Two shows were opened at the Paintbrush Factory on April, the 27th, one at Lateral art space and the other one at Bazis gallery, and, while both young men exhibiting are MA graduates of the painting department of the University of Art and Design in Cluj, their interests, endeavors, and personalities are ever so different, thus making for two very different experiences during the course of one visit.

The Lateral art space is the “new kid on the block” when it comes to the Paintbrush Factory, the artist run space being an independent platform for contemporary art founded by Andreea Ciobica, Dragos Badita, Cristina Curcan, and Lucian Indrei as a place open to collaboration and experimentation. I personally find the initiative quite adventurous and yet necessary, taking into consideration the unfortunate demise of several of the Paintbrush Factory’s spaces. Not to mention that the practice behind an artist-run space always creates a slightly looser atmosphere than a generated by the actions of a gallery and that is a nice thing to see on the art scene.

The inauguration show was of one of its own founders, namely Dragos Badita. The young artist’s main focus is painting, but he used this exhibition to showcase some more experimental work alongside two self-portraits in this normally medium of choice for him. My Body Is Always Here is a show that features the artist’s body, the human body from both a self-referential and a more intimate point of view. It’s by no means just a series of self-portraits, as it also exploits the body as the object that is ever so close, something we can shake off or leave behind, it really is always there, whether we love it or hate it, so we might as well just try to get to know it better.

The show proposes the following: despite our body being our closest and most intimate companion, we seem to take it for granted and we don’t show terrible interest in its means. We drag it along and notice it when it brings us pain, or when it stops us from reaching certain goals. And so the artist tries different means through which to better get acquainted with his own body and its relationship to the world. In this respect, the show contains two self-portraits (head and naked torso) in oil on panel, in which the primary focus is placed upon the nuances of the flesh, skillfully rendered, and set against a brilliant and rather unnatural shade of blue that makes the twisted nudes pop out, vulnerable and alone. With the beautiful use of color these two works bear the mark of an artist who is comfortable and confident about his craftsmanship.

Another part of the exhibition is a series of 9 ink drawings on paper, one containing an explanation, presenting the left hand of the artist sketched during train rides, alongside comments on the environment, or whatever else caught his eye while drawing. These are meant to show us the ever present and available study material that is the left hand. Complex and substantial, always available for a quick sketch so that you can get your (right) hand to practice, anyplace, anytime. The whimsical handwritten comments on the surroundings add charm and give insight into a curious if only slightly bored mind – the fur that caresses a neck, the mole in the cleavage, kids playing outside the window… Random bits of nothingness, they describe a picture made out of probably unessential details that are though rendered important simply because they somehow stuck with you, which, after all, is all that matters.

A long series of bizarre and mysteriously looking prints were displayed on the opposite wall. On a closer inspection, you recognize them as images taken during a medical ultrasound examination of various parts of the body, from “head to toe”. Tens of them, black and white, abstract shapes that might as well be alien… except they are not, they are all too human. The exploration of the body and the invasion of the personal space are taken here to a whole new level.

The show also contained a video piece of roughly one minute long, which I personally found to be particularly good, Heartbeat. An explanatory photograph set up next to the projector shows the artist lying on his back with a camcorder attached to his bare chest. The camera is filming a white wall at full zoom, so that the motion provoked by the beating heart is even greater. The very abstract image, coupled with the movement reminded me for a moment of something you see through a microscope in the seconds you are setting up your lens… shifting in and out of focus. The steady thump and the rhythm fill the room, and you feel as if you are pressed against somebody’s chest for a while, but it’s the cathartic inhaling at the end that really makes the piece. It’s the first time you are fully hit by the previously existing tension that the rhythm was unconsciously imposing. An exercise in breathing, or rather holding one’s breathe in order not to interfere with the movement caused by the heart, I found this video to be both fascinating and endearing.

My Body Is Always Here made for and excellent first show for Lateral and I am sincerely looking forward to their next, wishing them the best of luck. And as for Dragos Badita, although proving to be an excellent painter once again, I found it refreshing that he maybe stepped out of his comfort zone with a nice combination of experiments that were set up in such a clever manner.

