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.

Kicsiny Balazs is one the most prominent Hungarian artists today. He is mainly renowned for his Venice Biennale pavilion from 2005, when he was chosen to representHungary, a pavilion that was truly on of the best of that edition. But his career and oeuvre are far too complex to be reduced to this single, albeit quite spectacular endeavour, spanning more that twenty – five years of significant presence both on the Hungarian and on the international art scene.

At a first glance, the best term to describe Kicsiny’s artistic production might appear to be “installation art”. But, with him, just as an anthropomorphic shape is never simply a sculpture, in the classical meaning of the word (namely, a three – dimensional art object that is to be admired), an installation is never simply an ensemble of shapes that come together to produce meaning. Thus, his installations address the viewer in a very engaging manner, sometimes looking like frozen performances, other times like uncanny props from a theatre show of a director passionate about surrealism. In a way, most of his major works, from Winterreise to Migrating Interpretation, from Permanent Landing to Exact Time, relate to the notion of performative utterance, in the very direct meaning of the concept. Thus, they are present and they act by their presence itself, they do something in the world, rather then saying something about it to the viewer. In other words, they tend to generate experience, rather than meaning.

For his first solo show in Romania, Kicsiny Balazs proposes, at Bazis gallery from the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj, a project that reveals precisely the above mentioned characteristics of his art. Titled The Art of Self – justification, the show at Bazis touches on topics such as the relationship between signs and interdictions, the conventional character of communication and the oppressive nature of power, manifested in standardization. An immersive installation, Kicsiny’s project represents, at the same time, an open invitation to reflection on such issues and a challenge addressed to the spectator to go beyond visual pleasure or fascination, in order to take a glimpse at the menaces it alludes to.

The installation comprises five anthropomorphic figures rather dimly lit by a light bulb placed just above the centre of the quite regular composition of the work. Four human silhouettes, wearing fluorescent vests and strange, bucket – like or hive – like helmets over their heads, each perform somewhat mysterious, yet eerily banal gestures using the two small flags with black and white squares they hold in their hands. The four surround a downed character, faceless and entirely covered in black and white squares, as two buckets presumably recently emptied of paint are lying on the floor, just next to this strange body. One is white and has the word fekete (Hungarian for black) written on it in black letters, the other one is, yes, black and has the word feher (Hungarian for white) written on it in white letters. The dim light engulfs the whole scene and provides the ensemble with an eerie quality, making it appear somewhat ritualistic and at the same time intriguingly menacing.

The most characteristic features of Kicsiny’s art are displayed by the immersive installation at Bazis. Among them, it is truly striking the carefully planned, one rightfully suspects, semantic ambiguity they rely upon. In this respect, the conscious choice of visual elements that embed a particularly broad symbolic content, which makes the artwork susceptible to various hermeneutic approaches, can be probably considered to be one of the most prominent strength of the Hungarian’s art. Take into consideration the black and the white, for example. In a certain context, in a certain socio – political environment, the viewer might be immediately tempted to read their use as a reference to racial issues. Change the context and allusions to colliding social ideologies or historical theories might appear to be the main signified in the mind of many (it suffices to think about “white Hungarians” and “black Hungarians” and to the potential for generating controversy such notions possess). But, equally justifiable, in almost any context, more or less corny, more or less existentialist reflections on the fundamental duality of human nature and of the complementary condition of opposites can be encouraged by the same visual items, as there is a perpetually ambiguous interplay between the realm of the political and that of the metaphysical that occurs in Kicsiny’s works.

The same goes for the use of the other elements composing the installation at Bazis, like, for example, the strangely hooded human figures. Are they to be viewed as metaphorical figures signifying communicational conventions that, on one hand, make civilization possible and on the other hand narrow the possibility of unconventional, emotionally charged communication? Or are they rather epitomizing the oppressive character of conventions, stemming from the very abstractness and arbitrariness of power, in a Foucauldian perspective? Are their flags, with their uncanny stillness, semantically alluding to interdictions, to guidance or the somewhat morbid meaninglessness of parades? All these interpretations are equally at hand for the spectator, but it is precisely their equal degree of availability that kind of makes the hermeneutical choice either impossible or futile. The semantic richness, as well as the semantic fuzziness, is emphasized by the discrete lighting of the frozen scene. There is no melancholia caused by the shabby light, but rather we are confronted with an almost irritating, unreservedly staged atmosphere of film noire.

