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/.

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