use of the syntagm, the importance of Politi’s and Kontova’s chosen title for their contribution to the Prague Biennale in 2005, namely Expanded Painting, is difficult to overrate.

Coming back to the show at the Art Museum Cluj, one must notice the presence of a compelling majority of conceptually interesting and visually rewarding artworks. The three above mentioned new entries in the show definitely prove that there is more than a passion for or a fetishization of painting in the Cluj art world. Thus, there has been within this art world a reflection upon its condition, largely influenced by a sort of metaphysical stance and by a mathematics – based understanding of the idea of form, as early as the late sixties, as proven by the works of Florin Maxa. There is a strive for questioning its contemporary meaning, via revisiting historical or neo – vanguard, in the recent, deadly serious and yet uncannily humorous works of Radu Comsa. And there is a kind of natural tendency of moving from the flatness of painting to the elegantly coloured object in the endeavours of Dan Maciuca, brilliant (abstract) painter, for whom painting was almost always, anyway, anything but flat.

Patricia Treib’s three small paintings are charming, yet, as in a few other cases of artists in the show, one could hardly understand what they actually have to do with the concept of expanded painting. What she exhibits seems painting in its own right, nevertheless, it is good, refined and presumably heartfelt painting, though the chromatics remind maybe just a bit too much Tuymans and the their overall lyricism somewhat recalls Raoul de Keyser’s painterly shapes. Very solid and sort of tongue – in – cheek, bravely graceful and non – emphatically refined are also the works of Malgorzata Szymankiewicz, here and then evoking a certain section of Martin Kippenberger’s production.

Expanding what could, after all, be called painting into the third dimension, Daniel Turner’s relief, made out of materials such as tar, is elegant to the point of becoming arrogantly decorative. Still, its almost basic and sexually alluding sensuousness denies this impression, while the obvious fact that it is produced with symmetry and formal relations in mind makes it one the most adequate works in the show to relate to one of the subsequent questions that the curatorial project aimed at asking: what is left of the modern (artistic) world? The same difficult question of the relationship between the post-modern (or post – Buren) painting and its modernist, ambitiously and staunchly geometrical vanguard predecessors is being tackled by the work of Ana Cardoso. A half orange, half black rectangular surface is presented to the viewer, actually an “object” resulted by the sewing together of two pieces of fabric, respectively made out of cotton and wool. The most important merit of the work, intentionally attained or not, is actually –no irony intended– the fact that it actually resembles a classically modernist painting, at least from a distance, thus drawing upon, not without sensuality, the topic of the intentionality and uniqueness of the painterly object.

Another truly remarkable contribution at the show is that of Ida Ekblad, the installation titled Danceable Moist Flaking Dyslasia. For Modern Talking, the artist abandons her expressionistic approach to painting she’d earlier often deployed, in order to compose an arrangements of rather bizarrely formalist iron sculptures, found, commonplace objects and several “pillows”, covered in printed fabric. These later pieces of the installation are truly arresting, as they tantalizingly seem to hover in an eerie space between what could be an art object and a sofa to be found in the house of a young and probably intellectual middle class family’s, between disposed items and softly fancy design objects; in other words, they seem to be placed in Rauschenberg’s famous gap between art and life.

All in all, the exhibition proves its curators’ case and it does so in an eye arresting manner. There is, as the curators claim, a variety of contemporary artistic proposals stemming from the problem of going beyond the realm of painting, of stretching its borders or obliquely redeploying it for various goals. Also, the above curatorial thesis is backed by interesting, challenging artists, spectacularly emerging or less so. As an issue causing some reserve, just in passing, I’d notice here that one cannot help but ask oneself if five co – curators isn’t a bit too much, even in the case of an endeavour which charm consists in good part in the rhizomic collaboration between various people and institutions; I mean, still, it’s not the Moscow Biennale or something.

But, anyway, I think the show also brings to attention another, more important thing, with or without the curators intending it. Most of the solutions proposed by the artists in it relate, more or less closely, to previously existing approaches, namely of artists in the seventies or the first half of the eighties. Many of the endeavours brought forward by Modern Talking are rehearsals of or variations on topics, artistic questions and responses already formulated during that time. It is difficult not to remember, in this context, Jery Saltz’s harsh diagnose of the last year’s Venice Biennale, where he was noticing more or less the same developments revealed by the grand show in the lagoon, which finally led him to label a supposedly existing contingent of “biennale artists” as being a “lost generation”.

