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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Eating the Beard is the title of the recent retrospective show of Michael Borremans at Mucsarnok Budapest, which brings together some one hundred works of the Belgian artist, comprising works produced in various media, ranging from painting, which is rightfully perceived as his medium of choice, to drawing, video and small scale installations. Curated by the reputed Hungarian curator Petranyi Zsolt, the exhibition is another episode in the institution’s more or less coherent programme of hosting rather large scale, comprehensive and compelling presentations of influential contemporary artists, especially of those whose influence have been or is fruitfully felt by the artistic milieu in Central and Eastern Europe (whatever that might mean). Among previous such events, one can recall Luc Tuymans’s challenging and witty retrospective or Mircea Cantor’s solo show a few years ago.

Michael Borremans is now an artist in his late forties, living and working in the rather small, quite charming and culturally active city of Gent. Although academically trained mainly as photographer, his international fame, or, to be more precise, European recognition –since the artist is still not widely acknowledged in the U. S.– is mostly due to his contributions to the media of painting and drawing, which he constantly uses since the mid-nineties. His painting, especially, was largely viewed as an effort to meaningfully put at work traditional means of expression used by the practitioners of the medium and to produce contemporary relevant painting while using painterly approaches that relate to old masters such as Manet, Velasquez or van Dyck. Sign of historical nostalgia or not, the sheer pleasure or manipulating the painterly matter or the drawing charcoal in order to obtain visually seductive results has become, for many in the contemporary art world, an essential feature of his art.

Commenting on the show’s title, Petranyi writes: “As we know, hair is indigestible. Cats cough up the hair they swallow while cleaning themselves… Therefore, as we see now, the title of Michael Borremans’s exhibition stands for the <almost impossible>”. However, when one looks at the actual painting that borrows its title to the show, depicting a young girl presumably trying to swallow something that looks like hair, it is not the attempt to realize something that is almost impossible that comes to one’s mind. Rather, an existential, hallucinatory nausea is suggested, as the girl might be perceived just as well as vomiting, for example. That nausea is subtly pervading his entire body of work, while ideas of manipulation, unease, silent and ambiguous danger, cruelty, frailty of human condition and of memory are composing the semantic synopsis of Borremans’s art.

In his paintings, the depicted figures strangely appear as never actually finished, yet almost always polished, somewhat emphatically shiny. It is as if a craftsman would frantically glaze an incompletely shaped piece of ceramics, not having the patience to get the shaping process to its expected conclusion. The eerie resemblance between flesh and porcelain or even marble texture, between the human forms and the realm of the inanimate, resemblance which is not observed, but rather proclaimed by Borremans in his paintings, is a key feature of his painterly language and of his understanding of human existence. Moreover, in his works, be them paintings, drawings or video pieces, the human being is presented either as statue (monumental or decorative) or as puppet, hardly ever as a living being mastering his or her destiny, being in control of his or her live or mental universe. The human being is manoeuvred and designed, is engineered and corrected, is acting out of meaningless automatism, in other words is much more object (particularly, an object upon which power is exerted in an almost foucauldian manner) than subject. The silent and aloof workers in Pupils, probably one of his best works to date, in  their neutral overalls, passionlessly shaping or retouching what seem to be mannequin heads constitute a perfect example of how Borremans understands to approach human condition.

Exquisitely lonely, so to speak, especially when it comes to female figures, like in A2 or The Skirt II, his characters strangely imply that they are not alone; they just calmly strive at epitomizing loneliness, but also imply the presence of surveillance and manipulation. Even when the characters are almost monumentally singular in the painterly composition, they are frequently represented with their back turned to the spectator, who becomes the eye gazing from behind, from the shadows, presumably the eye of the perpetrator or of  the guardian. A step further, in works such as the two versions of The Pendant, a woman’s hair is tied and pulled up vertically, making the characters perfect epitomes of the lifeless puppet hanging at the end of an all controlling string. Thus, after looking at some of his paintings in this category long enough, what one disturbingly realizes is that he or she is unwillingly put in the position of the bearer of menace, of voyeur or of witness to the end result of the process by which the being looses his or her soul (which is the same as loosing his or her life).

