I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was “much ado about nothing”, to quote Shakespeare, but it was certainly less than I expected: the exhibitions that were opened at the Paintbrushes Factory on the evening of the 8th of October, marking the start of a new season of events hosted by the Cluj art centre, were, on the whole, far less poignant than many of those organized between October 2009 and June 2010.
It is also true that not all the exhibition spaces at the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj restarted their program of events on the evening in question (and though I’m not one to believe that strength lies in quantity, I still think that the Factory functions best, as a whole, when all the art spaces within are proposing shows concomitantly). Thus, the Zmart Gallery was to wait until the following days to organize their first event of this autumn, while Clujest hasn’t yet done that. However, the most prominent art galleries residing in the venue had shows on display, and there was also a bit of a novelty, for me at least, consisting in presenting an exhibition in the Bosisio – Sabot Residency Space, which is mainly meant to be an art studio.
Laika art space hosted new works of Vlad Olariu, one of the artists who have also been managing the space since its launching some two years ago. There is no doubt in my mind for a moment that Olariu is one of the most intelligent, talented and savviest young Romanian artists. The force of his imagination is remarkably paired by his understanding of the mechanisms and practices that shape the realm of contemporary visual art. It was thus all the more surprising to see that his show at Laika art space, titled Memory of a Memory somewhat lacks coherence, as differences between the exhibited works, as far as the conceptual quality and the ability of being visually compelling are concerned, were quite obvious.
The most spectacular work in the show was undoubtedly Untitled (Black Unicorn), an impressive, somewhat monumental, without being of big size, piece of sculpture that stood in the middle of the exhibition space and truly mesmerized viewers’ gazes. A convincing, realistically rendered shape of an impossible being, the work really epitomized the concept underlining the show (albeit rather broad and fuzzy), as it was proposed by its organizers. Thus, lonely and elegant, beautiful and useless, not necessarily very original, but certainly visually compelling, touchingly naive, yet strangely menacing, Olariu’s Black Unicorn is “about simulation and consumerism, about affection, remembering, reality, about communication and the lack of communication, about shape and substance, about repetition, redundancy and illusion, about esthetics and tragic history, about monuments and commemoration, about presence and solidarity, about truth and forgery, about structure, about value and non value, about now and then, about borders and non reality, about essence and volume, about the symbolic dimension of the object and its performance, about the primitivism of the artistic gesture and its actuality”. Another highlight of the show was The Tree Makes the Forrest, a pine tree trunk with just a few remnants of its branches on one side of it, painted in black and dipped into a small block of cement. My first reaction when I saw it was to think of the bizarre consequences of the bizarre Tunguska episode. However, the sculpture has far more evocative power than that, vividly bringing to someone’s mind the idea of devastation, functioning like a telling, yet not humourless metaphor for disaster. These two works, together with Black Sun, a stool’s round upper part painted black and hung on the wall as an abstract piece of sculpture that approaches modernism in a classical, if one may say so, post-modern way, would have been enough to make a solid and quite coherent exhibition.

