Modern Talking at the Art Museum Cluj

March 5, 2012

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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