Many of Borremans’ paintings and drawings refer, in a more or less direct manner, to the issue of death. His human figures are often depicted in states and in bodily postures that can be just as easily associated with sleep (as the title of his Sleeper painting, for example, directly suggest) or with death. Along with the Sleeper, works like The nude or The case, also present in the Mucsarnok display, perfectly illustrate this ambiguity. The nude presents the viewer with the image of a naked young woman, lying on her back, eyes closed, in a (chromatically) cold environment. It is a bizarre mix between pre-Raphaelite – like drama, involving a Dante Gabriel Rossetti type of Ofelia, and the intriguing, almost cynical coldness of a scene from the CSI TV series. However, all the sensuality has vanished from this body, while the sensuousness of paint is highly poignant. What almost immediately and certainly involuntarily came to my mind as I was watching it was the frightened Haley Joel Osment in the 1999 Sixth Sense picture, as he whispers to the child psychologist interpreted by Bruce Willis: “I see dead people!…”.  The impression lasted in my mind throughout the show and so did the feeling that in Borremans’s universe people are lifeless and matter is alive.

I don’t think it is by chance that associations with movies are tempting when confronting Borremans’s artworks, even, or especially, those which are not video pieces. That is because it seems pretty obvious to me that another crucial rhetoric instrument present in Borremans’ work is theatricality. All his paintings and drawings are somewhat staged, in a way a director or a stage designer might compose a tableaux, as they embed a potential for narrative and for drama. That theatricality is mostly evident in his drawings from The German series or in other works on paper such as his Square of Despair, in which several delicately rendered silhouettes of dead horses are carefully aligned in rows on the ground, while undisturbed people pass by the hallucinatory scene. The Belgian artist seems fascinated both with the man’s uncanny availability to slaughter living beings, as well as with the humans’ sick propensity to assign heroic, epic or sublime motivations and dimensions to their murderous acts.

The sublime and the memory are obliquely approached by Borremans as he deals with monumentality and monuments, which constitute yet another crucial topic in his oeuvre. Thus, projects –or rather sketches– for inexistent and impossible or, at least, highly improbable monuments are recurrent in his works. The above mentioned The German project is a perfect example in this regard. In the drawing The German (part two), a perfectly bourgeois looking clerk or, why not?, intellectual is playing with little objects that look like red dots and retain all his attention. The neutral man is totally oblivious that some other people are regarding (in awe?, fearful?, full of admiration?) his huge image which appears as being projected on an enormous wall. A version of the work in the form of a small scale model for a huge screening in a sort of a plaza was also exhibited at Mucsarnok, with a short video of the man in a suit actually screened within a small glass box attached to the wall.

As it is plain to see, for Borremans, the issue of scale is always fundamental when it comes to monumentality, sufferance and memory. Too big people relate with too small figures so often in his works. A Gulliver – like world is constructed in his images, only it is one with a tremendous potential for cold blooded cruelty. His projected “monuments” overwhelm by far the dimensions of their potential viewers, making one question whether the role of the monument is actually to be seen and understood or just to simply render humans humble and insignificant, to forcefully reshape their memories or to brainwash them. And so, the Belgian’s images make the viewer reflect upon the possibility that all real monuments, at some level, act just like that.

Seeing his video pieces is the best way to understand that Michael Borremans is fundamentally a painter. Each and every possible still from his “films” could be a scene painted by him. Although the image is moving, that visual flow provokes, first and foremost, a sensation of stillness or, better said, stiffness. If the narrative is always uncannily present in his paintings and drawing, it paradoxically faints precisely in his video works. It seems like Borremans is using the camera to investigate the theatre’s scene, while he is painting to construct the actual play.