The show hosted by Bazis, Dan Maciuca’s Nothing to Hide, brings forth, like I already mentioned, another painter who also on this occasion decided to step away from his familiar medium and tackle his old interests in the form of collages, sculptures, and also video.

Dan Măciucă is well known for his wild, spontaneous canvases, on which thickly applied paint still gives proof of a well-thought chromatic arrangement and composition. The surfaces of his works are rough and textured, and already close to reliefs; his interest in all things having to do with matter: its structure, texture, and ultimately volume, inevitably brought him to outgrow the bi-dimensional plane of traditional painting. In the works shown at Bazis, the artist decided to go even further into translating his paintings to 3D objects, and the result is nothing short of spectacular.

In taking up his older themes and quests and rephrasing them in different media he (literally) adds a new dimension to them, thus they don’t seem to be dull or passé, instead they become more interesting and complex, posing new problems. This just goes to show that digging ever deeper into the same old questions isn’t necessarily something bad, as long as you manage to find surprising and intriguing new answers, this being precisely what is happening here!

The objects used in the collages / sculptures are mainly found and repurposed items such as (plastic) bottles, industrial scraps, pieces of glass and wood, different materials with as many different textures as possible. This offers a new life, meaning, and function to these objects after they have been cast off as useless. The jagged edges offer a raw finish and the colors, although quite similar to the artist’s usual pallet are no longer obtained through physical combination of pigments, but rather found such as they are and then juxtaposed. Another element is the use of commercial magazines, which are found in over abundance all around us and to which we don’t exactly pay attention; here they have taken on other shapes, they’ve become strange landscapes: peaks, valleys, and caves that capture the eye despite their apparent mess.

The show contains three pieces created more or less in this same manner, my favorite of which is the first one on the right-hand side. Its value comes from the fact that it is just perfectly clear in getting the artist’s message across to the viewer, and also I especially liked the uncluttered and very well balanced composition. The work next to it is much more three – dimensional, using bent pipes and wires, while the composition that used various plastic bottles was clear in its simplicity and chromatically exciting. What I found to be an excellent invention for the entire show was the way these three pieces were illuminated. The light-bulb at the end of a tube that is built in the work and hangs above it like some sort of fishing pole creates an amazing lighting for each piece and the entire atmosphere of the show becomes incredibly elegant because of this. Any other lights are turned off, except for the video projector, and the gray walls of the gallery really work to an advantage. The washing machine door, stuck to the wall, has the appearance of a round window that shows you what’s on the other side of the wall. The jumble of clothes inside make for a piece that initially makes you smile, but as you look at the clutter pressed against the glass you cannot help but reference Arman’s Le Plein, albeit a miniature version of it.

A piece that stands out in the show is the world created and contained in what used to be a wooden chest of drawers (by my best guess), now torn open, illuminated from the inside, which it is mainly an excuse to play with as many textures and materials as possible, the shards of glass, the clumps of wool, the leftovers, and so on. It’s a game of differences, but one who’s power I’m afraid was not fully developed, especially since I find it to be somewhat disconnected from the other displayed works.

The video on the other hand is spot on, a journey through a strange land with bizarre geography seen between the flashes of the strobe light. The messy artist studio that is actually presented, the glimpse into what looks like a hoarder’s collection, all rendered much more serious and even slightly disturbing by the addition of the unsettling background noise and the aforementioned usage of the strobe light. This experiment had a really great outcome, with the particular textures, the trickling water aspect, the constant feeling of apprehension you get, as if you are exploring something you should not be seeing. The artist has nothing to hide, even if it’s not the prettiest sight to behold.

