Without getting as much media attention as I expected it to get, the “Mircea Pinte Collection” exhibition at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca has recently ended. The show featured Marius Bercea, Mircea Cantor, Alexandra Croitoru, Adrian Ghenie, Cantemir Hauşi, István László, Victor Man, Ciprian Mureşan, Vlad Nancă, Cristi Pogăcean, Victor Răcătău, Cristian Rusu, Şerban Savu, Mircea Suciu, Supernova and Gabriela Vanga. It was the first episode – at least so did the organisers, namely the museum and the Plan B Gallery, announced – in a series of shows focusing on the already nationally famous and maybe internationally noticeable collection of the Cluj based businessman and art lover, Mircea Pinte. For everybody who is involved one way or another in the local art scene and who does not have a direct access to the collection, the exhibition represented a first hand opportunity to assess the vision it is built upon and to get a glimpse not only at the collector’s taste, but also at the quality of the advises he gets.
It is by now rather common knowledge that showing private collections of contemporary art in public institutions has become a quite frequent practice in the art world during the last decade. It is also one of the most controversial exhibiting practices. Quite heated discussions took place regarding the ethical issues involved by this kind of shows. For many in the art milieu, the main, if not sole, actual beneficiaries of these exhibitions are the collector and the galleries representing the artists involved in these shows. They have thus been many times criticized as merely market instruments, and not only by leftist critics or activists, who would “naturally” distrust and even hate the (art) market altogether. A similar recent and prominent event, which triggered significant art world booing, was the “Skin Fruits” show at the New Museum in New York, consisting in a display of works of “big names” from the collection of Dakis Joannou. Curated by Jeff Koons, the A – list exhibition prompted several high profile art professionals to accuse the institution that it has moved from presenting mostly young, often spectacular but seldom truly meaningful art to succumbing to market “hipness”.
In principle, “Mircea Pinte Collection” at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca is a show that can be easily suspected of all the above mentioned malice. The involvement of the commercial gallery (for, there is no way I’ll by the claim that Plan B is an artist run space, which is sometimes purported) in the action is consistent and definitely explicit. We are talking here about a gallery which officially represents nine out of sixteen artists in the show and has occasionally collaborated with almost all the others. From this point of view, the exhibition, should a few artists have been left aside, it might just as well have been titled “Plan B artists in Mircea Pinte’s Collection”. Furthermore, the curators of the exhibition were Călin Stegerean, director of the museum and Mihai Pop, co – director of the gallery. So, assessing these plain facts, the exhibition looks like an already classic example of a museum show that might be suspected of serving rather the commercial interests of a private gallery and of a private collector, by institutionally canonizing artists and artworks they are directly interested in, than the interest of its public(s).
But assessing things in principle is never enough for a fair and relevant evaluation of a cultural action. Understanding the context is at least as important in that regard. Thus, one has to remember that Romania’s situation is significantly different from that of the western art world, as far as institutional roles and relations are concerned. Cluj is obviously not New York, the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca is far from being The New Museum, and there’s a huge difference between Mircea Pinte and Dakis Joannou. As director Călin Stegerean stated, the artists in the show have attained already a significant level of professional success and public visibility outside Romania. The commercial interests of Plan B and of the collector would certainly be better served by actions abroad than by local museum exhibitions. From this perspective, I am for example absolutely convinced that the future Ghenie solo show at S.M.A.K in Gent will have more lucrative consequences, if well realized, than the show he had in M.N.A.C. in Bucharest. Moreover, many of those Cluj based artists present in the exhibition are unfortunately not as largely known by the local or regional public as they probably should be, and therefore the show has a normalizing dimension to it, which is something to be appreciated. Finally, there is an increasing and genuine public interest for Mircea Pinte’s collection and the exhibition organised at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca was a coherent consequence of such an interest. All these being said, I believe the show served public interest properly, although it is hardly deniable the fact that it was also of service for Plan B and Mircea Pinte.
