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/

Cluj has witnessed during the last year or so a series of exhibitions which were meant to bring to public attention or to offer the public a better, more in depth understanding of prominent Romanian artists mostly active from the early seventies to the mid – nineties, yet not really acknowledged by the Romanian contemporary art milieu, or not really known by the Cluj art public, during the last two decades. This effort of “recovering” artistic production which presumably deserved more attention than it actually got involved both public and private art institutions. The most important such endeavours can be easily recounted: Florin Mitroi’s show at the Casa Matei Gallery of the University of Art and Design, Sorin Campan’s solo exhibition at Plan B Gallery, “The One Punishing Oneself”, featuring Stefan Bertalan, Florin Mitroi and Ion Grigorescu at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca (it must however be pointed out that Grigorescu had already been gaining a status of widely shared professional recognition by the time of the show). Still, for the local artistic community and for its sense of identity, the most important such exhibition so far is, in my opinion, the recent solo show of Ioachim Nica’s works, also hosted by the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca and titled “Drawing”.
Curated by Alexandra Sirbu and being by far the most important, the most complex and the most difficult curatorial task the young curator has assumed up until now, the show is, in my opinion, a more than welcomed initiative of the institution, an endeavour which truly contributes to the fulfilment of its role within the (artistic) community by bringing forward the production of one of the most challenging “father figures” in the Cluj art milieu. For many, especially for many those belonging to the young generation of art professionals, Ioachim Nica was, until this exhibition, little more than an elusive legend. For some, it was really nothing but a name. He was talked about, for sure, but his work has hardly been visible during the last decade, which was a very eventful time for the Cluj art scene, at least in the context of public appearances. He was often discussed about as being a formidable teacher, an opinion almost unanimously shared by his former students and colleagues who had spoken to me about him. Thus, even the exhibition’s catalogue, also authored by Alexandra Sirbu, begins with a text by Calin Stegerean, director of the museum, which is mostly a sentimental, yet touching tribute to Nica as charismatic professor. He was acknowledged as one of the important rectors of the art academy in Cluj, a position he held during the turbulent and confusing Romanian nineties. Those who had the chance to see his art were, in a large majority, deeply impressed by it, by their own accounts, though few of those to whom I discussed about it were actually able or willing to detail or to substantiate their admiration. Ioachim Nica’s role in the developing of the local art world seemed to have been significant, yet not very clear, while his art was revered, though paradoxically hardly visible and barely talked about, in comparison with his career in teaching and academic leadership.

Given the above described situation, the exhibition at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca was first of all a chance for Nica the artist to directly get in contact with a public whose attention he hasn’t got for some time now. For me and many others, it was a chance to get a glimpse at the legend and to measure the true value of his artistic production against the legend itself. In these circumstances, it was for me a bit of a surprise that the show didn’t quite create a stir: so far, debate around it is rather scarce, media reaction was modest and critical opinions expressed with regard to it were almost completely absent. The unanimous opinion of the Cluj art world seems to be that the exhibition is a good thing, something that it should have happened, yet almost nobody seems eager to truly assess it, to try to axiologically pinpoint Nica’s place in the recent history of Romanian or of local art. Clearly, the Cluj art world is more preoccupied with other –more important, more fashionable or more pressing– issues, whatever those might be, than with paying focused attention to a forerunner who seems to keep slowly slipping away from public awareness.
However, the exhibition presented the public a genuinely inquisitive artist, possessing an overwhelming passion for the expressive power of drawing and a strong belief in the value of art as such. Seeing the retrospective show made me first of all understand why talking about Ioachim Nica is more comfortable than talking about his art: that is because his art (at least the drawings present in the museum’s rooms) represent an art which is rather hermetic and kind of mysterious, difficult to semantically decode and rather resistant to hasty evaluations.

The selection was comprehensive and quite broad, consisting of fifty good, mostly intriguing pieces. Still, some of them stood out as highlights of the show. Among those were the series of works titled Witness, in which antique and fragmentary architectural vestiges are firmly drawn and are thus invested with a strong presence. The “technicality” of the represented object is geometrically emphasised by the straight lines which are clearly evoking the outlines of architectural sketches. Yet, their presence is somewhat haunting and they retain an unreal quality as the image hovers in between the realm of the figurative and that of the abstract, between the mimetic and the phantasmal. A romanticist vein is clearly visible in these works, as it is in many of his drawings which are tensely trapped between the rational and delightful tyranny of geometry and the frenzy of the liberated, vigorous and vaguely evocative lines and patches. In the case of another “family” of works, comprising drawings like The Golden Ratio, Expired Time, Torso or the breathtakingly gentle and subtle Study Theme, the pencil seems to barely touch the surface of the exquisitely elegant, tempera prepared paper. The empty spaces dominate the composition, rendering all the more charming the delicate outlines of the depicted banal objects: spikes of wheat, a bunch of quills, apples, sometimes accompanied by vigorously, yet orderly written short notes. They are beautiful works, as simple in their sheer beauty that they appear almost mystical. Still, by far the most eye – catching works in the show were Rotulus I and Rotulus II, two rolls of paper, only 21 centimetres high, yet over six meters and respectively sixteen meters long. The figurative and the abstract, text and image, patch and line concur to generate a whirlpool of visual stimuli. Graphic signs are at times feverishly scribbled, while in other places precise –one could say even disciplined– gestures modulate the paper’s surface. A truly musical, rhythmical quality unfolds from these cryptic journals, realised by the artist by successive, attentively composed and juxtaposed interventions during a period of more than ten years. More than any others work in the show, the Rotuli probably deserve the title of self-portraits, in a true and profoundly diachronic meaning of the term.
Going through the exhibition’s catalogue can make one aware that Ioachim Nica is very different, in terms of career development, from what most members of the professional field today would understand by being a contemporary artist. In the beginning, I was stunned by the realization that, during more than fifty years of artistic activity, no more than seven solo exhibitions highlighted his career, in places as bizarrely diverse as the Palffy Palace in Wien, the “Rom – Art” Gallery in Braunschweig, Accademia di Romania in Rome or the Clinical Hospital for Adults in Cluj. He was present in dozens of more or less coherent group shows, he illustrated books and realized more or less political posters, however this pace of one solo show in approximately seven years seems uncannily slow today. Much of this situation is due to the specific socio – political and cultural circumstances of the communist decades, when most and certainly the most significant of his works were produced (one can easily remark that all the drawings in the museum show date from the interval between 1972 and 1987), and to a certain understanding of art and regulation of the artistic system resulting from those circumstances. But seeing his art significantly contributes to the impression that, in his case, the scarcity of public appearances is also due to his personal convictions regarding art. One can imagine Nica as a feverish perfectionist, as an artist that takes his time in conceiving his work. One can suspect a deeply paradoxical humility here, one that strangely nears inflated pride: he is reluctant to show anything that he considers not being close enough to the status of masterpiece. He is most likely to be an artist with a religious–like approach of the field of art and with a priest-like approach of his own artistic production.
In the end, one can hardly escape the impression that Nica’s art is not intended to address art lovers, but art devotees; and these are probably fewer and fewer not only in Cluj, but worldwide. This bold and assumed, maybe utopian and vain, but definitely proud appeal to a common shared devotion is concomitantly his art’s touching strength and its unavoidable weakness. Yet, out of this tension between its strange force and its inherent fragility stems the most important quality of his art, namely its ability to generate perplexity.

Photos by dr. Feleki Istvan