Summing up, one could say they Kicsiny Balasz’s work incites the viewer to a tantalizing search for meaning and for metaphor, while at the same time engulfing him or her in the ambiguous atmosphere of the installation itself, one that rather provokes a feeling of unease than gets one’s mind to reflect upon conceptual issues. Thus, for this and all the above reasons, his art displays perversity as its core feature. It is not a malevolent type of perversity and certainly not a sensorially based or related one. Rather, we are faced with a sort of almost purely intellectual perversity, as his works manipulate the viewer without even possessing a specific target of the manipulation they operate. What his installations, The Art of Self – Justification included, perform is a highly paradoxical open ended manipulation, in the case of which one is eerily left to “freely” opt for the particular direction towards which he or she prefers to be manipulated. In a way, all the leads provided by the artwork are equally rewarding paths and dead ends. Nevertheless, this is probably the kind of perversity embedded, more or less obviously, in any artistic endeavour that is truly problematic, without screaming its problematic status out loud. And I suspect that the playful, intellectually sparkling and calmly confident Kicsiny I’ve met in Cluj is quite pleased with this outcome.

 

For video of the installation, go to http://www.bazis.ro/GALLERY%20BAZIS/Kicsiny%20Balazs%202011/KicsinyBalazs2011.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2011 Cluj Overview

October 15, 2011

As I live in Cluj for quite some time now, I had several times the opportunity to hear various people, especially those who really feel for the city, that Cluj is the most beautiful in October. In several ways, indeed, this is the month when the city boosts back to life, with its stream of students flooding the streets again, with traffic getting annoyingly, yet lively busy, with the particular Autumn light being shed on its more or less history embedding buildings. And, of special interest for art lovers and professionals, at least in the last few years, the “exhibitions season” starts, usually with a roar.

I’m pretty disappointed with the current debut of October from this latter perspective. The Paintbrushes Factory, which undoubtedly became, during the last couple of years, the city’s most important venue for displaying, promoting and discussing contemporary art practices, hosts at the moment four new exhibitions and yet, on the whole, their quality is rather dubitable and their consistency is rather thin. Financial burdens and (internal) communicational mishaps and problems took their toll. Thus, generally speaking, I couldn’t shake the impression that most of what was offered was not only low budget, but also “screamed” low budget disturbingly loud, while pretending it doesn’t do that. And I don’t think that this little psychological charade is meaningful in any way. Also, one could notice that the evening of the openings attracted some fewer viewers than usually present in the venue at such collective, wide range events. It may not be very important, but it impeached a bit on the rather cheerful, positive atmosphere that the Factory normally creates, as did the apparent and regretful demise of two art spaces in the art centre, namely Laika and Zmart.

Plan B Gallery did surprisingly little to actually promote their current show, namely the Korsakow installation titled Vergessene Fahnen (Forgotten Flags) by the German artist Florian Thalhofer. The show wasn’t even announced on the gallery’s website by the evening of the opening. Many people present at the Paintbrushes Factory that evening found out on the spot that there is a show at Plan B. Is it that the gallery itself views the current display as an intermezzo rather than a serious exhibition? It wouldn’t be the first time and it is certainly understandable, yet a slight dissatisfaction remains after nurturing this thought. In fairness, one should acknowledge that the main organizer of the show was the German Cultural Center in Cluj. However, Plan B is hardly the kind of gallery that just puts its space at disposal for various events. Thus, any show taken place here is naturally considered to be, on way or another, endorsed by the gallery, with responsabilities following from this.

