Lucian Freud is currently widely acclaimed as one of the greatest painters of the last half a century or so, being perceived as an epitome of artistic idiosyncrasy, with little, if any, interest in following cultural trends, being turned into a source of greatness of some sort. He is admired for what could be called either his stubbornness or his consistency, as well as he is generating tons of petty curiosity with respect to his biography, which, presumably, would be that of a typically eccentric artist (though it strikes an attentive observer how actually uneventful, in terms of great drama and crazy gestures, his life actually was, perhaps with some predictable exceptions in his youth). Praised also for his exceptional mastery of the painterly matter, though, by more than one set of technical or stylistic criteria, this presumed mastery could actually be seriously questioned, Freud is somewhat idolized as a sort of an old master, with modernist attitudes towards the meaning and practice of art, as well as regarding the role of the artist, who yet somehow managed to thrive into the postmodernist climate of contemporary art.

This perception is not necessarily wrong, yet I’m not sure how relevant it is for comprehending the amplitude and the true obsession generated depth of his art. For the London based and London loving artist was not actually an outsider of the local art scene, no matter how dominated it might have been, at moments, by a Pop mindset or by a conceptualist / minimalist / language focused disposition. Moreover, it must be noticed that he acted in an art world, namely the British one, which was, until recently (by this understanding the last two decades or so) kind of conceptually conservative in many regards and respectful towards traditions of historically established art. To grasp this, one only needs to think, for example, about the evolution of the British enfant terrible and Freud sitter David Hockney, with the Hogarth’s interpretations from the beginnings of his career and the English landscapes painted in nature in his mature years. In such a milieu, sort of old fashioned artists’ gangs such as the Soho ones, where Freud was indisputably one of the charismatic characters, were naturally accepted entities and far from being outcast by a presumed academism of the conceptualist trends. Nothing said above, however, downplays Lucian Freud’s merits as an artist. It only proves that, far from being a strange animal in the contemporary artistic jungle, he –as others such as his fellow Bacon or even, somewhat, Kiefer– is a perfectly fitting postmodern figure, for there are artists like Freud which demonstrate that, in our contemporary era, the famous anything goes fully functions, thus allowing art that is far from being cutting edge (from a medium or a political point of view) to be appreciated, to be largely and rightfully praised.

During the last decade, his oeuvre has been the subject of several exhibitions with retrospective ambitions and aims. I have been fortunate enough to see no less than three of them and I can say, without any shadow of doubt in my mind, that the current show at the National Portrait Gallery in London is the most compelling, by far the most dense and tensed and the one that offers the most poignant image of what truly, essentially, makes Freud a mesmerizing artist. The retrospective show in 2005, concomitant with the Venice biennale of that year, was hosted by the Palazzo Correr in Piazza San Marco and was what can be coined as a prestige show: some fifty of the artist’s most famous works, comprising all genres of painting he approached. It offered a comprehensive view on his artistic production, without necessarily offering a stance regarding it. The Pompidou show in 2010 was titled L’atelier and aimed at offering a more comprehensive image of Freud via his crucial relationship to his workspace. Impressive and well documented, the Paris exhibition convincingly showed Freud as being an artist with tremendous force of energetically, so to speak, organizing his environment, one able to shape the world around in order to serve his artistic endeavours and maybe obsessions. There were the two above mentioned shows that made me believe that he was truly a great painter and an artist that was hard to look over when writing the art history of the 20th century. I also thought that his most poignant source of painterly greatness was his ability to tackle textures, human flesh included, with a forceful combination of lively realism and sensual pigment deployment. The current exhibition in London though made me understood I was wrong: his most impressive strength lies in his complicated understanding and arduous execution of portraiture.

From the very beginning, it needs to be noted that scrutinizing the face or the body of a person with the persistence, the apparent lack of empathy and the inquisitiveness which are deployed by Freud in realizing his portraits is an act of aggression. Observing the other which such intensity kind of burns down the protective layers of facial expressions, gestures and words, meant to safeguard the inner identity of the sitter, as it is perceived by him or her. This aggression does not necessarily exclude affection: it might just as well be the case that Freud was sincere when stating that he only paints people he cares about. But the sharpness of the scrutiny renders any affective stance or approach secondary, at best. In other words, he probably depicted people he cared about, but not because he cared about them and not because he wanted to show that he cared about them. He might have been sympathetic; his painting though is fierce and unbelievably cerebral. And this is far more important than the well known fact, somehow fascinating in its own right, that he was often “torturing” his sitters by authoritatively asking them to sit for tens of ours, many times exceeding one hundred hours, actually. The long hours are a necessary instrument deployed in order to get to the bottom of things, the way Freud perceived it, and nothing less was satisfactory to him.

Intense, thus, is by far the best, albeit exasperatingly imprecise, single word to describe the display at the National Portrait Gallery. The way the show itself was conceived actually helped in this respect. Not allocating a huge space to Freud’s portraits forces the viewer to take in the works as if they were somewhat crowded. It is the organizers merit that they understood how something that would be a mistake in an overwhelming majority of cases could actually strengthen this particular show. Surrounded by all the faces and all the bodies, not having the normal resting intervals while moving from piece to piece made the paintings uncannily present, it even made somehow the artist eerily present. It appeared as if someone had opened a box with some family and friends’ photos and made the gigantic effort of obliquely translate a life, as seen through the photos, into a painterly saga, sometimes using some surrealist filtering in the process.

And still, each painting was mesmerizing in its own right. I will not speak of any of them in detail. I find it pointless, as no short list could actually be meaningfully drafted and this is no monographic work. I’ll just notice how most of the faces in Freud’s paintings tend to linger in the back of your mind. It happens with the rather unsophisticated portraits of the mid – forties, where the eyes of seemingly gracious and innocent women stare into the void revealing a more turbulent inner life than meets the eye and an almost abstract unhappiness (see Girls with Roses, for example). It happens just as well with some of the latest male portraits, in which one sees, if carefully scrutinizing the surface, how strong, accomplished men, winners in more ways than one, just cannot shake some sort of fundamental, inherent vulnerability (see Man in a Blue Scarf or David Hockney). The same power to haunt is to be found in his most famous works (see his 1985 self – portrait) and in those less discussed and acclaimed (such as the superbly discreet Girl with Beret), as, again and again, one gets the impression that, if the whole intellectual world knows that there is no such thing as the one and only reality, no one told Lucian Freud, the painter who keeps trying to depict nothing less than people as they really are. Some capital issue of human relationships is forcefully revealed in almost all of his paintings in the exhibition. I have hardly ever seen a more crushingly sharp image of sentimental and familial estrangement than his 1954 Hotel Bedroom or glimpsed more comprehensively at the tensely complex relation between a man and his mother than when gazing at The Painter’s Mother Resting I (a painting that confronts the viewer with someone who irradiates power all the more forcefully as she is depicted as being frail).