One of the strongest effects the exhibition had upon me was to remind me once more what a compelling artist Ciprian Mureşan can be. Leap into the Void, after Three Seconds, the witty restaging from 2004 of the Yves Klein’s famous (conceptual) photograph remains, I believe, not just a representative work for Mureşan, but also one of the rightfully iconic art works of the decade produced in Romania. It is really one of that images that can say more than a thousand words, speaking both about the Romanian contemporary art scene at the time and about artists’ historical status in contemporary society. Choose …, the video piece showing us a beautiful, shy boy pouring in the same glass Coca – Cola and Pepsi and then drinking the mix, doesn’t just enact, “from a marketing point of view … an apocalypse”, as curator Mihnea Mircan rightly states in the brochure – type catalogue of the show, but also brilliantly demonstrates Mureşan’s exceptional conceptual creativity and ability to find just the right visual shape for a simple, meaningful artistic idea.
Adrian Ghenie was present in the exhibition, besides two of his best paintings (greyish, subtle and hypnotic), with a sample of that section of his artistic production that was unfortunately absent from his show at the National Museum for Contemporary Art last winter, namely his so called studies. The piece in Mircea Pinte’s collection that was displayed, Study for Flight into Egypt I, is arguably the most impressive example in the artist’s portfolio of such insightful collages of print and paint that reveal the genuinely and painstakingly creative efforts underlying his art.
Cristi Pogăcean is the most consistently represented of the artists in the museum show, and the viewer has the opportunity to get aware of or to remember the most impressive qualities of his art: wit, poignancy, concision. The Abduction from the Seraglio, the wall carpet referring to the still unclear episode of the abduction of three Romanian journalists in Iraq, became iconic for his production, although it has a significant flaw: it requires just a bit too much contextual knowledge from the viewer, in order for its meaning to be fully grasped, than what one might coin as “the average international viewer” would normally posses. Breaking heart, the gold medallion in the shape of Romania and Moldavia’s maps, is a sharp commentary not only on the political situation of those countries as such, but also on the mythologies and utopias governing the Romanian political imaginary. Still, it is Lead his major work in the show. The hard, lead cast and silently menacing helmet finally does away with the anecdotic and constitutes an utterly compelling metaphor of the hidden dangers lying behind utopias and of the brutality as result of the lack of reflection.
Marius Bercea was present with just one work, but it was enough to display the strength of his painterly endeavours. During the last four years or so, his semantically rich painting has become increasingly daring and seductive, evolving from carefully constructed, usually small size and neat figurative compositions to a much looser and forceful approach of the painterly surface. He skilfully deploys formal traits that remind one of drawing, while at the same time retaining a melancholic and eerie atmosphere that vaguely evoke both Watteau’s uncanny morbidezza and Wyedth’s coolness.
As for Mircea Cantor and Victor Man, at least some of their displayed works were likely to persuade almost any contemporary art aficionado that for solid reasons they are considered by many to be the top under forty Romanian artists. If I’ve seen better painterly works of Man than what was displayed at the museum, it is equally true that three funerary ceramics (Untitled, 2008) reproducing consecutive scenes from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s film, Nosferatu, form a truly extraordinary art work. It was by far the best work in Romanian’s pavilion at the Venice biennale in 2007 and continues to stand as delightful proof of Man’s ability to equally master mystery and directness and to embed ontological dimension into the realm of the narrative. Although Cantor’s video pieces were absent, his works in the show were revealing a strong artist. Diamond Corn especially, the life size corn made out of cast crystal, is a witty and eye stopping object: it is an oxymoron which functions like a meditation about the nature of contradictions; it is an implausible moulding together of the exquisite and the commonplace, of the mythological and the everyday.
All in all, “Mircea Pinte Collection” at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca was an invigorating show. It demonstrated that intelligent, meaningful collecting of contemporary art can be done in Romania (for example, it is absolutely remarkable how many of the works in the collection are really highlights of the featured artists’ production). It convincingly underlined the development of the art scene in Cluj and proved that the city has become quite a hot spot on the map of international contemporary art first of all thanks to the sheer quality of the artistic production of Cluj based or related artists. Also, it is absolutely praiseworthy for the exhibition that it managed, as I believe and hope, to persuade viewers that Romanian art, besides its fascinating and often tormented past, also has a risky, but certainly challenging and promising future; and the artists Pinte has been collecting so far are quite likely to be part of it.