Anyway, the work uses a specific filmic procedure, the above mentioned Korsakow system (an open source software that allows users with virtually no technical expertise in cinematic or programming techniques to create database cinema), invented by the author himself, to investigate the complex and often contradictory relationship the Germans entertain with their national identity and with its most powerful visual symbol, namely the national flag. Thalhofer interviews various people who kept unfurling the flag months after the end of the football world cup in 2006, while most of their compatriots had them taken down. The interviews reveal a vast array of attitudes of German people towards the idea of national identity, from pride to doubt, from the self assuring affirmation of the German citizen of Turkish origin that he is German to the feeling of fundamental and unsolvable rupture between East and West Germany expressed by a former GDR citizen.

The work is somewhat insightful and often funny. It is a good, albeit loosely produced, documentary, cleverly done by one of the rightfully praised Berlin based film makers. It circumscribes its subject quite coherently and at times it even manages to reveal some crucial, somehow recurrent items of the German perception of their contemporary identity. But this is pretty much all there is to it. It is not a mind-blowing documentary and, if one actually reflects upon it, it becomes plain that it is rather predictable. It sheds light on clichés that anyone would have guest they exist, without watching the Thalhofer’s film. It is frustratingly neutral: no controversy can be born out of this filmic piece and hardly any meaningful debate. If the installation is intended to cross the border between documentary film and media art, as claimed in the event schedule released by the Paintbrushes Factory, well, it fails to do so, as one shouldn’t simply equate media art with media technique, albeit generous in intention and somewhat democratizing in its effects. Don’t get me wrong: it is a coherent, decent show. But the problem is that being decent is a bit (or much?) too little for Plan B and disappointing for many viewers. That is a problem that naturally occurs when you are, undisputedly, the best Romanian gallery and the only one truly able to round up with some serious contenders on the international contemporary art market.

Sabot Gallery has managed by now to become known for its appetite for conceptually daring, sometimes deeply problematic shows, and they are to be respected for that. One outcome of such a situation is that when they get it right, they make delightful shows (I would still, without hesitation, rate their Being Radu Comsa show among the best four, five exhibitions I’ve seen in Romania during the last five years or so). The downside is that when they don’t quite get it right, the result can be drastically unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, this is the case with the current exhibition, the elegant, yet verging on the realm of pointlessness solo show of the Italian artist Stefano Calligaro. Now, I do understand that Calligaro is a convinced minimalist and that he strives for not turning all my nothing into something, as the exhibition’s title plainly states. However, his small, minimalist objects and pseudo-images (a small black circle on a piece of paper, some little bowl – like shapes on the floor, a folded carrier bag, another small circle made of plastic) looked lost in the rather big space of Sabot Gallery. The space itself turned from simply rather big into deserted looking, certainly a bit desolating.

I also understand that Calligaro is trying to rather leave marks than to create objects or images, which can be a very fruitful way of approaching art. Yet, such marks would need to be challenging, intriguing or intellectually stimulating. The Italian’s don’t compellingly possess, at this moment at least, any of these qualities. I had (yes, childishly, but with no harm intended) the idea of placing a small, rounded pretzel on the floor, in the show. A playful friend of mine enthusiastically carried out the idea. The pretzel fit in so smoothly, that, before being removed, some visitors were observed discussing about its particular meaning in the display; I’m not sure this makes for a plea in favour of its forceful versatility … All in all, one can say, regarding the show, that, well, we all know by now that, many times, less is more, but this is just a bit too much.

At Clujest, British photographer David Sutherland presented The Orange Way. Still and Moving Pictures 2011. Some four thousand pictures of the city of Cluj were taken by the artist after he arrived here by bus (an Orange Ways bus), printed in minuscule size, set in a metal frame and displayed along a video projection of the same type of images. They were supposed to offer a non – touristy approach of the city and offer somehow a fresh view on it. They don’t. They don’t challenge the viewer in any way, except maybe by making him or her try to guess where this or that picture was taken. Move the show to Berlin, Poznan, Granada or Craiova and you’ll be left with even less. Yes, it is a good photographic diary of a feverish traveller and many of the photos don’t lack charm. But these features alone would hardly guarantee a meaningful show, as randomness kicks in hard to downplay its insightfulness.