Many of the previous remarks fit his nude paintings, too and the inclusion of a large number of nudes in the portrait show in London is more than justifiable. It is actually crucial for shedding light on an utmost important aspect of his work, namely that in his obsessive strive for describing individuals he somehow treats nudes as portraits. Perhaps nowhere is this more plainly visible than in his painterly descriptions of Leigh Bowery, a bizarrely tragic figure of nineties hip, London’s Australian apostle of (extreme) cool.

Thus, Leigh Bowery (Seated) from 1990 and Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery) from 1992 are likely to be two of Freud best ever several works. The sitter’s massive, overweight body is given a painterly attention fit for royalty, so to speak. However, the textile textures and that of the floor are also painted by a Freud at his best. And still, all you see in the end, staring the works insistently, is a man called Leigh Bowery. His massive body is not a subject for meditation about proportions; it is not simply a pretext for masterfully painting flesh, with or without transforming it into a memento mori or an instance of joie de vivre. Respectfully, yet mercilessly, Freud simply paints Bowery: a rich character, which is not a hero in any way, who’s big and, yes, fat body doesn’t make him either utterly powerful or utterly frail. Lucian Freud painted someone who is not afraid of his gentle inner demons not because he can dominate them, but because he has learned that being afraid of what you cannot defeat is downright stupid. This indeed difficult to attain and somewhat painful simplicity of describing a human being is to be found again and again in his nude representations. They always possess a touching banality which renders both their sexuality and their sensuousness frighteningly futile and their humble humanity uncannily plain.

I’ve been roaming the National Portrait Gallery’s rooms, after finishing a first, long, tiring and intense tour, in one last attempt to find joy or happiness, in any shape or form, being irradiated by Freud’s models. I can sincerely say I couldn’t find any. Still, his portraits are not elegiac renderings of pitiful human beings, or, with maybe a few notable exceptions, manifestations of an existentialist type of nausea. It’s just that, after looking at them stubbornly for a while (for the intensity of the gaze deployed in order to paint them requires equally passionate scrutiny from the viewer, in order to grasp more than meets the eye at a hasty glance) you come to the unsettling understanding of the fact that, for Freud, some essence of the human condition can actually be circumscribed by painting. Call it a hubristic obsession; however, it lies at the core of his art. Nevertheless, this presumed essence consists in a sheer banality that doesn’t exonerate one from striving to be special, nor from suffering because of not actually being important, ontologically speaking.

Lucian Freud did not, as was often dully said and did not try to revolutionize the genre of portraiture (rather, as argued above, he used nudes in an unusual way). He just made portraits in one of the best possible ways, not unlike Velasquez. Like the Spaniard, he approaches his models fiercely and with the cold, yet benevolent eye of a strange aristocrat. Again like Velasquez, he succeeds in forcing the viewer to tantalize between the temptations of getting deeply acquainted with the depicted person and of taking delight in the refined, perverse beauty of the paint. Thus, Freud asserts his belonging to that species of rare, fascinating painters that resemble the best illusionists, namely those who do not even allow you to understand that magic is about to occur until it is already too late to try wrapping your mind around it.

