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

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

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

Photos by dr. Feleki Istvan