The Bazis Gallery, one of the latest new comers in the Paintbrushes factory community managed to propose maybe the most consistent show of the evening, featuring Betuker Istvan and Lidia Tropea. The rather small, serious and yet somehow coquette exhibition is titled Vulnerable and it brings together several elegant, though quite sombre paintings by Betuker and four photographic portraits of the same old woman by the Italian photographer and video artist Tropea. Both artists tackle issues like death and human frailty, in strong images, though I wouldn’t go as far as to consider Tropea’s photographs really outstanding in any way. Still, they coherently pair Betuker’s works, for which the main encompassing concept seems to remain that of the uncanny (to which also many of his previous works tend to refer to) and the haunting signified is the disturbing, remote, yet omnipresent menace of death in everyone’s life. Technically solid, as usual in his case, Betuker’s paintings embed a Romanticist vein and challenge the viewer to make his or her uncomfortable choice regarding what he or she is looking at: a sleeping person or a dead human being.

            Moving from the periphery to the city centre, so to speak, one can check out the contemporary art “offer” of the Art Museum Cluj. Its most recent show is called The Cutting Edge and it presents the visitor with the artistic outcomes of an international art camp organized by the admirably active Act Art foundation in a venue of the University of Art and Design at Belis, in the mountains near Cluj. Exhibiting the outcomes of such a loose endeavour as an art camp is always difficult, in terms of coherence of the resulting show and the exhibition at the museum proves it. It featured no less than seventeen artists, mostly Romanian, but also from Greece, Italy and the United States, belonging to various generations resorting to various media of choice (with a slight predominance of painting, though). Unavoidably, some works were significantly better than others. One could have been impressed by the forceful Cinder Forest of Ioan Sbirciu, a monumental and particularly refined, at the same time, painting, by the visually compelling sculpture of Veres Szabolcs, an exceptionally gifted painter, who’s latest three – dimensional works seem to represent a challenging new phase in his production or the exquisitely delicate painting of Betuker. Remarkable, too, are, for example, the theatrical and sort of morbid staging of yet another dance move in Radu Solovastru’s long ago started tango with the topic of sexuality / pornography, as well as the confirmation of the continuous improvement in the use of painting by Irina Simion.   However, too many of the works in the show were rather dull and the overall effect of the show was not really helped by an ingenious display. Also, as commendable as it is (and it truly is) the fact that the organizers were able to produce a catalogue of the exhibition, it is beyond my understanding what possessed them to write down the artist’s emails instead of any other information about them in it and why couldn’t they avoid to make it look just a bit too much as a pub menu (it’s not just a personal impression, I’ve asked people around and many actually believed, at first glance, that it is a menu).

           The most interesting and compelling exhibition to see in Cluj at this beginning of October undoubtedly is the Quadro gallery’s solo show of key post-war Romanian artist Stefan Bertalan, tilted The Emigrant Clown. The show comprises mixed media works, photography, photo documentation and video pieces, most of which are exhibited for the first time and were produced between 1986 (the year the artist immigrated to Germany) and 1989. From the perspective of the relevance of the art works in relation to a system of thinking about and producing art, specific to this permanently intriguing artist, the exhibition is, in more ways than one, more a “museum show” than a gallery endeavour, which is all the more commendable for Quadro, the gallery also intending to accompany the show with a catalogue that has all the chances to become a crucial instrument for approaching Bertalan’s oeuvre.

In a way, much and yet far too little has been written about Bertalan’s art; as for me, I will not attempt here an overview of his art. I will remark though that the show at Quadro confirms that Stefan Bertalan is one of those artists that can be humble and humbling at the same time, that embed paradox and neurosis in their work with perplexing ease, as they keep feverishly talking about the simple tragedy that is human life. The works on display were produced in a dramatic period in Bertalan’s life, whose immigration to Germany hardly brought him success or even peace of mind. The work that gives the exhibition’s title, presenting a kind of mad picaresque figure, perfectly illustrates the status of an artist that was forced into masquerade by the madness of the Ceausescu regime and by his burdening moral integrity and that gets painfully aware that he can no longer get rid of his saltimbanco self. One can say that the displayed works revolve around two compulsively recurring topics, concomitantly banal and madly broad in their complexity: the “self” and the “world”.