Born in Romania, in 1959, Belu – Simion Fainaru is, so to speak, a living argument supporting the idea that contemporary art and artists can only be international. Living, working and teaching in Israel and Belgium, present in iconic international artistic events such as the Documenta or the Venice and the Havana Biennale, having solo shows hosted by prestigious institutions such as the S.M.A.K. in Gent, Fainaru is also currently the driving force, as well as the artistic director and curator of the Mediterranean Biennale of Contemporary Art in Israel. In more ways than one, he is an excellent example of a cultural producer who can meaningfully use specific cultural ideas, a particular spiritual mindset and tradition, as well his personal biographical background to reach very different audiences and to respond to diverse expectations, which are yet far from being levelled by the globalization processes.
After exhibiting together with Victor Man, in 2007, at Plan B gallery in Cluj (in a far from poignant show called More or less in the same place or another), the artist came back this year for a solo show at the same gallery, titled Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void. Opened at the end of February 2012, the exhibition was intelligently pairing remarkable clarity and coherence with less obvious conceptual complexity, was charmingly juxtaposing a sort of optimistic humour and an almost spiritual seriousness, and was concomitantly joggling with visual mojo and intellectual rigour. Thus, Fainaru’s truly impressive recent show confronts the viewer with a mature artist, who fully masters the tools of his (very personal) trade, yet remains remarkably inquisitive, dismissing both laziness, in all possible forms and bravado as if they were, to use a sharp, yet problematic syntagm, artistic sins.
The void and the nothingness appear to gain, somewhat paradoxically, positive value in Belu – Simion Fainaru’s apprehension. For what is worth, he is not the first proposing such a comprehension. Used recurrently throughout mankind’s spiritual history to define the indefinable, deployed to denote an absolute, incomprehensible reality or entity, the concepts of void, emptiness and so on have represented, for many religious thinkers or philosophers not the equivalent of non – existence, but, on the contrary, that of ultimate levels of being and of knowledge. Fainaru’s approach of the concepts of void and nothingness, which are, in fact, alluding to one and the same semantic realm, somehow paroxysmically highlighted by the use of both words in the seemingly categorical title of the exhibition, is rooted in such intellectual endeavours. Contemporary Jewish philosopher and Kabbalah researcher Moshe Idel shares and studied, mostly within texts composing the mystical Judaic tradition, some similar ideas about the nature of reality and deity. As he is a long time interlocutor and, I dare to presume, intellectual sparring partner of the artist, the Romanian born thinker has, in this respect, a considerable influence upon the artist’s conceptual and even spiritual world, which the latter admits without hesitation. Nevertheless, making an art that is not simply figurative, but, in a way, downright concrete and still embed in it references to the poetics of absence is, if taken seriously, a formidable task. Embarking on such a daring endeavour is precisely what Fainaru often does, most times with truly admirable and also even gently touching artistic results.
Think, for example, at his A Penny for Nothing interactive sculpture, featured in the exhibition at Plan B. A rather big, predictably white freezer has been filled with water and awaits the viewer, who is given the following instructions: “Count your pennies and throw one penny in the freezer: one penny for your hunger, one penny for your thirst, one penny for nothing”. To turn a common freezer in a fountain of wishes is a kind of ironic critique of consumerism, but this semantic layer is so secondary in Fainaru’s art work. What is more important is the ritual that is being instituted, as the instructions are precise as religious prescriptions. The religious or spiritual formalism is here alluded to, yet the artist is not necessarily criticizing it, not really trying to deconstruct it as void, stiff or meaningless, as has been done countless times before, to the point that the practice had became somewhat fashionable, not only in the artistic realm, but also in theological or pseudo – theological writing and predication. Hunger and thirst are both powerful and common metaphors of spiritual needs; however, the coronation of the ritual envisages their surpassing and accessing a sort of comprehension, or at least acknowledgement of superior nothingness. Then, after such reflections, one sobers up and realises that it’s still just a freezer, filled with water, into which contemporary art spectators tend to throw small coins, many of them smirking or smiling with presumably superior understanding while doing so. One realises, too, that it is in this very tension and in this very sharp, yet subtle humour that art somehow resides.
There is a strong connexion to be detected, in many of Fainaru’s works, with the concept and the practices of magic. Transformation is one of the key features of magic, one could rightfully say its fundamental purpose and it always envisages objects or substances with strong symbolic power. Transformation leads to the occurrence of a new reality, i. e. a new symbolic order. Something of this dialectics can be detected, for example, in such a work like Fears and Tears, the artist’s performance at the opening, when he placed one dollar bills into a toaster. Three domains of reality, which are in many ways profoundly antagonistic, yet often intertwined, are tensely brought together, as the dollar bill symbolically and uncannily becomes a loaf of bread: that of capital (where money are transubstantiated into power), that of religious beliefs (where matter is transubstantiated into spirit) and that of family life (where small rituals are transubstantiated into harmony).
Fainaru’s artistically induced / endowed magic is far from being a mockery of magic practices and beliefs, as he does not assume the position of the fake, tongue – in – cheek, postmodernist – like trickster. At the same time, though, his artistic endeavours are not as spiritually charged as to claim the actual ability to trigger transubstantiations of some sort, at least not with the seriousness assumed by artists such as an emphatically theatrical Nitsch or a utopian Beuys. The result of this, one could say, ontological and axiological indecision, is an inherent semantic tension, which provide his works with the ability to concomitantly be wittily attractive and imprecisely disquieting. Think, for example, of an installation like Black Milk, composed of a rather large number of white ceramic pieces of tableware, arranged in a rectangular shape on the gallery’s floor and filled with a translucent, black liquid. More than one kind of ritual and more than one type of liturgical discourse could come to one’s mind in front of the work, while the visual play carried out by the shiny white and the shiny black surfaces possesses a definitely hypnotic quality. Still, one can finally find out that the mysterious black liquid is nothing less trivial than spent engine oil; thus, the commonplace realm of the technological abruptly interferes with any spiritual references and awkwardly, almost shyly downplays metaphysical implications.
As forcefully proven by the solo show at Plan B, Belu – Simion Fainaru’s art, when deployed with full impetus, can hardly be confined to the clearly delineated borders of the gallery’s “white cube”. The main reason for this is that, leaving magic and rituals aside, he is the kind of artist who strongly needs to physically alter the environment in which he “performs”, to somehow inscribe his passage into it. Thus, he often marks the broader spatial context of the exhibitions with items that force the occurrence of a somewhat disguised, yet refined poetics. In the specific case of the Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void show, for example, before entering the courtyard of the Paintbrushes Factory, in which the actual gallery and thus, presumably, the exhibition are situated, one is met by a traffic light. The green light has the text “money” written on it, while the red light reads “no money”. Placed high above the entrance gate, Fainaru’s traffic light half playfully awakens the superstitious alter ego most of us possess, whether we like or not, whether we admit it or not. At the same time, the work obliquely performs a critique of the contemporary art system, suggesting that it matters if you enter the space of contemporary art with or without money, seeking money or not. Instead of furiously and pointlessly blubbing about the unfairness of the capitalist (art) market, as so many artists do, in, unfortunately, often dull manners, he brings a bit of lyricism, a touch of sharp irony and the shadow of a wise and indulgent smile into the discussion.
Lyricism, in its plain, but not corny form, reaches its peak within the show with the installation that took over a whole wall of the floor in the Factory where Plan B is situated, titled Monument for Nothingness. Small holes were drilled into the wall, at even intervals, disposed on several rows and a bouquet of roses is placed at the end of the corridor. Again, the prescribed mode d’emploi is disarmingly simple: “Take a rose petal. Think of a wish. And insert the petal into the wall”. No promises are made, no guarantees are granted that the wish will be fulfilled; one can only secretly hope for it, just as one bluntly, irrepressibly and so humanly hopes that the good predictions of the stupid morning horoscope. The visual effect on the viewer of the white wall dotted by the fresh red rose petals is fascinating; at the same time, as the first petals slowly decay and some fresh are added (increasingly rare, as the period of the exhibition nears its end) the wall becomes a saddening vanitas. Nevertheless, one must not overlook that understanding that vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas is a classic first step, in several traditions of thinking, in elevating one’s consciousness to a superior level of understanding the fundamental void of the world. And thus, true hope rises out of evanesced wishes: the petals were anyway far too beautiful to actually be able to kill all hope.
One more issue which needs discussing when it comes to the exhibition in Cluj, but also to Fainaru’s art in general is that of travelling, in the broader and complex meaning of the word. The artist has been in the fairly awkward position, as he left Romania, to emigrate from his country of birth to, literally, his fatherland. Being at the same time a native and an immigrant is a paradoxical status, one that he often explored in his artistic endeavours, as it might actually be the position of the truly irreducible stranger. His life and career could support such an assertion: he was the young and a bit strange immigrant accepted rather late by the Israeli art world, he works and teaches in Belgium as a Jewish artist from abroad and he is more or less a foreigner when he revisits the place where he was actually born.
From this position, he naturally tunes in to certain types of nostalgia related to geographical and mental maps of belonging. The assumed stranger’s identity, but that of the stranger who is at home almost everywhere, is referred to in such works as Another Time, the abat – jour lamp hanging from Plan B gallery’s ceiling that reads Belongs nowhere and to another time, sentence which seems to function as a sort of identitary mantra for the artist: he uses it, sometimes in slightly varying forms, again and again as he speaks of himself or his art. The same topic of belonging is epitomized in Jerusalem in the pocket, a white shirt’s sleeve provided with a pocket filled with earth from the holly city. The fundamental Jewish feeling of religious belonging is brought into discussion, as well as the binary semantics stemming from a Romanticist ideology, which was able to generate aggressive nationalisms, on one hand and sincere, sentimental, maybe even pathetic emotional attachments to “special” places, on the other hand.
Finally, it should be said that Belu – Simion Fainaru, a stranger or not, is a true traveller: he does not go to places to see them, but to somehow take them in, to capture their spirit, with glamour and dust, with the memories of bloodshed and the hopefulness of weddings. I strongly believe that this one of the crucial features of his personality which allows Fainaru, the artist, to be a genuine, first hand teacher.