Is this really the case? It is probably difficult, if not impossible to give an answer now, also because of the lack of a minimum historical distance between the phenomenon and the attempt of assessing it. But questions arise nevertheless and they are important working hypothesis. Is painting now in a crisis characterised by the circularity, by the tautology and repetition of the very attempts to overpass its historically burdened condition? Is this a crisis created or at least facilitated by the last decade’s or so triumph of painting, proclaimed not only by the largely presumed guilty, so to speak, Charles Saatchi and for which the art market is a strong witness? Are there more functional and relevant responses to the question of the actual condition of the medium of painting than the somewhat evasive ones, with which also Modern Talking seems to confront us? Is the nowadays strongly self-asserted painter somehow culturally predisposed to move to or at least tease the possibilities of materialized or imaginary installation (names like Ghenie, Meese or Borremans come to mind when asking this particular question)?

What is certain is that the reason Modern Talking is a good show is that it is able to raise such questions in the mind of the attentive, reflective and, why not?, a bit good willing spectator, beyond the inherent and variable quality of the featured works as such. I don’t know if the curator’s of the show stumbled upon or struck at something important; but maybe the previous phrase can constitute an indirect answer also to the question posed by Nicola Trezzi at the end of his introductory text: “Why shouldn’t we consider organizing exhibitions and painting two faces of the same coin?”.

For photos of the show, go to http://artavizuala21.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/transgresarea-in-%E2%80%9Eciudat/ and http://flipflop.ro/home/2012/02/17/%E2%80%9Emodern-talking%E2%80%9D-sau-talking-about-what-is-left-to-the-modern-world/

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Radu Comsa is an artist who evolved in a somehow steady, albeit seemingly rather slow pace during the last decade. Essentially, he moved from being an exceptionally skilful painter, fascinated by what he could actually do with painterly matter on a surface to being an artist increasingly aware of the conundrums generated or catalyzed by the contemporary use of the historically overcharged medium of painting. Still, his development is far from being a passage from, to use Duchamp inspired terms, the realm of the retinal to that of deployment of artistic means towards more or less pure conceptual ends. Thus, his art is constantly starkly visual and the oblique approaches to painting he has been displaying over the last three years or so still appear to be rather pleads in favour of the meaningfulness of painting today, even if they are, nevertheless, critical or inquisitive with regard to various aspects related to the perception of and the social expectations from this traditional medium, which are currently developed by the contemporary art milieu.

I remember encountering Comsa’s art works for the first time some eight years ago. Back then, I was somewhat baffled by the seemingly unabashed way in which he appropriated, one could even say replicated, the painterly manners of star artists of the day (or of the decade) such as Gerhard Richter or Takashi Murakami. The appropriation of such stylistic traits was so plainly visible in some of his paintings at that time that I was, in a way, taken aback and bewildered by the possibility that his trendy epigone – like endeavours might be either so bold or so blissfully unreflective that it would actually be impossible to assess his work solely from the perspective of the (modernist) issue of the originality criterion, as well as from the singular perspective of the postmodernist narrative of appropriation. Anyway, looking back now at that whole situation, I think that my difficulties in interacting with Comsa’s art then were mainly caused by the fact that both me and him (although it may sound paradoxical) were at that moment still overrating both originality and sheer skilfulness.

However, it was clear from quite early in his career that, if his excursions in the medium of painting were going to be truly meaningful, they would have to be underlined by serious reflection upon issues such as style, brand, hype and success, all of them forged or attained via the practice of painting within the context of the contemporary institutional artistic environment. From an adjacent perspective, I tend to believe that Radu Comsa –smart and gentle, insightful, yet sometimes naive– was somehow caught by surprise by the rather rapid and somewhat spectacular rise of the so called (painting) school of Cluj, more precisely by the rise to more or less prominent international visibility of some of his Cluj – based colleagues. However, out of this sort of surprise, conjugated with his previous painting adventures, with the very fruitful and useful to his artistic coming out of age collaboration with Sabot Gallery and with his instrumental role in the functioning of the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj (the artist being strongly involved in the development of both aforementioned institutions) came his splendid solo show in 2010, Being Radu Comsa. In preparation of the show, he secretly produced paintings matching the style and imagery used by some of his more famous, at the moment and maybe even now, Cluj – based fellow artists, such as Man, Ghenie, Savu, Bercea or Suciu, only to exhibit them as a sort of installation at Sabot Gallery.