However, the bidimensional art works exhibited were less impressive and certainly hardly cohesive with the items mentioned above. I did like Skydivers, for example, some sketchy silhouettes made out of golden leaf and pasted onto drywall, however their reference to 9/11 (namely to the images of people who died jumping off the windows of the twin towers) was perhaps too obvious to let any other meaning unfold around them and this somehow places them in the realm of the anecdotic. Atomic Projection uses again the golden leaf on drywall, but offers a visually richer image, though a more abstract one. Yet, the work gave me too much the impression that it should be part of a bigger project in order to become meaningful: it seemed seminal, yet not convincing on its own, although it possessed a dose of decadent, sort of toxic refinement. Finally, The Palace of People, a black and white painting representing a monumental architectural structure with a huge, heroic – type statue on its top looks again so much like an experiment. Now, exhibiting the results of experiments is perfectly legit and can be absolutely impressive, as has happened so many times before. Still, there are two crucial requirements to be fulfilled, which I believe Olariu’s work didn’t: the result of the experiment should be coherent and it should make plain the purpose(s) that motivated the experimental endeavour.
Vlad Nanca was the artist presented by the Sabot Galley, which organized its solo show titled Works. It featured several of his sculptures (though it is perhaps more accurately to describe them as “objects”), made out of materials as commonplace as wood, plastic, textiles and cement, while also integrating some ready made objects. Nanca is a young artist, yet already widely acknowledged by the Romanian contemporary art world and with a significant presence also on the international art scene. His art is definitely conceptual and mostly political in its content and intentions. Nanca has remarkably succeeded, as he was still in his twenties, in producing art works which have gained a kind of an iconic status during the last decade. Thus, the Terrorist Balloon, I do not know what union I belong to anymore or maybe even Dacia – 30 Years of Social History are probably some of the best examples in that respect.
He works with political symbols (from national anthems to “the national car” and to various other visual items connoting socio – political identity and mythology), displacing their initially intended meaning, mixing contradictory symbolic elements into implausible objects and deploying irony as a main instrument for producing his art. Finding a funny way to express serious political ideas is an art procedure with a venerable tradition, however there is something genuinely fresh in Nanca’s endeavours in that direction. Still, way too many of his works of that type lack serious reflection, that allowing redundancy to make its way into his art. Often, the impression left by his works is that the one thing the artist has been the least critical about are the very ideas on which his art has been built upon. Also, his street interventions, the stencils as well as his various objects placed in the public space, certainly represent one of the most compelling sections of his art, but then again there is almost always a difficulty with them: they do have something facile about them, yet at the same time they are way too arty and obviously not simple and poignant enough to truly represent a protest street art. Not that he is necessarily one of them, still I can’t refrain here from remarking in passing that there are probably too many artists in Romania that could bring to someone’s mind the memorable lyrics of one of Edwyn Collins’ songs: “Too many protest singers / Not enough protest songs”.
Vlad Nanca’s show at Sabot was coherent, yet hardly challenging and maybe even a bit boring. The best pieces in the show were by far the Mattress and the Concrete Bag on Wheels. The first work consists, as its title makes plain, in a mattress, but one of unusual sizes: if its width is rather normal, its length exceeds by far the usual dimensions of such a utilitarian object. The unusual sizes and the blue and white stripes that ran along its surface gave the object a kind of hypnotic quality and, I believe, stirred in many of its viewers an urge to sit, to lye or to tumble on it. In the most focused and to the point essays in the journal – type brochure accompanying the show, Erden Kosova wrote that the mattress “evokes nitty – gritty of sharing house with at least a dozen others”. Though I may agree with that, I would however argue that the work’s ludic and even savoury childish appearance interferes with the intended social meaning. The Concrete Bag … draws its visual and conceptual energy from the tension between opposites: stillness and weight (the concrete) are juxtaposed to mobility (the wheels). Eye catching and intellectually exciting, the work is having less problems than the Matrress, in my view, in fulfilling its presumably intended task, namely that of connoting “the promotion of private ownership of automobiles, which –in times of urban congestion– comes to represent urban annoyance and temporal inefficiency, rather than personal liberties and speed” (quoting Erden Kosova again). Then again, I am not at all convinced that this is really the way our society really perceives “private ownership of automobiles”, which, I think, still is, in terms of mentality, linked to speed, freedom, comfort and superior social status, rather than “urban annoyance”.
The other works in the show are far less convincing and sometimes boring in their quoting of minimalism. For example, the Portals, abstract sculptural structures, made out of wooded slats, with shapes reminding vividly of Robert Morris, would have probably look paradoxical and act irritatingly (which is a form of posing a challenge, after all) if they had been laid on a busy sidewalk. In the gallery space though, they are at least as dull as they are elegant. As for the Funnels, colourful juxtaposition of small plastic ready-mades in a corner of the exhibition space, they might allude to the politics of exchange that inform a certain kind of solidarity between the poor in times of crisis and distress, but I have a hard time understanding why several such objects (or how many, for that matter) would be more conceptually compelling than one. This sort of inconsistencies, this insufficient reflection and a certain lack of serious critical thinking are the factors that downplay the overall value and diminish the impact of the exhibition.