For photos of the show, go to http://www.plan-b.ro/index.php?/expo/belu-simion-fainaru/.

This is a bit problematic text and it is definitely vulnerable to criticism from an ethical point of view. It is about things that happen(ed), albeit somewhat autonomously,  in an institution I work within and which were done by young artists which were, until very recently, students of mine and still are students of the aforementioned institution, namely the University of Art and Design in Cluj – Napoca. Thus, I could be suspected of parti pris when writing to signal the appearance of Atas Project Space, a new, young and, I should say, rather efficient and meaningful initiative managed by some of them and used as artistic platform by some others. Moreover, I am, for more solid and hopefully easier to understand reasons, generally reluctant in reviewing the artistic production of very young artists. However, the Atas space managed to become, I believe, a significant presence on the local art scene of Cluj during the last six months or so, therefore justifying a critical review of its activity. The present text is rooted in this belief of its author, who assures the reader that he is perfectly aware that, in this particular instance, is probably more susceptible to subjectivity than usually, yet hopeful that this situation will not impeach on his intellectual bona fide.

It must be, first of all, said that Atas has been a space for young artists’ projects in the early 2000’s and has made quite a reputation for itself, hosting some of the most exciting shows of that time in Cluj. Youthful and daring, truly innovative, albeit sometimes a bit gratuitously spectacular art was skilfully showed there, on the premises of the dynamic art school in Cluj and under the successive curatorial coordination of Mihai Pop (later become and far better known as director of Plan B, Romania’s top gallery for contemporary art) and Kudor Duka Istvan (currently teaching at the university’s painting department). However, the space has only been temporarily used for exhibitions over the recent years and the memory of “the first Atas” has gradually faded in the art community, especially among the young. Now, a second Atas is functioning, really lively and coherently, under the name Atas Project Space. The venue (or part of it, since the current exhibition space is a bit even smaller than the already rather small initial one) is currently managed by ASUAD, which is the association of the students of the University of Art and Design.

The programme of  the art space is both ambitious and comprehensive, though, at the same time, somehow fashionably vague, as one can understand by reading its own mission statement. It aims at being concomitantly a platform for promoting young artists and a space for discussions and debates on relevant contemporary cultural topics. Now, it is true that this can mean a lot of tings, although not anything, as one might be tempted to say; however, before discussing the profiles and quality of the events organized here, one is to notice the consistency of the actual events’ programme. Thus, since November 2011 until the end of March 2012, Atas Project Space has hosted no less than six exhibitions, a performance show and three artist talks. The sheer pace of the Atas’s activity is therefore commendable in itself, to the extent to which it renders problematic the very possibility of actually maintaining it in the long run. The renewed art venue has also managed, being mainly coordinated by Flaviu Rogojan and Iulia Boscu, in a rather short period of time, both to secure a public composed mainly of students and young artists, but also to expand its audience by attracting the attention of a part of the larger local art world (although there is much more to do in this direction).

The debut show was that of Cristina Mircean, titled Step Back. It consisted of a flickering, prismatic fitting, provided with neon tubes, constantly and randomly switching on and off. Permanently in motion, in a way, Mircean’s work was constantly unstable, simple, yet compelling, impossible to visually grasp as a whole and irritatingly fascinating. Hazard and what could be called electric randomness are somewhat replacing the “sacred” artist’s will, as she intentionally and wittily gives away the traditional obsession for complete control over the art work. Nevertheless, although it is both catchy and intellectually engaging, the work’s declared intention to conceptually explore and dispute the concept of finished art work is hardly realized (the fidgetiness of the flickering neon lights actually functions as an end in itself).

With Abracadabra, George Cringasu succeeded in attaining something rarely seen when it comes to young artists: to build an exhibition that is conceptually poignant without turning it didactic, explicative or boring. It was a compelling show that made a relevant point without over – emphasizing it to make sure that people get it. Abracadabra revolved essentially around two somewhat antagonistic, yet, as wittily and convincingly proved by the exhibition itself, profoundly related topics: that of the seemingly perennial character of people’s need for the spiritual and the supernatural and that of the equally recurrent turning into banality, truism and kitsch of this very fundamental inner drive. Using materials as diverse as raw meat and golden tinfoil, printed images of a religious icon and the signed poster of a nationally known performer of soft, corny music, an animal skull and a low – tech, ironically mysterious, projected retro soft porn image, the artist brilliantly acted, convincingly and challengingly, as a trickster who paradoxically makes the effort to trap you in his magic, only to urge you not to believe in it (or in any magic, for that matter).

Iulia Boscu’s performance at Atas was part of her Sluffing (she uses the term in the meaning given by the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)  project, which also included an artist talk / debate in her studio, meant to highlight the sources and the development of the project. If the talk didn’t actually bring any meaningful plus to the project, its explicative character rather downplaying the intensity of the Atas performance, the latter was a really coherent, elegantly carried out and exciting example of the use of the medium / realm of time based art. The artist, sit in a corner of the space, in rather bright light, talked, smiled and nodded for some forty-five minutes, in an absurd “conversation” with spectators moving about, all the time her words being impossible to hear because of the loud music around, functioning as a sort of white noise. An epitome of communicational mishaps, a somehow imperative allusion to the sheer difficulty of sending out a message, Boscu’s performance pointed at the unnerving possibility that all acts of communication might actually be, one way or another, instances of communication breakdown.

For her first solo show, Anca Sanpetrean relied on the dialects of traditional vs. contemporary, art vs. kitsch, museum vs. proletarian neighbourhood to construct, at Atas Project Space, the exhibition titled BibeLow. Several iconic modernist or contemporary art works were downsized and downplayed by Sanpetrean’s ceramic replicas of them. The white ceramic forms reduced monumentality and / or cultural prestige of Kapoor’s Tower or Duchamp’s Fountain to domestic looks, while their placement on modest pieces of furniture transformed them into banal and half – kitsch decoration. The exhibition though fails to go all the way, in two formal directions, as it does not decidedly function as a full, complete installation, nor does it firmly valorises the little sculptures as independent art works.