The former appears to be, for Bertalan, defined primarily by parenthood, which is understood, in his mixed technique works on display at Quadro (that are by far the most impressive pieces of the show), I would risk to say, in an almost biblical way, which does not exclude though neither a psychoanalytically grounded sense of trauma nor the presence of simple and moving tenderness. As for the “world”, it is mostly vegetal for Bertalan, who keeps on producing explosively colourful, somewhat apologetic images of the most commonplace plants or simple photographs of tree trunks in winter, for example, in front of which one gets the disquieting and frustrating feeling that there is more to them than meets the eye, but the artist might be the only person that actually knows what that “more” is. As noticed by Andrei Plesu with regard to previous works of the artist (in The Daily Itineraries of Ştefan Bertalan, a 1979 study published in Arta magazine, which might just be the most beautiful text about the artist to date), the propensity towards dissecting and the strong sensuousness are crucial drives of his production. Indeed, they form a schizoid and tensed basis for an art that is, at the same time, annoyingly hermetical and disarmingly simple (a child could, probably, be joyfully fascinated by much of it), downright bizarre and gracefully haunting.

The display of the show is daring, but, unfortunately, not necessarily inspired. Suspending the works above the eye level, along threads of wire, put them on an unwelcome pedestal, rather than transforming them in loosely floating images, which was, I presume, the curatorial intention.  The result was a kind of semantic overcharge that was unnecessary. But one can get over this less accomplished aspect of the show, mainly because, all in all, The Emigrant Clown has the crucial merit of being not just a must see, which it surely is, but also a “must – reflect – upon”.

In the end, I should acknowledge that the overall situation of Cluj in October 2011, from the perspective of its artistic life is, however, significantly better than one might be tempted to imagine reading the lines above. One should notice that the stars of many Cluj based (or “exported”) artists shine brighter than ever on the international art scene, as, for example, London’s new “exhibitions season” includes the two concomitant shows of Ghenie and Bercea at two really important galleries and Serban Savu installed a compelling exhibition in New York, at David Nolan Gallery. From another perspective, a young and intelligently dynamic generation of artists seems to be on the move. The locally famous Atas space was recently reopened and the programme designed for the venue by the ASUAD (the association of the students of the University of Art and Design) sounds promising. The opening show, Cristina Mircean’s Step Back, comprises a neon lights installation, a flickering, dizzying, somehow obsessive art work that could plausibly be taken into consideration as a candidate for the title of show of the month, should such a thing exist, albeit the fact that it downright fails in its announced attempt to question the arbitrariness or the verisimilitude of the moment when an art work is considered to be finalized. The Soimii patriei project (also a venue for very young art) continues and the opening of Nagy Maria – Krisztina’s solo show, It’s Just a dream, Dear is announced for the 20th of October. Iulia Boscu and Maria Balea opened their studio to offer the visitors a complex, cleverly realized, conceptually demanding and a bit overdone, yet still convincing installation, in which the sometimes too rhetoric semantics are fortunately counterbalanced by playfulness and the overall tactile quality of the work.

Also, the following weeks seem to be even more promising. Plan B announced a solo show by Simion Belu Fainaru, a remarkable, far too little known, in Romania, artist of the Romanian Diaspora. Bazis will host a project by esteemed Hungarian artist Kicsiny Balazs, rightfully known primarily for his Venice Biennale pavilion of 2005, one of the best of that edition. Peles Empire and Quadro also intend to propose, rather soonish, ambitious new shows. The Art Museum Cluj finally has a fully confirmed director, namely the capable art professional Calin Stegerean and one is thus entitled to hope to see meaningful contemporary art shows soon in rooms of the old Banffy Palace. So it just might be the case, from the perspective of those written above, that this year Cluj will be the most beautiful in November.