Definitely, of all the exhibitions opened on the 8th of October at the Paintbrushes Factory, Cristiana Palandri’s Sleeping Time, hosted by Bosisio – Sabot Residency Space, deserves most credit. The show is the conclusion of the art residency awarded by the Sabot Gallery and its collaborator, the painter Roberto Bosisio, to the Florence born artist. The initiative of such a residency is itself to be praised, being almost unprecedented, to my knowledge at least, in the Romanian contemporary art world. When the beneficiary of the residency is an artist from outside Cluj, I believe that Sabot Gallery is doing more than trying to gain some commercial advantage: it is aptly contributing both to the enrichment of the local artistic life and to making the local scene more adequately acknowledged by non-local art professionals. Palandri took full advantage of the opportunity, and during the three months she stayed in Cluj, she was an active figure of the art milieu, and the exhibition concluding her work in Cluj was truly worth seeing.
Sleeping Time is composed of two art works, namely the photograph titled Outside and the sculpture called Stare.

Outside is almost a by-product of one of the artist’s performances, the medium of performance seeming to be one of her favourite expressive tools (Oversight is a fine piece of such artistic endeavour, which she undertook in 2008 at Museo Laboratorio di Arte Contemporanea in Rome). However, not knowing the performance, the meanings of the images remain rather fuzzy, if not hermetical altogether, with its hardly distinguishable human silhouette surrounded by pieces of debris and bizarrely accessorized with some fur “coat”. Nevertheless, Stare is a truly impressive piece of sculpture. A wood and wire staircase starts its ascendant trajectory from the floor of the space, while its upper end is seemingly going out on the high positioned window just under the ceiling of the forth floor room. The staircase seems made out of locally found debris, it is blackened as if it was churned and most of the stairs are broken. It is a device that can be perceived as being meant for escape as well as for suicide, for taking off into the blue as well as for aimlessly or hopelessly staring (there is a consciously assumed play of meanings implied by the phonetic similarity of the words stair and stare) into the dark void. Yet, with its broken stairs, the device becomes useless, unable to aptly sustain any of the above mentioned actions and turns into a visually arresting metaphor of the futility of big hopes and of the unavoidably utopian character of heroism and grand gestures.
The last event to be taken into consideration would be the show called home – studio – university – city ’90 – ’93, hosted by Plan B gallery. As Mihai Pop, the co-director of the gallery also admitted, it was more an intermezzo between shows than an actual exhibition. Though I do understand that preparing the participation at two major art fairs, separated by a few days only, namely Frieze and FIAC, requires significant efforts from a commercial gallery, I still believe that the event on the 8th of October was important enough to make the viewers expect a bit more from the leading Romanian gallery.
Some five hundred black and white photographs, result of the work of a “collective author” were projected in a (long) loop on one of the gallery’s walls. The images mainly constitute documentation of the activities, more or less artistically motivated, more or less interesting, of a group composed mainly of, by then, very young art students (some of whom are now rather known figures of the cultural life of the city, such as Mihai Pop, the artist Cristian Rusu, the respected academic and art historian Vlad Toca and so on). For many of those involved in those activities the event definitely presented an emotional component, though other spectators were also able, I believe, to tune in to the vibe of a period in the (cultural) history of Romania when it seemed that everything was young and when the youngsters were fascinated with their freedom more than both before and after. However, on the whole, what the show did was to create a nice, cosy and maybe a bit nostalgic atmosphere, but arguably little more than that.

Photos by Filip Zan

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.