With these well constructed experiments, Dan Maciuca proves that he can very well rise above what is expected of him, all the while sticking closely to the path set up by his obsessions. His paradoxically elegant show, along with  Badita’s were two of the best shows I have seen at the Paintbrush Factory for what seemed to be quite a long time. Hopefully their frequency will once again pick up.                                                                                                                                                                                                      Text by Voica Puscasiu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radu Comsa is an artist who evolved in a somehow steady, albeit seemingly rather slow pace during the last decade. Essentially, he moved from being an exceptionally skilful painter, fascinated by what he could actually do with painterly matter on a surface to being an artist increasingly aware of the conundrums generated or catalyzed by the contemporary use of the historically overcharged medium of painting. Still, his development is far from being a passage from, to use Duchamp inspired terms, the realm of the retinal to that of deployment of artistic means towards more or less pure conceptual ends. Thus, his art is constantly starkly visual and the oblique approaches to painting he has been displaying over the last three years or so still appear to be rather pleads in favour of the meaningfulness of painting today, even if they are, nevertheless, critical or inquisitive with regard to various aspects related to the perception of and the social expectations from this traditional medium, which are currently developed by the contemporary art milieu.

I remember encountering Comsa’s art works for the first time some eight years ago. Back then, I was somewhat baffled by the seemingly unabashed way in which he appropriated, one could even say replicated, the painterly manners of star artists of the day (or of the decade) such as Gerhard Richter or Takashi Murakami. The appropriation of such stylistic traits was so plainly visible in some of his paintings at that time that I was, in a way, taken aback and bewildered by the possibility that his trendy epigone – like endeavours might be either so bold or so blissfully unreflective that it would actually be impossible to assess his work solely from the perspective of the (modernist) issue of the originality criterion, as well as from the singular perspective of the postmodernist narrative of appropriation. Anyway, looking back now at that whole situation, I think that my difficulties in interacting with Comsa’s art then were mainly caused by the fact that both me and him (although it may sound paradoxical) were at that moment still overrating both originality and sheer skilfulness.

However, it was clear from quite early in his career that, if his excursions in the medium of painting were going to be truly meaningful, they would have to be underlined by serious reflection upon issues such as style, brand, hype and success, all of them forged or attained via the practice of painting within the context of the contemporary institutional artistic environment. From an adjacent perspective, I tend to believe that Radu Comsa –smart and gentle, insightful, yet sometimes naive– was somehow caught by surprise by the rather rapid and somewhat spectacular rise of the so called (painting) school of Cluj, more precisely by the rise to more or less prominent international visibility of some of his Cluj – based colleagues. However, out of this sort of surprise, conjugated with his previous painting adventures, with the very fruitful and useful to his artistic coming out of age collaboration with Sabot Gallery and with his instrumental role in the functioning of the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj (the artist being strongly involved in the development of both aforementioned institutions) came his splendid solo show in 2010, Being Radu Comsa. In preparation of the show, he secretly produced paintings matching the style and imagery used by some of his more famous, at the moment and maybe even now, Cluj – based fellow artists, such as Man, Ghenie, Savu, Bercea or Suciu, only to exhibit them as a sort of installation at Sabot Gallery.

The show was, in my opinion, a blast: Comsa, the good old chap watching or even assisting his colleagues’ real or inflated success, didn’t go bitter or grumpy over it. instead, he replied by this splendid construction, which was equally a sharp reflection about the “school of Cluj” and a half – amusing, half – acid comment about the nowadays international art system. Unable to meaningfully forge a style, Comsa scavenged his peer’s approaches; having no style, he could possess them all. He finally found a way to put his craftsmanship at work in a way that was truly poignant and deeply (self)ironic. Reviewing his excellent show, back in 2010, I was remarking that Comsa put himself in a risky and open – ended situation and expressed an implicit curiosity regarding what would follow from this situation.

I got my answer with his latest show at Sabot, titled Things as They Are and briefly, yet poignantly described by the organizers as being “the kind of show made by squeezing modern thoughts into a tight space”. The first thing convincingly proven by the exhibition is that Comsa is indeed the artist able to build up Sabot’s best shows to this date. The second and certainly more important thing is that the Cluj based artist has reached a remarkable level of reflexive understanding of the crucial problems facing painting today, as well as the ability to frame them into the broader context of contemporary art at large. The third and also poignant thing highlighted by the show at the Paintbrushes Factory is that Comsa is expanding not just beyond painting as such, but also beyond the current situation of art, trying to glimpse at the complicated and problematic heritage of modernism for a nowadays artist. The result of the combination of the last two mentioned traits is an exhibition that mixes, at conceptual and visual level, values and looks of painting and design, historical references and contemporary dilemmas, juicy colour and minimalist form, hubris and self-irony.