Eating the Beard is the title of the recent retrospective show of Michael Borremans at Mucsarnok Budapest, which brings together some one hundred works of the Belgian artist, comprising works produced in various media, ranging from painting, which is rightfully perceived as his medium of choice, to drawing, video and small scale installations. Curated by the reputed Hungarian curator Petranyi Zsolt, the exhibition is another episode in the institution’s more or less coherent programme of hosting rather large scale, comprehensive and compelling presentations of influential contemporary artists, especially of those whose influence have been or is fruitfully felt by the artistic milieu in Central and Eastern Europe (whatever that might mean). Among previous such events, one can recall Luc Tuymans’s challenging and witty retrospective or Mircea Cantor’s solo show a few years ago.

Michael Borremans is now an artist in his late forties, living and working in the rather small, quite charming and culturally active city of Gent. Although academically trained mainly as photographer, his international fame, or, to be more precise, European recognition –since the artist is still not widely acknowledged in the U. S.– is mostly due to his contributions to the media of painting and drawing, which he constantly uses since the mid-nineties. His painting, especially, was largely viewed as an effort to meaningfully put at work traditional means of expression used by the practitioners of the medium and to produce contemporary relevant painting while using painterly approaches that relate to old masters such as Manet, Velasquez or van Dyck. Sign of historical nostalgia or not, the sheer pleasure or manipulating the painterly matter or the drawing charcoal in order to obtain visually seductive results has become, for many in the contemporary art world, an essential feature of his art.

Commenting on the show’s title, Petranyi writes: “As we know, hair is indigestible. Cats cough up the hair they swallow while cleaning themselves… Therefore, as we see now, the title of Michael Borremans’s exhibition stands for the <almost impossible>”. However, when one looks at the actual painting that borrows its title to the show, depicting a young girl presumably trying to swallow something that looks like hair, it is not the attempt to realize something that is almost impossible that comes to one’s mind. Rather, an existential, hallucinatory nausea is suggested, as the girl might be perceived just as well as vomiting, for example. That nausea is subtly pervading his entire body of work, while ideas of manipulation, unease, silent and ambiguous danger, cruelty, frailty of human condition and of memory are composing the semantic synopsis of Borremans’s art.

In his paintings, the depicted figures strangely appear as never actually finished, yet almost always polished, somewhat emphatically shiny. It is as if a craftsman would frantically glaze an incompletely shaped piece of ceramics, not having the patience to get the shaping process to its expected conclusion. The eerie resemblance between flesh and porcelain or even marble texture, between the human forms and the realm of the inanimate, resemblance which is not observed, but rather proclaimed by Borremans in his paintings, is a key feature of his painterly language and of his understanding of human existence. Moreover, in his works, be them paintings, drawings or video pieces, the human being is presented either as statue (monumental or decorative) or as puppet, hardly ever as a living being mastering his or her destiny, being in control of his or her live or mental universe. The human being is manoeuvred and designed, is engineered and corrected, is acting out of meaningless automatism, in other words is much more object (particularly, an object upon which power is exerted in an almost foucauldian manner) than subject. The silent and aloof workers in Pupils, probably one of his best works to date, in  their neutral overalls, passionlessly shaping or retouching what seem to be mannequin heads constitute a perfect example of how Borremans understands to approach human condition.

Exquisitely lonely, so to speak, especially when it comes to female figures, like in A2 or The Skirt II, his characters strangely imply that they are not alone; they just calmly strive at epitomizing loneliness, but also imply the presence of surveillance and manipulation. Even when the characters are almost monumentally singular in the painterly composition, they are frequently represented with their back turned to the spectator, who becomes the eye gazing from behind, from the shadows, presumably the eye of the perpetrator or of  the guardian. A step further, in works such as the two versions of The Pendant, a woman’s hair is tied and pulled up vertically, making the characters perfect epitomes of the lifeless puppet hanging at the end of an all controlling string. Thus, after looking at some of his paintings in this category long enough, what one disturbingly realizes is that he or she is unwillingly put in the position of the bearer of menace, of voyeur or of witness to the end result of the process by which the being looses his or her soul (which is the same as loosing his or her life).