Designer Ana – Maria Abrudan proposed at Atas, or rather took over its space with an installation based on the ideas that inform the development of “slow design”. Experience Design, as her project was called, manipulated geometrical shapes and volumes, as well as light to produce an eerie, yet softly friendly atmosphere, while at the same time transforming, so to speak, space into structure. Formal elements that recall those put at work in “classic” object design were deployed in an almost mathematically creative manner in order to completely move the emphasis from functionality to gentle and intriguing engagement with the implausible design object, in other words, from usage to exploration.

Limited Edition, Sebastian Baculea’s solo show, was a delightfully smart endeavour, which succeeded in being entertaining in an elegant and poignant way, as an exhibition of an artist who is trying to step up from “young” to “emerging” probably ought to be. Baculea has compellingly proven himself able to endow the objects he produces with a crucial quality which is required from an art work in order for it to have a shot at becoming iconic: the ability to stick to one’s mind by being concomitantly simple and witty. These are the core features that strikes you when encountering the Surrealist – like Shrek version of the Muffin Man crucified on two intersecting candy stick, placed upon a vertically erected ironing board. The eyebrows raising ability and the remote, yet fine irony are possessed also Baculea’s assemblage consisting in a cell phone engaged in what appears to be a conversation with the older, presumably wiser, analogue telephone, provided with a tube that shelters its “brain”, represented by a nut kernel. As in the case of Cringasu’s show, the miraculous and the kitsch are suggested to be two sides of the same coin (of consumerism?).

Vlad Capusan’s project, titled Time & Life, was based on the performative installation The Box of Time. In darkness, for some forty minutes, fine threads of sand were pouring down in the space from a box hanging from the ceiling, onto the beautiful, fresh, downright shiny apples from a bin placed on the venue’s floor, while the video piece presenting a seemingly endless stream of tap water was projected onto a wall. The pile of sand, unassumingly laying in the middle of the room at the end, stood in sharp contrast with the rather dynamic, even spectacular minutes which led to its formation. Straightforward and coherent, Capusan’s visual metaphor of the inexorable and life destroying passing of time doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a plain allegory, and this is precisely what makes it unpretentiously beautiful and conceptually well rounded.

Drawing the line so far, the exhibition programme at Atas Project Space offered events which were definitely rewarding. Nevertheless, the space still has several important issues to address. Among these, one could mention a clearer decision regarding whether it aims at being a space with a definite profile, as far as the type of art it shows is concerned or it seeks a broader medium diversity, a more coherent and more consistent documentation of the events or a more active and forthcoming communication with some sectors of the local, but also broader, art scene. Collaborative actions involving cultural or intellectual producers placed outside the field of what we generally call visual arts, from music to theatre to social sciences would be another perspective to reflect upon, as otherwise assumed by the young artists managing the project space.

But there is both time and hope for all these, and, all in all, what strikes me as being definitely remarkable and impressive is the impetus behind Atas Project Space. There is energy here and, more than this, it is an energy which is complemented by intelligence and a surprising maturity, a sort of intellectual pragmatism that leads to noticeable efficiency. Atas is a lively place, which has already succeeded not only to become locally known, but also to generate dispute and a bit of mistrust from some (that’s almost always, in the art world as we know it, a good thing, though never sufficient for anything in itself). More than anything, I believe that the new Atas is a symptom of a specific kind of passion and of a particular type of artistic and cultural creativity, that could be the attributes of something that might just become a “generation” to be reckoned with in a not very distant future.

For photos and further info, go to http://www.atasprojectspace.wordpress.com.

Recently closed, Natalia LL’s show at Ernst Museum in Budapest, titled Opus Magnum, was an exhibition that offered me the privilege of a double and downright exciting discovery. Thus, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter an artist of which, to my embarrassment, I knew almost nothing about (and seeing the show I realized that I probably should have known much more) and an institution I knew absolutely nothing about (and seeing the show I realized that I should have visited it earlier). Also, Opus Magnum starkly reminded me that a well done retrospective exhibition, albeit unavoidably incomplete and fragmentary, is probably the best way to meaningfully approach an artist.

            The currently functioning Ernst Museum is the heir, so to speak, of an important and vibrant private artistic venue, build up around the more or less coherent, yet undeniably important Ernst collection of modern Hungarian (and not only) art. Founded in 1912 by the collector Ernst Lajos, the venue hosted also some of Budapest’s most significant modern art shows between the World Wars. Bringing together exhibition spaces, a cinema, as well as artist studios, the place was one of the vibrant hubs of Budapest cultural life at the time. Although the collection had a rather sad destiny, being dismantled after 1937, the building still functions today as an exhibition venue, hosting contemporary art shows, as part of the Budapest Kunsthalle (Mücsarnok), yet is by far less known as the latter institution itself or as its main venue in Dozsa Gyorgy street.

Natalia LL is one of the prominent Polish artists of the last decades, being active mainly in the fields of photography, performance and video and approaching those media from a perspective that was mostly considered to be feminist. However, as we’ll further see, this labelling, although perfectly justified from the very perspective of the artist, who joined the so called International Feminist Movement in the mid-seventies, not only fails to account for the complexity of her endeavours along the decades, but is also misleading, as it does not comprehensively grasp some of the defining characteristics of the artist’s impressive production, such as the intertwining of plain humour with somewhat complicated irony, the constantly displayed fascination for image as icon and as tool used to provoke the occurrence of beauty or the apparently dull, yet essential and obliquely critical and self – critical aestheticism.

A larger than life character, Natalia LL, (born in 1937, in Zywiec, as Natalia Lach – Lachowicz) was also an active figure in the Neo – avant – garde movements of the sixties and the seventies, as well as a make – things – happen – person on the Polish cultural scene. Despite her participation, mostly during the seventies, at rather highly ranked contemporary art events, such as the Sao Paolo biennale, she never actually attained the status of international art star. Nevertheless, she is an artist with a career that spans some fifty years of intelligent, sometimes brilliant and always stimulating artistic production.

The spaces available at the Ernst Museum are not the usual, gigantic volumes of a large contemporary art museum or Kunsthalle. Therefore, a smart selection of the works that were to feature in the Opus Magnum retrospective had been crucial for its meaningfulness. The artists herself choose to curate the show and did it remarkably and, I would say, surprisingly well. A well balanced mix of video works, video documented performances and photographic works was displayed, comprising a comprehensive image of Natalia LL’s decades long artistic activity.

