Donata Wenders (born 1965) and Roberto Bosisio (born 1963) were, in June 2010, the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca’s choices for two of the genuinely good exhibitions of contemporary art the institution has organized during the last few years. The symbolic and literal juxtaposition of the works by the two artists proved to be meaningful and able to raise more general and challenging questions about the place and viability of what one could call (modernist) classic approaches to respectively photography and painting in the artistic context of our times.
Donata Wenders displayed some forty black and white photographs in a show titled Absent Presence, many of them revolving around the topic of the portrait. The compositional approach is simple and inscribes itself into a long tradition of the photographic portrait, without attempting to seriously innovate or to critically question it. Rather, the way Wenders understands and uses the topic seems an epitome of her faith in the expressive power of that type of classicised photography. There is nostalgia in her endeavour, as there is a sort of charming oblivion of the imperative of the new, which still holds an important role in contemporary art practices. From this perspective, one might even find Wenders’ works somewhat naïve, but savoury naïve. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that: a bit of naïveté, combined with a strong belief, never killed anyone’s art. Quite the contrary, sometimes such a mix of naïveté and faith might render someone’s art more meaningful, and that is pretty much the case with hers.
Another sure thing about Wenders is that she’s not afraid of beauty. She searches for balance, strives for visual poignancy and subtlety and aims to produce in the end an eye stopping, refined image. Milla is such an example of a simple, splendid photography. Milla Jovovich’s face is presented to the viewer in black and white, in rather large size. The actress carelessly holds a cigarette between her lips, her eyes are closed. Sensuality is epitomized with a minimum of visual props, and the usually dollish looking Jovovich becomes plainly beautiful and hauntingly attractive. Wenders reminds us, intentionally or not, of a time when photography might have been considered magic. The portraits of Omara Portuondo from 1998 and of Pina Bausch from 2004 envisage other aspects of beauty: the mature, more intellectualized, even spiritualized beauty, which also comes with –or from– inner strength. The image of the famous Cuban singer and dancer presents us with a far from young, yet utterly vivid and impressively delicate person, her clearly delineated facial features being set in an almost eerie juxtaposition with her long, fragile and aristocratic looking fingers. Pina Bausch appears as a severe looking, composed woman, whose gestures reveal both confidence and a reflective stance: her portrait is firmly establishing itself as an item in the gallery of images of strong minded, creative and uncompromising intellectual female figures of the twentieth century.
Other photographic works by Donata Wenders deal with yet another old function of the medium, namely that of capturing and “immortalising” the fugitive –and presumably relevant– moment. The choreographic spectacle is of obvious interest for her, but her attention is not captured by the glamorous moments, but rather by the concentration and the tension in the backstage (Backstage III from 2003) or by the architectural settings related to the spectacle, in which commonplace characters sometimes act in a dynamic and natural manner (the images of the series dedicated to the Havana Ballet School). But the museum show’s masterpiece approaching the topic of the arrested moment is Triad from 2002. Three men, seemingly engaged in a conversation, are ascending an outdoor, stone made stairway. The play of the light makes the horizontal lines of the stairway look strange, artificially white and uncannily bright. The men seem projected on an abstract alignment, in a virtual, arbitrary space, where geometry is present, yet geometrical perspective is not functioning. The sheer mimetic quality of the image is revealed only to a closer, attentive and eventually surprised look. Again, Wenders’s photography performs a kind of optical magic.
All in all, Donata Wenders is an artist with obvious strengths and weaknesses. She produces compelling images, she is able to capture beauty and the tensed eeriness of the commonplace, and she has the undeniable courage to assume a plainly traditional approach to the medium she uses. On the other hand, her art is, in terms of perception and of assigning value, fundamentally dependent on the circumstances of its perception: thus, one is likely to enjoy, even to love, her art if one already likes this kind of art.
Regarding Roberto Bosisio’s presence in Cluj, the first positive thing to remark is that it is the result of a collaboration between institutions of various types and driven by various goals, activating in the field of culture. Sign, I dare to hope, of normalization of the Romanian art scene, or at least of the Cluj art scene, his exhibitions were realized thanks to a more or less formalized partnership between the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca (a public cultural institution), the Sabot gallery (a commercial gallery) and Laika art space (an artist run space). Two challenging exhibition resulted of this collaboration, one at the museum and the other at Laika art space, respectively titled Roberto Bosisio. Painting Exhibition and Light Always Falls from Above.