Many of Borremans’ paintings and drawings refer, in a more or less direct manner, to the issue of death. His human figures are often depicted in states and in bodily postures that can be just as easily associated with sleep (as the title of his Sleeper painting, for example, directly suggest) or with death. Along with the Sleeper, works like The nude or The case, also present in the Mucsarnok display, perfectly illustrate this ambiguity. The nude presents the viewer with the image of a naked young woman, lying on her back, eyes closed, in a (chromatically) cold environment. It is a bizarre mix between pre-Raphaelite – like drama, involving a Dante Gabriel Rossetti type of Ofelia, and the intriguing, almost cynical coldness of a scene from the CSI TV series. However, all the sensuality has vanished from this body, while the sensuousness of paint is highly poignant. What almost immediately and certainly involuntarily came to my mind as I was watching it was the frightened Haley Joel Osment in the 1999 Sixth Sense picture, as he whispers to the child psychologist interpreted by Bruce Willis: “I see dead people!…”.  The impression lasted in my mind throughout the show and so did the feeling that in Borremans’s universe people are lifeless and matter is alive.

I don’t think it is by chance that associations with movies are tempting when confronting Borremans’s artworks, even, or especially, those which are not video pieces. That is because it seems pretty obvious to me that another crucial rhetoric instrument present in Borremans’ work is theatricality. All his paintings and drawings are somewhat staged, in a way a director or a stage designer might compose a tableaux, as they embed a potential for narrative and for drama. That theatricality is mostly evident in his drawings from The German series or in other works on paper such as his Square of Despair, in which several delicately rendered silhouettes of dead horses are carefully aligned in rows on the ground, while undisturbed people pass by the hallucinatory scene. The Belgian artist seems fascinated both with the man’s uncanny availability to slaughter living beings, as well as with the humans’ sick propensity to assign heroic, epic or sublime motivations and dimensions to their murderous acts.

The sublime and the memory are obliquely approached by Borremans as he deals with monumentality and monuments, which constitute yet another crucial topic in his oeuvre. Thus, projects –or rather sketches– for inexistent and impossible or, at least, highly improbable monuments are recurrent in his works. The above mentioned The German project is a perfect example in this regard. In the drawing The German (part two), a perfectly bourgeois looking clerk or, why not?, intellectual is playing with little objects that look like red dots and retain all his attention. The neutral man is totally oblivious that some other people are regarding (in awe?, fearful?, full of admiration?) his huge image which appears as being projected on an enormous wall. A version of the work in the form of a small scale model for a huge screening in a sort of a plaza was also exhibited at Mucsarnok, with a short video of the man in a suit actually screened within a small glass box attached to the wall.

As it is plain to see, for Borremans, the issue of scale is always fundamental when it comes to monumentality, sufferance and memory. Too big people relate with too small figures so often in his works. A Gulliver – like world is constructed in his images, only it is one with a tremendous potential for cold blooded cruelty. His projected “monuments” overwhelm by far the dimensions of their potential viewers, making one question whether the role of the monument is actually to be seen and understood or just to simply render humans humble and insignificant, to forcefully reshape their memories or to brainwash them. And so, the Belgian’s images make the viewer reflect upon the possibility that all real monuments, at some level, act just like that.

Seeing his video pieces is the best way to understand that Michael Borremans is fundamentally a painter. Each and every possible still from his “films” could be a scene painted by him. Although the image is moving, that visual flow provokes, first and foremost, a sensation of stillness or, better said, stiffness. If the narrative is always uncannily present in his paintings and drawing, it paradoxically faints precisely in his video works. It seems like Borremans is using the camera to investigate the theatre’s scene, while he is painting to construct the actual play.

