All in all, the end of 2010 was a rather fruitful period for the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj. Despite unavoidable internal tensions, seemingly endless and often pointless disputes about the mission of the ad hoc cultural centre as well as about the fact that it is increasingly perceived, more or less rightfully, as a sort of a cultural mall, the Factory has hosted several interesting exhibitions, some of which were even truly rewarding, during the last two months, all of these events being opened by the middle or the end of November 2010.
By far the most active exhibition venue was Laika. The already prestigious artist run space, which is now in the course of transforming itself into a hopefully boosting commercial gallery, opened two coherent, meaningful shows in less than twenty days. The fact implied a remarkable logistic and conceptual effort; still, the impression that the exhibition programme was a bit crammed could have hardly been avoided. Firstly, Ioana Joa’s solo show (titled Shadows) opened up on November, the 12th. No more than six wooden panels with strongly peculiar portraits that the artist realized by the artist were on display, yet they managed to offer the viewer a fully comprehensive image of the artist’s approach to issues such as memory, death and the ephemeral.
The forces of nature (mainly solar light, to be more precise) are literally instruments used by Ioana Joa to construct her images. The panels of wood, with some areas protected by sheets of more or less opaque paper were left outdoor, thus being exposed to the action of the elements. In a rather long period of time, their caressing, yet shaping action changed the colour tone of the unprotected wooden areas, creating stencil – like, chromatically dual and seemingly evanescent silhouettes of faces belonging to passed away persons.
The simplicity of the drawing procedure is what strikes in Ioana Joa’s works just as much as the sheer ingenuity from which the procedure stems. The portraits thus may sometimes appear as emotionally aloof, while the next moment they reveal themselves as charged (even overcharged) with an intrinsic melancholia. The realm of death is approached kind of gently, with sorrow instead of horror, with a sort of affectionate acceptance, rather than with bitterness and revolt. There is an undeniable pop look that her solar drawings retain, but that only makes their diffuse sadness even more daunting. There is something out of Warhol’s approach of death as well as out of Boltanski’s approach of memory in her portraits; however, their almost naïve, yet heartfelt mystique ultimately saves them from the suspicion of epigonism. And, as corny as it might sound, it is difficult, I believe, to avoid the thought that, while the sun shaped these faces, the earthly elements continued acting toward the organic oblivion of the respective bodies.

The second show organized by Laika in November 2010 was Felix Deac’s Life, arguably the best and certainly the most visually arresting exhibition displayed at the Paintbrushes Factory during the last several months. The young Cluj based artist presented his recent series of small sculptures –one that is still in progress– representing some hyperrealist renderings of anatomical fragments along with several more abstract forms. The latter might resemble the organic and have a perfectly similar texture with the mentioned bodily fragments, but they end up being uncanny, fantastic and even grotesque precisely because of the tension that springs between the realistic appearance of the surfaces and the lifelessness suggested by the sculptural volumes.
The artistic work deployed by Deac is a painstaking one. In an attempt to mimic the look of the organic as close to perfection as possible, he uses silicon as support for inscribing all the formal features as well as the imperfections of the skin. He literally “plants” each hair (often extracted off his own body) into that skin to make the sculptures even more plausible as lively form. His series started small, with various experiments which were just as many attempts to produce pieces of “skin”. The following step was producing “body parts”, with a clear preference for those anatomical parts most linked to sexuality: the mouth and the vulva that Deac has carefully shaped and casted undoubtedly retain an obsessive quality. The third phase of the lab – type project the that he undertook, present in the show at Laika, is the moment when the organic surfaces are forced upon non – mimetic shapes, the result of this alienation of the logic of the living consisting in the artistic “birth” of nauseating impossible “animals” (Eidetic I and Eidetic II) or the shaping of some tumour – like, delicate and strange abstract objects (Untitled). The whole process develops in a fierce logical manner, following an almost scientific planning, while at the same time, paradoxically and tensely, the results are progressively straying from the plausibility and the logicality of the functional living being.
It is difficult not to observe or to feel that even the most realistically rendered, the most truthfully anatomically shaped forms proposed by Deac (the previously mentioned mouth with its tongue leaning out, juxtaposed to the vulva, both sadistically placed in a medical metal recipient, the bony hand showing us the middle finger etc.) appear to be somewhat diseased, plagued. Their rendering by the artist leaves no place for human warmth and brutally excludes mimetic sensuality. The only sensuous part, in a bizarre way, is represented by the intrinsic plastic, visual qualities of the material and surfaces themselves. But that sensuality, just as their realism, only adds to the sheer monstrosity of their appearance. A tormented love / hate relationship can be suspected between the artist and his objects, or between him and what / who they might stand for as memorabilia, an almost sickening mix of sadism and masochism being emanated by the works, while an inextricable mix of attraction and repulsion is what dominates the viewer upon contact with Deac’s sculptural pieces. If sensation (be it even with spelled, imperatively, Sensation!) is a key word for the contemporary art of the last two decades or so, the young Felix Deac is proving to have the courage, the tenacity, and an inner need for inducing / producing it, as well as the savviness to manipulate it.

Sabot Gallery invited Italian artist Valentina Miorandi for its November show, titled “Ne vedem!” (an expression that means See you! both in Romanian and in the Italian Trentino dialect, Trento being the birthplace of the 1982 born artist). She experiments with several technical media, such as classical photography, sound art and, most prominently, video, all of these media being brought together in her solo show at Sabot, the result being a somewhat challenging, somewhat disconcerting and somewhat loose ended exhibition.
Among the most remarkable works displayed was Top 20, a wall display showing the most requested twenty books at the library of the Italian Institute in Bucharest during 2010, that alludes interestingly enough to –although it fails in proposing a real artistic analysis of– cultural exchanges and the sometimes strange circumstances into which they may occur (the same topic is referred to also by the title of the show itself, given, among others, the fact there was a significant Trentino immigration towards Transylvania in the nineteenth century). The video pieces in the show, namely Numerabilis and Waterproof, use, rather witty, the procedure of superimposing visual and symbolic elements that are visually and semantically remote, but between which similarities can also be traced or built. Numerabilis is thus a rather blurry video of a Eucharistic ceremony synchronized with the all too familiar sound of a barcode reader. In Waterproof (a quite transparent allusion to the Watergate scandal as we’ll further understand) the images of a splendid fish swimming majestically are mixed with sounds and images related to the turbulent political career of Richard Nixon.
Both video pieces are visually pleasurable and rewarding to watch. Their main problem is that they seem so conceptually carefree, that they appear to dangerously border gratuitousness. You get at some point the impression that the artist is pleased to escape the clichés of the commonplace only to embrace those of the contemporary art world and practices. We can understand that they are the about the mix and the media, about clichés and about power; but we are at the end left with the impression that nothing was intended to be predicated about these issues. What are we to understand from Numerabilis, for example: that the church is functioning like a supermarket or that the institution of the church is greedy as the corporatist bodies? Or is it all a big joke on both of them? Or they have just been juxtaposed because of the superficial resemblance they possess, given that they both have to do with crowds, repetition and ritual? (Then again, they would both just as well resemble football and rock concerts.) Kind of left empty handed, best we can do is to just enjoy the art works of Valentina Miorandi for being savvy and somewhat cool and to hope that the gifted young artist (for she is certainly gifted, intelligent and medium aware, all of these being important qualities for an artist) will manage to inscribe more meaningfulness in her future, hopefully more straight forwarded and poignant works.

Photos credits: Laika and Sabot Gallery

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