Probably the most straightforwardly telling work of all, with respect to the topics encompassed by her art, is Natalia ist Sex, displayed as a text on the wall. When one comes closer to the wall, he or she actually discovers that the letters of the text are made out of more or less pornographic images featuring, presumably, the artist and a male companion. And, indeed, the issue of sexuality is placed at the core of LL’s artistic production. There is hardly a single art piece in the show that do not refer to this topic, while the balance between feminist suggestions and aestheticization / hedonism / sensual enthusiasm is perpetually fragile.

This is, for example, made plainly visible by works that come together under the title / concept of Consumer Art. Developed mostly in the seventies, the series includes a video of the young, naked and beautiful female artist licking the liquid content of a plate, the grainy aspect of the film being unable to tame either the sensuality, the irony or the gross look (for shy or “righteous” eyes) of the scene. Closely related to such works are the panels composed of some twenty photos of a young woman eating a banana, or rather using it for an ambiguous teasing game, as the female character is depicted in somewhat over – staged, sexually alluding poses. The black and white images are very “clean”, depleted of any unnecessary details, in a Pop – like manner, not totally dissimilar to the one put at work in Andy Warhol’s so called portraits. However, in the end, they present the viewer with an almost formalist aesthetics, which essentially is at odds with both a feminist stance and with the semantics of the classic pin – up. The black and white images also allude, in a sophisticated and ironic way, to the probably false value of noblesse, many times naively associated with the traditional types of photography.

            Following Consumer Art, Natalia LL produced a series of photographic works, in large, almost monumental format, coining them as post – consumer art. If the dialectics of its semantics are pretty much similar to that displayed in the previously produced tongue – in – cheek images and videos mentioned above, the visual result is even more ambiguous and startling. The photos present the face of the artist in sexually alluding, kind of seductive poses, with traces of white liquid on or around the lips. The pornographic reference is more than obvious, yet something in the images makes them uncomfortably hard to grasp, as they tantalizingly avoid being clean cut porn shots.

Thus, the traces of white substance on the artist’s / performer’s / subject’s face are accompanied, so to speak, by traces of pathos and of getting transfixed, as her expressions most of the times suggest. There are ambiguous facial expressions, which become more and more ambiguous the longer one actually scrutinizes the images. Their pornographic nature, that appears to be so obvious at a first glance, gets blurred, at least in some of them. In the end, these latter remain probably the most impressive images in the show, as they are composed with the formal care one would expect from a high end fashion or life style magazine photos. In short, they prove to be far too arty (i. e. aesthetically aware) to be convincing as kinky or trashy porn.

Turning things on their head is something that artists are somewhat supposed or expected to do; it is also something that Natalia LL is particularly good at. Take the banana, for example, an obvious phallic avatar, used as such by the Polish artist, as mentioned above. However, in a video piece such as the 1994 Brunhilda’s Dream as well as in its corollary, the Anatomy of a Room installation, from 1995, which featured in Opus Magnum, the banana is pierced by a sword, which rhythmically cuts through the fleshy fruit until it finally breaks apart. The classic phallic form is ironically turned into a vagina, while the mighty combination of sex and violence turns almost hilarious.

Characters like Brunhilda and other more or less mythological or mythologized personifications of the prototype of the smart and strong minded, but also sexually overt and finally, by virtue of these very characteristics, utterly dangerous woman are also recurrent in LL’s artistic endeavours. A performance, again from 1995, is called Brunhilda III and its photographic documentation was also present in the retrospective at the Ernst Museum. We see the artist barely dressed, wearing high boots, a sort of mask and flowery crown, sword and shield in hands, at the edge of a forest. A sexually aggressive, strong and presumably menacing woman seems to confront the viewer. However, the character gradually looses all its symbolic might, as one realizes that this all about amounting clichés. From a presumably feminist perspective, both romanticist automatisms and pornographic props are critically approached and deconstructed, apparently reduced to semantic rubble. But the actual ramifications of the thinking process sparked by the vaudeville Brunhilda go deeper, I believe. Thus, what is really important here is not just noticing that (a form of) Romanticism is brought together with (a form of) pornography, but realizing that they kind of belong together, that the juxtaposition appears natural. They are both products of the same type of cultural, political, but also erotic desires, in which oppression could probably be rooted in, yet what is certain is that they are unnervingly durable and irritatingly polymorphous. In the end, the laugh might just be on (a form of) feminism, just as well as (a form of) shame could tentatively be cast upon pornography or corny Romanticism.

            As we’ve seen so far, Natalia is indeed sex, i.e. body. Her works are constantly using her body, yet investing it with the power to metamorphose and to assume various roles and identities, rather than testing its limits, subjecting it to rigorous trials. Thus, if the use of her body is more or less driven by feminist ideology, the Polish artist is closer to Cindy Sherman’s deployment of the body than to Abramovic’s. Many times, costumes are frequently used by Natalia LL and she often deploys masks in order to produce either glossy or softly morbid photographic images that seem to allude to an existentialist atmosphere and mindset. The images of the body that has long left behind its prime of youth, strength and beauty are often used in combination with masks, in order to produce such effects, which are augmented by deploying specifically charged symbolic props such as the couch in the recent series of photographs titled Birth According to the Body.

Nevertheless, we can also see a more direct and quite specific mode of using the body in several sixties and seventies videos present in the Ernst Museum show, such as Impressions, from 1973. The camera is soon fixed on the artist’s breasts, which the artist is, partly erotically, partly frantically, shaking, rubbing, squeezing and massaging with some white substance that looks like milk. Again, the body as object of sexual desire is somewhat devoid of its sensuality via humour. However, the key word here is “somewhat”: sensuality is never actually neutralized and the tension between lust and goofiness is the key and powerful characteristic of such works.