Never explicit, yet never actually esoteric, the artist from Gent belongs to the same “family of artists” as Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans or, maybe yet on a lesser level of quality, Wilhelm Sasnal. They all use veils and they are all careful to make those veils transparent enough to not discourage the spectator from approaching their art. They all use history to shed a light on something they consider essential about the (presumably transhistorical) human being. And they all use what one might call “elusive painting” in a hopeful, oblique and somewhat perverse attempt to save the metaphorical power and the relevance of the medium under the circumstances of the contemporary world, a relevance one can never be totally sure that they still truly believe in, the way heroic macho painters like Baselitz or Brandl most probably do.

For photos of Michael Borremans works, go to www.zeno-x.com/artists/michael_borremans.htm and  http://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/11/

Take painting as a medium, pop art as an ironic approach and Bucharest as a bottomless visual reservoir for the sleazy, the crammed and the apathetic, mix all these and you get Berceni, Nicolae Comanescu’s show at the Museum of National Contemporary Art. It’s a recap of roughly ten years of the artist’s work as a painter, time over which he conducted a vast study on the social landscape of a post-communist society, still stuck in the chaotic maze of its own transition.

There are a few dozen canvases which can be seen at MNAC, as the exhibition is comprised of various series produced during the past decade. Whether one takes into consideration Grand Prix Remix, Wrong Paintings or Beach culture in Bercsényi, the images are extremly violent as far as color is concerned and almost insulting with regarding to their content. The sheer amount of images done in this manner is, in all honesty, extremely confusing as far as the purpose of this very amounting is concerned, simply because at one point the endeavour actually stops being about the irony and too much about the artist indulging in the topic towards which the irony is presumably pointed at. The pile of works start to sink in a very similar mess to the one they were meant to show, as they become harder to “read “ and even harder to process, as a fair number of images repeat themselves in terms of content, therefore appearing pretty redundant.

Adhering to a sort of uncertain surrealism, most of these frantic images are a result of mixing various sights of Romania’s capital city with representations of pop culture figures or stereotypes, as well as all sorts of reflective quotations drifting around a bunch of odd characters that spring out of nowhere into the painting. As far as the visual aspect is concerned they seem to be dangling somewhere in between Daniel Richter and Jeff Koons, suggesting at times a rabid psychedelic mess and, other times, a rather obvious grin of irony aimed at behavioural clichés and resented mentalities that inhabit  this peculiar environment. The zombie-eyed cats, the crazed city traffic and the delirious settings with blinking signs and street lights, the bizarre palm leaves placed in the middle of a concrete wilderness or the portrayals of cheap summer delights are some of the topics the artist chooses to include in this hysterical circus of everyday trivialities. Of course, all this is topped by the use of an irritating abundance of colour, as he shamelessly saturates everything in highlight tones, disregarding any kind of attempt to please the viewer’s eye. His intent is pretty clear, as this fashion of painting stands in utter opposition to his “dust paintings”, a project conducted around a concept of recycling filth (literally and metaphorically) found in this same hectic environment by using actual dust as a painting medium. The result was a series of extremely pleasing monochrome images which added a very noticeable refined and tasteful factor to the same type of urban scenery that can be seen in the exhibition at MNAC.

As it is a retrospective of the artist’s work, the show sits well inside the museum’s walls, but as a visual spectacle in itself it’s rather overflowing with too much art. It’s hardly pleasurable and rather exhausting. The effect you get is more similar to experiencing an installation than a painting exhibition, simply because it’s extremely difficult to undergo each image in itself, while it’s more likely to submit to the overwhelming flood of this glitzy and quite nauseating depiction of disorder and negligence. Nicoale Comanescu is not being belligerent in these paintings. The best argument of that is the passive stance demonstrated by the obsessive use of views from inside the intimacy of the car and of reflections in the side mirror of sights already passed. All in all, it’s a junction of a lamented passenger’s disgust and his freakishly feverish imagination. But what is more unsettling, is that the endless string of these paintings doesn’t really imply at all a humorous snicker, but a sentiment of resignation and unredeemable acceptance.

 

Text by Adelina Cacio

For photos of the artist’s work, go to http://comanescu.blogspot.com/