The show was, in my opinion, a blast: Comsa, the good old chap watching or even assisting his colleagues’ real or inflated success, didn’t go bitter or grumpy over it. instead, he replied by this splendid construction, which was equally a sharp reflection about the “school of Cluj” and a half – amusing, half – acid comment about the nowadays international art system. Unable to meaningfully forge a style, Comsa scavenged his peer’s approaches; having no style, he could possess them all. He finally found a way to put his craftsmanship at work in a way that was truly poignant and deeply (self)ironic. Reviewing his excellent show, back in 2010, I was remarking that Comsa put himself in a risky and open – ended situation and expressed an implicit curiosity regarding what would follow from this situation.

I got my answer with his latest show at Sabot, titled Things as They Are and briefly, yet poignantly described by the organizers as being “the kind of show made by squeezing modern thoughts into a tight space”. The first thing convincingly proven by the exhibition is that Comsa is indeed the artist able to build up Sabot’s best shows to this date. The second and certainly more important thing is that the Cluj based artist has reached a remarkable level of reflexive understanding of the crucial problems facing painting today, as well as the ability to frame them into the broader context of contemporary art at large. The third and also poignant thing highlighted by the show at the Paintbrushes Factory is that Comsa is expanding not just beyond painting as such, but also beyond the current situation of art, trying to glimpse at the complicated and problematic heritage of modernism for a nowadays artist. The result of the combination of the last two mentioned traits is an exhibition that mixes, at conceptual and visual level, values and looks of painting and design, historical references and contemporary dilemmas, juicy colour and minimalist form, hubris and self-irony.

He mainly exhibited objects, of which I don’t think one can speak of as being simply paintings made with more or less unusual materials and techniques. Colourful fabrics were put at work, their choices and juxtapositions reminding one equally of an artist in front of its immaculate canvas and of someone decorating his or her own home environment, more or less stylishly. The largest work in the show consisted precisely in such juxtapositions of fabric patches, together forming a “canvas” almost the size of the gallery’s biggest wall, with almost arbitrarily composed geometric arrangements. Fabric again, dyed in pleasurable, yet subtle tones, that render it mildly sensuous, was used to produce more modest looking objects, somewhat resembling, when suspended between two thin poles, with the gates on a sky slope (Transmuted Painting) or, when actually used to “clad” such a pole, to Cadere’s nomad, painted wood sticks (Squeezed Abstractions). Rectangular pieces of plywood, tied up with thread as if they were packed for transport lay on the gallery’s floor, implausibly replicating a Mondrian (Large Composition with Red …). Abstract wooden objects, their shape evoking snowflakes or vegetable structures were pinned onto the wall on which the words “tender buttons” would be written in concentric circles (Framework). A piece of thin curtain becomes a white on white, bizarrely elegant painting, as it is placed on the gallery’s wall and juxtaposed to a white piece of wood board leaning against it (Circulation of  form).

Finally, the particularly spectacular work included in the show was the video titled Modernist Study for Bust. It depicts the artist himself carefully shaving, then stretching a piece of white fabric / clothing onto the wall of, presumably, his studio, painting it in a tongue – in – cheek,  faux gestural manner, only to wear it as a shirt in front of the camera at the end, while the lower part of his body would be covered by a cardboard box. It is art about art, produced in a truly witty and deeply ironic manner, as it sketches poignantly one of the several possible typological portraits of the contemporary artist. Thus, it is at the same time alluding to and describing the kind of contemporary artist who is caught between his or her inescapable post – modern, alter – modern  or hyper – modern condition (terms are not fully interchangeable, yet the specific differences are not necessarily relevant here) and the nostalgia felt for the modernist hubris, over-sized hope and overrated freedom.

After all, perhaps the exhibition as a whole refers to a certain type of artist, one who has to grapple both with his affectionate approach to traditional media and to painting in particular and with his acute understanding of the paradoxes this later medium is currently riddled with, with the dream of being a star and the self-irony that prevents one from seriously indulging in the reveries of an inflated artistic ego. Things as They Are is finally a show about elegantly (maybe just a bit too elegantly and too predictable, too biennial or common international style – like) mediating between contrasts, fortunately without destroying the essential tensions the artist deals with. Radu Comsa has, in the end, constructed a solid, impressive and even a bit cocky exhibition out of his doubts, hesitations and more or less secret hopes.

 

For photos of Radu Comsa’s works, go to http://www.galeria-sabot.ro/index.php?/project/galeria-1/.