But, in other video pieces, the body is used to signify differently. The naked female body is, for example, place on a sandy surface, partly covered by the inorganic material and placed amidst some vegetal debris, its movements being slow, but hardly erotic. What one sees in such fragments are lust, nostalgia and death being brought together: such a strong triangle so often used to build a lyrical stance. The surprise is, in the context of the exhibition of a truly ironic artist, to see that the lyricism actually gets generated out of an almost naïve, loosely sentimental endeavour. In cultural terms, what is probably most strikingly shown by this is that a genuine Romanticist vein survives in the artist’s anthropological universe, whether we (or her, for that matter) like it or not. It sort of proves that Romanticism, as socio – cultural construct (and just as other major construct of this kind), was not going to die out but with the demise of the very modern world that it emerged from. And, in the seventies, I guess that wasn’t the case yet …

One should not mistake: Natalia LL’s art is far from being flawless. Its more or less relevant weaknesses do not require a lot of reflective effort to uncover. It can sometimes be a bit gratuitously spectacular, it can sometimes get dangerously close to pointless exhibitionism, it can sometimes fall short of conceptual coherence and especially poignancy. Opus Magnum retrospective is an honest enough exhibition not to try to completely hide or deny these shortcomings and a smart enough show to minimize them. In the end, what one is left with is a definitely impressive, strong and complex artist, whose production provocatively, almost emphatically leaves one to choose between raising her or his eyebrows in admiration or in contempt.

For more images of the artist’s works, go to http://www.nataliall.com.

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/

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/.