Never explicit, yet never actually esoteric, the artist from Gent belongs to the same “family of artists” as Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans or, maybe yet on a lesser level of quality, Wilhelm Sasnal. They all use veils and they are all careful to make those veils transparent enough to not discourage the spectator from approaching their art. They all use history to shed a light on something they consider essential about the (presumably transhistorical) human being. And they all use what one might call “elusive painting” in a hopeful, oblique and somewhat perverse attempt to save the metaphorical power and the relevance of the medium under the circumstances of the contemporary world, a relevance one can never be totally sure that they still truly believe in, the way heroic macho painters like Baselitz or Brandl most probably do.

For photos of Michael Borremans works, go to www.zeno-x.com/artists/michael_borremans.htm and  http://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/11/

Take painting as a medium, pop art as an ironic approach and Bucharest as a bottomless visual reservoir for the sleazy, the crammed and the apathetic, mix all these and you get Berceni, Nicolae Comanescu’s show at the Museum of National Contemporary Art. It’s a recap of roughly ten years of the artist’s work as a painter, time over which he conducted a vast study on the social landscape of a post-communist society, still stuck in the chaotic maze of its own transition.

There are a few dozen canvases which can be seen at MNAC, as the exhibition is comprised of various series produced during the past decade. Whether one takes into consideration Grand Prix Remix, Wrong Paintings or Beach culture in Bercsényi, the images are extremly violent as far as color is concerned and almost insulting with regarding to their content. The sheer amount of images done in this manner is, in all honesty, extremely confusing as far as the purpose of this very amounting is concerned, simply because at one point the endeavour actually stops being about the irony and too much about the artist indulging in the topic towards which the irony is presumably pointed at. The pile of works start to sink in a very similar mess to the one they were meant to show, as they become harder to “read “ and even harder to process, as a fair number of images repeat themselves in terms of content, therefore appearing pretty redundant.

Adhering to a sort of uncertain surrealism, most of these frantic images are a result of mixing various sights of Romania’s capital city with representations of pop culture figures or stereotypes, as well as all sorts of reflective quotations drifting around a bunch of odd characters that spring out of nowhere into the painting. As far as the visual aspect is concerned they seem to be dangling somewhere in between Daniel Richter and Jeff Koons, suggesting at times a rabid psychedelic mess and, other times, a rather obvious grin of irony aimed at behavioural clichés and resented mentalities that inhabit  this peculiar environment. The zombie-eyed cats, the crazed city traffic and the delirious settings with blinking signs and street lights, the bizarre palm leaves placed in the middle of a concrete wilderness or the portrayals of cheap summer delights are some of the topics the artist chooses to include in this hysterical circus of everyday trivialities. Of course, all this is topped by the use of an irritating abundance of colour, as he shamelessly saturates everything in highlight tones, disregarding any kind of attempt to please the viewer’s eye. His intent is pretty clear, as this fashion of painting stands in utter opposition to his “dust paintings”, a project conducted around a concept of recycling filth (literally and metaphorically) found in this same hectic environment by using actual dust as a painting medium. The result was a series of extremely pleasing monochrome images which added a very noticeable refined and tasteful factor to the same type of urban scenery that can be seen in the exhibition at MNAC.

As it is a retrospective of the artist’s work, the show sits well inside the museum’s walls, but as a visual spectacle in itself it’s rather overflowing with too much art. It’s hardly pleasurable and rather exhausting. The effect you get is more similar to experiencing an installation than a painting exhibition, simply because it’s extremely difficult to undergo each image in itself, while it’s more likely to submit to the overwhelming flood of this glitzy and quite nauseating depiction of disorder and negligence. Nicoale Comanescu is not being belligerent in these paintings. The best argument of that is the passive stance demonstrated by the obsessive use of views from inside the intimacy of the car and of reflections in the side mirror of sights already passed. All in all, it’s a junction of a lamented passenger’s disgust and his freakishly feverish imagination. But what is more unsettling, is that the endless string of these paintings doesn’t really imply at all a humorous snicker, but a sentiment of resignation and unredeemable acceptance.

 

Text by Adelina Cacio

For photos of the artist’s work, go to http://comanescu.blogspot.com/