He mainly exhibited objects, of which I don’t think one can speak of as being simply paintings made with more or less unusual materials and techniques. Colourful fabrics were put at work, their choices and juxtapositions reminding one equally of an artist in front of its immaculate canvas and of someone decorating his or her own home environment, more or less stylishly. The largest work in the show consisted precisely in such juxtapositions of fabric patches, together forming a “canvas” almost the size of the gallery’s biggest wall, with almost arbitrarily composed geometric arrangements. Fabric again, dyed in pleasurable, yet subtle tones, that render it mildly sensuous, was used to produce more modest looking objects, somewhat resembling, when suspended between two thin poles, with the gates on a sky slope (Transmuted Painting) or, when actually used to “clad” such a pole, to Cadere’s nomad, painted wood sticks (Squeezed Abstractions). Rectangular pieces of plywood, tied up with thread as if they were packed for transport lay on the gallery’s floor, implausibly replicating a Mondrian (Large Composition with Red …). Abstract wooden objects, their shape evoking snowflakes or vegetable structures were pinned onto the wall on which the words “tender buttons” would be written in concentric circles (Framework). A piece of thin curtain becomes a white on white, bizarrely elegant painting, as it is placed on the gallery’s wall and juxtaposed to a white piece of wood board leaning against it (Circulation of  form).

Finally, the particularly spectacular work included in the show was the video titled Modernist Study for Bust. It depicts the artist himself carefully shaving, then stretching a piece of white fabric / clothing onto the wall of, presumably, his studio, painting it in a tongue – in – cheek,  faux gestural manner, only to wear it as a shirt in front of the camera at the end, while the lower part of his body would be covered by a cardboard box. It is art about art, produced in a truly witty and deeply ironic manner, as it sketches poignantly one of the several possible typological portraits of the contemporary artist. Thus, it is at the same time alluding to and describing the kind of contemporary artist who is caught between his or her inescapable post – modern, alter – modern  or hyper – modern condition (terms are not fully interchangeable, yet the specific differences are not necessarily relevant here) and the nostalgia felt for the modernist hubris, over-sized hope and overrated freedom.

After all, perhaps the exhibition as a whole refers to a certain type of artist, one who has to grapple both with his affectionate approach to traditional media and to painting in particular and with his acute understanding of the paradoxes this later medium is currently riddled with, with the dream of being a star and the self-irony that prevents one from seriously indulging in the reveries of an inflated artistic ego. Things as They Are is finally a show about elegantly (maybe just a bit too elegantly and too predictable, too biennial or common international style – like) mediating between contrasts, fortunately without destroying the essential tensions the artist deals with. Radu Comsa has, in the end, constructed a solid, impressive and even a bit cocky exhibition out of his doubts, hesitations and more or less secret hopes.

 

For photos of Radu Comsa’s works, go to http://www.galeria-sabot.ro/index.php?/project/galeria-1/.

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

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.