Two exhibitions in Bilbao

February 4, 2012

The Basque city of Bilbao is fascinating from more than one point of view. However, the cultural life is certainly one of this fascinating aspects, as the Guggenheim Bilbao really changed the life of this community in so many respects and, beyond any accusations of cultural imperialism, of corporate use of great art etc., remains a strong example of the way a cultural institution can function within a local context without overwhelming it, but rather elevating it, to some extent, to international attention. The recent show Brancusi – Serra and the fairly concomitant Antonio Lopez Garcia retrospective at the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts prove these issues convincingly.
In a way, the Guggenheim show was as one would normally expect it to be. Bringing together, in the context of a prestigious venue, two famous artists seems an easily winning situation. However, the risk such an exhibition faces is to be dully monumental, uselessly glorifying and, in the end, meaningless. Brancusi – Serra was no not shielded from such a risk and more than just a few art professionals wondered if there is really something poignant connecting the two stars or if the show is really just a pretext for a Guggenheim show off.
As legitimate as the question is, the answer, I believe, is quite obvious: the exhibition was really more than a show off, as it was challenging and articulate, as well as enlightening for some major aspects of the artists’ productions and for some significant correspondences between them. It straightforwardly underlined the most obvious common denominator between the two, namely their fascination with metal, yet managed to stress that Brancusi’s passion for shiny metal is far from being an exclusive one. Also, the exhibition adequately stressed the inherent, core formalism residing within the artistic production of both the Romanian and the American artist. Still, it aptly managed to also suggest, if not plainly claim, that a certain conceptualism is not only present in, but rather crucial for both the oeuvres at hand. It is, if you want, a kind of avant la lettre conceptualism in the case of Brancusi and a downright conscious and, one could say, ambitious conceptualism in the case of Richard Serra. But, first and foremost, what brings the artists together and the Guggenheim show emphasizes it, what fundamentally underlies the work of both the fiercely vanguard, modernist one and the seemingly typical, yet, in fact, complicated to grasp contemporary other is hubris, is undeterred sturdiness deployed in order to say something essential about mankind and the world, about form and the physicality of special relations, is the strong and probably naïve belief that art / the artist can actually “speak out” something that can constitute an essence.
Now, Richard Serra is as iconic for the museum in Bilbao as it is its architect himself, Gehry. Serra’s huge steel pieces form an impressive (semi)permanent installation at the parterre of the building since the opening of the venue. Their sheer scale is humbling, their shapes are hypnotic and the aesthetic experience they can generate is downright overwhelming, as one can presume that the sculptures are, among other things, aiming to make a point about how “size matters”, in an Aristotelian understanding of the syntagm. They are also accompanied or, better said, enriched by video materials by, with or about the artist, including some essential video works by the American artist from the second part of the sixties, such as Catching Lead, a milestone of both video and conceptual art.
Thus, the overall impression is that of an artist who increasingly moved away from a conceptual standpoint towards an exaltation of physical monumentality, which is somewhat true, yet not all there is about the sculptor’s evolution. And the Brancusi – Serra show underlies precisely this, revealing, simply put, how good can the American be in smaller size works, such as Right Angle Prop, Circuit – Bilbao or The House of Cards. Here, monumentality is not absent, yet somehow muted. Speculation cohabits with formalist simplicity and precision, as the sculptures reveal themselves as complex and subtle metaphors of the fragility of balance and are alluding to danger and catastrophe in a non –  rhetorical manner. They can stand as visual epitomes for a theory of systems, while the images of some of them could function perfectly as logo for, let’s say, an environmentalist organization. Their inherent and calm beauty is seductive without dwarfing the viewer or the space around.
From the oeuvre of Constantin Brancusi, a good, relevant selection of sculptural pieces were chosen for the show. With a good part of his masterpieces present, with some intermediary pieces accompanying them, the viewer was thus able to attain a pretty well rounded and comprehensive image of his artistic endeavours. However, the display of the pieces was not always to the works’ advantage, nor facilitating a fully rewarding visual grasp of them. Some were rather bizarrely lit with spots of light directed onto the works surrounded by dimly lit areas, but this was the smaller problem. The bigger one was that, for security and / or conservation reasons, the spectator’s access in the vicinity of the pieces was limited, somewhat exaggeratedly, in my opinion. Now, I understand a Brancusi can be damaged far easier than a Serra (here’s an difference), still I maintain that in many cases the curators failed to keep the just balance between the need for art to be protected and the need for it to be experienced up close, taken in by the those perceiving it.
Nevertheless, the exhibition made it up, to me at least, for the above mentioned shortcomings with the room dedicated entirely to Brancusi. Here, several metal pieces, including two versions of the Maiastra, The Bird in Space and The Golden Bird,  were exhibited on ridiculously tall pedestals, all above 2,5 metres high. I was first struck by this display as arrogant: the sculptures looked like items to be worshiped. Little by little though, I came to grasp (hopefully) the deeper meaning of this metaphysical and ambitious, risky and almost religious – like arrangement of some of the sculptor’s best endeavours in his struggle for mastering concomitantly the form and the allusion to the absolute. It was staging taken to absurd and yet, after a while, you would realise it fits Brancusi’s ambitions and desires perfectly. The display was a telling reminder of that hubris I’ve spoken before, of the fact that the Romanian artist indeed envisioned his forms as vehicles towards an imprecise and elusive realm of absolute purity. The height of the pedestals was rightly emphasizing not just the essential, ascendant dynamics of the sculptures as such, but also the fact that the artist was aiming at generating a sort of particular dynamics of the soul, with all his mighty ambition and somehow tragic pride. It was Brancusi as I’ve never seen before, but the show convinced me that this is one very adequate way his art could be seen.
Moreover, compositionally (so to speak), as well as from a narrative standpoint, the Brancusi “worshiping room” was an efficient counterpart to Richard Serra’s massive and potentially overwhelming presence in the museum as a whole. It was, if not the only way, certainly a functional manner to give more weight to Brancusi in the context, to balance the heavy Serra parterre of the Guggenheim, which, although not part of the exhibition as such, inherently risked rendering Brancusi’s presence somewhat minor and even somehow accidental.
What Guggenheim showed was a pair of artists that share a lot, yet are, plain and simple, paradigms as such. We deal with two oeuvres that not simply take one’s breath away; more importantly, holding one’s breath, literally and / or figurately, can help taking in the full expressive force of the sculptures. And even the contrast / interplay between the shape of the museum in Bilbao, a building that appears so strangely collated within the urban framework of the city, the sharp edges and thoughts of Serra and the musical and sometimes hysterically sublime lines and utterly unattainable ambitions of Brancusi is in itself relevant for what happened in / to art during the last century.
At the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, there was a totally different, charming and puzzling story, with Antonio Lopez Garcia’s retrospective, literally too big a show for the spaces available at the parterre of the venue, where it was rather crammed. The Spanish artist is quite a legend in his native country, yet not necessarily widely known or recognized internationally; thus, he is somewhat a local hero who never truly made it global. However, he is one of the most prominent representatives of realism in the twentieth century, although his artistic persona, as well as his style and approach to art are highly peculiar and paradoxical in more than one way.
First and foremost, Lopez is a fabulous painter. His apparent (and even somewhat fundamental) lack of appetite for innovation in the medium of painting is stunning, somewhat comparable with Lucian Freud’s and equally deceiving. On the other hand, his paintings, as well as his drawings, are painstakingly produced, some of them taking years to be finished. Just like the old masters, the Spaniard labours relentlessly, on the mental level, first of all, leaving a work aside for some time, thinking and rethinking it and acting upon the canvas, apparently, only when he is convinced that his hand can perform so as to match both his mental expectations and what can be called the beauty of the world, which fascinates the artist in a very primal, unsophisticated way.
He generally approaches rather traditional genres of painting, without attempting to revolutionize them in any way: portrait (especially in his youth), still life, landscape, flowers (mainly during the last two years or so). In the sixties and the seventies, he was working within an art world that was largely dominated by conceptualist stances or by Pop art tendencies. His paintings seem to be untouched by the influences of such artistic proposals. When he paints the interior of a fridge, for example, there is nothing Pop or consumerist about it; rather, Lopez depicts it as an aggressively sensuous bodegon. Surrealism seems to have a more enduring influence upon his work, though, again, it is a fairly oblique one. Some floating figures in his interiors are visible traces of Surrealism, but more important is, from this perspective, his approach of the genre of urban landscape. He paints, repeatedly, Madrid’s Gran Via, for example, from various descending perspectives. He spends months, if not years, trying to figure out how to precisely evoke, using painterly matter, the exact colour tones and the significant compositional landmarks of the reality in front of him. Yet, he depletes –carefully, programmatically– that reality of any human presence: no characters, no cars. His realism turns bizarre, his “world” becomes haunting.
On the whole, his dialogue with art that is contemporary to him seems surprisingly limited. His portraits rather engage in a relationship with artists like Bonnard, his landscapes remind, albeit somewhat remotely, Balthus’s palette and the overall compositional schemes of El Greco’ s views of Toledo. Speaking of El Greco (and leaving aside a discussion about his Greek origins and their influence on his art), Antonio Lopez Garcia’s paintings almost always allude to the Spanish tradition of the medium, although he never actually uses visual quotations, nor stridently visible references. But none of the hereby written can describe the actual sensuality of the painterly surfaces he proposes in the end, a sensuality not completely devoid, sometimes, of a certain kind of enthusiasm and even naiveté. I was watching his recent flower paintings: they are masterfully realized, yet appear so historically obsolete that one can hardly avoid thinking about them as being an elderly master’s game or fun. And still, their sheer visual seductiveness is rapturous and renders irrelevant, once again, such psycho – historical considerations.
Lopez Garcia’ s sculpture poses new problems. Seduced by the smoothness and direct charm of his bidimensional works, one could actually miss the complexity and the awkwardness of his deceitfully straightforward sculptural works and view them as nothing more than mimetic demonstrations of skill. Comparisons with other instances of contemporary realism are also tempting, but somehow facile and not utterly relevant. Thus, his Man and Woman (1968 – 1994!)could be put in relation to the sculptures of Duane Hanson and mostly Segal. However, both these two artist represent characters related to particular contexts. Instead, the two characters of Lopez Garcia seem timeless. The man has the stance of a Greek classic athlete, the woman that of a hieratic Old Kingdom Egyptian sculptures, as their frontality is uncanny and eerily not engaging. They are not particularly beautiful, nor particularly ugly, they have nothing god – like, yet their plain, unadorned physical presence appears like attempting to epitomise banality and finitude as essence of the human condition.
Also, his large baby heads (such as the one titled Day and Night) and other works might somewhat evoke in one’s mind Mueck’s endeavours. But the latter’s works are uncanny by means of sizes and somehow misplaced mimetic accomplishments. Lopez Garcia’s three-dimensional works are bizarrely morbid and sinister, having something downright unsettling about them. These considerations are particularly true as far as these recurrent children figures are concerned, a topic that certainly obsessed him. They look as if the artist wanted, but never actually succeeded in representing them in an affectionate manner or in embeddeding innocence and tenderness into the variously sized sculptures. His children sculptures thus constitute a tough memento mori imagery, rather than a hymn to life and youth, as hardly graspable cruelty and menace are always looming around these “baby faces”.
Perhaps one of many more reasons Lopez never quite made it global is the fact that his art is so awkward and idiosyncratic (and the man looks so incredibly banal!); and that its gets more and more like this, while it also gets increasingly mesmerizing, too, as one scrutinizes it in more and more depth. I can’t stop myself thinking that he will always be a maverick. I mean, if Antonio Lopez Garcia would make into art history –assuming the highly doubtful presumption that such a thing as art history, at least as we know it, will exist in the not so distant future– he would probably fit in the gallery of splendid and uncomfortable marginals, alongside George de la Tour, Balthus and maybe even Bonnard.

For photos of Antonio Lopez Garcia’s exhibition, go to http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.183580061750244.41111.100002947556344&type=3
For photos of Brancusi and Serra’s works, go to Google.