Robert Bosisio is an artist in his forties, who is far from fitting the profile of a nowadays international art star, while nevertheless being significantly active in the European art world during the last two decades. His art, just like his presence, is rather discreet. He is constantly, one might say even obsessively, preoccupied with painting as expressive medium. He is sincerely committed to it and one look at his works is enough to make one grasp the degree to which he truly believes that painting not only still has something to communicate to a contemporary viewer, but it is even a privileged way to attain an understanding of the essence of perception, to produce meaning and to generate aesthetic experience.
One consequence of the above described attitude is that Robert Bosisio’s art requires from the spectator to share with the artist the faith in the relevance of the realm of aesthetic for contemporary culture in order to actually enjoy or be willing to seriously reflect upon his artistic production. Also, his art requires attention, because a hurried gaze would probably completely miss the subtly hidden spectacular quality and the chromatic richness behind the apparent simplicity of his deceivingly simple painted surfaces.
After intensely looking, even for a short while, at almost any of Bosisio’s paintings at the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca, but also at some of the works displayed at Laika art space, I had a strong sensation that “I’ve seen that somewhere before”. And indeed, when analytically reflecting upon his works, one starts to remember various moments, figures or features in the history of painting. You can detect compositional traits that recall the early Flanders Renaissance and especially Rogier van der Weyden. The simple interiors with open doors are decidedly similar to scenes depicted by Peter de Hooch or Vermeer. The synthetic, strangely deserted interiors and landscapes (which I’ve only seen in the remarkably beautiful and insightful artist’s catalogue realized by Folio Verlag Wien / Bozen, since they were unfortunately absent from both solo shows he proposed in Cluj) bring to mind at the same time Pittura metafisica, the uncanny rural images painted by Andrew Wyeth or Peter Doig’s ambiguous approaches to the outdoors. The savoury, savvy, enchanting way he deploys paint as it was a magic, forcefully evoking substance cannot help but make one think of Giorgio Morandi. The rather strict geometrical precision of the compositional schemes he uses almost compulsively, especially his (conscious?) use of the golden ratio give the abstract, somehow purged interiors a Renaissance recalling atmosphere. When human figures appear in his paintings, they reveal a Romanticist vein. And so on and so forth … Thus, Bosisio’s works are somewhat paradoxical: he appropriates a sufficiently broad array of painterly styles and manners to save him from the danger of being a mere epigone.
He might be coined, to paraphrase the famous novel by Graham Greene, the quiet Italian. He is an artist who can, in his soft, patient manner, bring about serious questions and interesting hypothesis in the mind of someone trying to assess the meaning and the attainability of painting today. He can forge valid, maybe somewhat utopian, propositions by means of blending and reformulating several painterly traditions. Thus, in more than one way, the only title given to Bosisio’s solo show at the museum –the modest, neutral, apparently unassuming and maybe even downplaying Painting Exhibition– might just be the best way to accurately circumscribe the Italian’s art displayed there.
And still, again after looking at his paintings for a while, it is hard to escape the feeling of redundancy. Bosisio’s works exhibited in the Art Museum of Cluj – Napoca are impressive displays of technical mastery, of love for painting, of formal qualities and of subtle visual enchantment. His use of several layers of painterly substance definitely produces exceptional visual results. But there is almost always the same kind of splendour repeatedly revealed and it risks becoming meaningless after a while. Too many works give the impression of being little more than variations on the same topic and the artist sometimes appears trapped in his own story. Bosisio’s museum show left me equally with a strong admiration for his determination, faith and mastery and with the impression that, in his case, to reverse a famous Warhol title, one is better than thirty.
In a fortunate way, Light Always Falls from Above, the smaller yet dynamic exhibition at Laika art space completed the image of Bosisio as a truly creative artist, open to experimentation and research not only in the technical realm, but even in the conceptual one. One sees in the Laika show a painter whose creative laboratory is poignantly revealed, and one can confidently endorse, after seeing the show, that this laboratory is rather rich and not lacking rewarding surprises. A small, oddly geometrical abstract painting is convincingly, yet in such a humble manner, showing us the authentic colourist that Roberto Bosisio can be. Plastic sheets with colourful grids are superimposed to form an optically arresting object, with real painterly appeal. Nonetheless, a small shelf with dusted painting and drawing instruments and props stands both as reified ars poetica and as a glimpse at further possible developments of his art.