The Romanian artist Mircea Suciu has proven during the last years to be an artist able to joggle with several artistic media, engaging them with equal interest and inquisitiveness, from painting to drawing, from installation to what one might call staged photography. However, the artist is still largely perceived, rightfully or not, mainly as painter, and it is precisely the topic of painting itself, namely of its condition as artistic medium and of its translatability, that he obliquely tackles in his show at Laika Gallery in Cluj, titled Full Moon.
The exhibition consists of seven rather large sized drawings in charcoal on paper, one of the most classical forms of graphic art. However, the surfaces of the works possess more painterly than graphic qualities: the blacks and whites and all the grays in between look fluid like paint, they induce in a remarkably realistic manner the illusion, albeit not immediately perceivable for a hurried gaze, of an unctuous surface specific to oil painting. It is as if paintings would have been kind of near-IR photographed, yet not in order to help a process of restoration, but with the ambitious and maybe even utopian purpose of revealing something deeper, acutely meaningful, about their inner existence and essential structure. The colour is expelled from these works only to come back with a vengeance, using drawing as a disguise, as a sort of subversive excuse and also as a challenge addressed to the viewer.
Thus, the substance on the paper performs a double exercise in mimesis. On one hand, the images are recognizable as figurative scenery, they are images of the world in the most immediate meaning of the syntagm. On the other hand, one medium mimics, or rather translates another and by doing this it questions and re-evaluates it. One must not understand from these that Suciu’s drawings are merely vane technical show-offs. Rather, they are the result of an acutely sincere endeavour of an artist fiercely aware of the problematic character of a traditional medium in the context of contemporary art, a medium which is nevertheless considered by the artist to remain relevant in the highest degree. From this standpoint, the whole exhibition appears as a difficult, yet successful and visually arresting attempt to confront and exorcise the inner demon of doubt that haunts a truly inquisitive and dramatically serious artist.
The images themselves are at the same time strongly metaphorical and open to the realm of the narrative, they are apparently easy legible, yet actually subtle. They equally offer the viewer the possibility of looking at them, getting the obvious metaphorical point, be pleased and move on and that of taking the time to scrutinize them and to use them as starting point for building several alternative narratives of her or his own. Thus, Suciu’s drawings possess the remarkable quality of being demanding and semantically reach, on one hand and apparently unproblematic, on the other hand. Confronted with this paradox, ultimately, the spectator has the choice: the works’ substantial and diverse potential is always within reach, but the viewer’s patience and reflexivity are required in order for that potential to be fully grasped.
The “dress code”, so to speak, is of crucial importance for understanding Suciu’s metaphors and intentions. The uniform or the standardized clothing, which are almost omnipresent in the works displayed at Laika Gallery, unavoidably make one think of discipline and of institutions. In the visual universe that Mircea Suciu has built up in Full Moon, it seems like they are viewed as the most important items circumscribing and regulating the world. The standardized characters he depicts don’t seem to feel handicapped by their regimentation and they do not act as they would feel oppressed by their somewhat rigidly fixed condition. They are acting rather naturally, fulfilling their social tasks and roles with a certain detachment and making the social order they epitomize look like it would be the natural order under which human beings function.
Indeed, although the images on which the drawings are based upon all belong to a time span of less than seventy years (from the beginning of the 20th century until the late sixties), there is something timeless about Mircea Suciu’s works. There is also a conscious refuse of, lets say, geopolitical specificity in his black, white and gray charcoal paintings. As a result of the two above mentioned features, the viewer can imagine most of the depicted scenes taking place just as plausibly in the American early forties, in the Nazi Germany, in communist Romania just after the Stalinist period or even in colonial Algeria. Thus, for an attentive eye, the works appear to boldly strive for universality. Their real, encompassing topic is human behaviour and the human tendency to perpetuate patterns of behaviour in various epochs and geopolitical circumstances. And although the images are somewhat cool and aloof, there still is something mildly, yet irritatingly and genuinely menacing about them. One of the most impressive qualities of these works is precisely that: although they strive for universality with a good chance of reaching it, they are also subtle, yet ominous reminders of the bitter truth that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, with mostly tragic consequences.
Yet, there is hope. This is made perfectly legible by the most out of place looking work in the show, namely 1902 – 1968. The drawing appropriates the famous image of the anthropomorphic and unfriendly, kind of murky looking Moon in George Melies’ movie, A Trip to the Moon from 1902. Mircea Suciu’s drawing is the expression of its belief in the genuine and maybe salutary power of imagination to generate real change in the world and to motivate people’s actions. And indeed, if Neil Armstrong was at all right when he famously proclaimed that his first step on the Moon was a giant leap for mankind, he was right because his legendary step proved that mankind is able to pursue its most benign and even lyrical fantasies at least as stubbornly as it follows its most dark and destructive dreams.

The present text was previously published by Bogdan Iacob in the small catalogue of Mircea Suciu’s Full Moon solo exhibition at Laika Gallery in Cluj.