8 September–1 October 2011
by REBECCA WRIGHT
Since the Prague Biennial in 2007, when the term “Cluj School” was first used to describe a group of artists emerging from the city of Cluj in Transylvania, this eclectic group of artists has been closely associated with contemporary painting1
Centred on the Fabrica de Pensule (Paintbrush Factory), a multidisciplinary art space including artists’ studios, exhibition spaces and the commercial gallery Plan B, these artists are making their mark on the international art scene. In a contemporary art world so infused with inter-disciplinary, inter-medial and eclectic work, a contemporary school, which places importance on one medium, could seem somewhat unique. However, for a generation who graduated from art school following the 1989 Romanian revolution and the fall of communism, this medium has a significance larger than the parameters of formalism. For these artists painting has become both a means to address a complicated and confusing history, and a way of exploring a medium closely associated with modernism and the language of failed utopia.
The recent exhibition Remains of Tomorrow at Blain|Southern displayed a collection of work by Romanian artist Marius Bercea. Bercea was born in Cluj in 1979 and received his MA from the University of Art and Design in Cluj-Napoca in 2005. He is now firmly associated with the Cluj School. His works appear to reconfigure the traditional landscape genre, in which past, present, and future collide. Personal memory and public history sit comfortably next to cross-references to Dutch masters and iconic modernist architecture. Drawing on Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), Bercea’s images oscillate between dystopia and utopia. In his work Truth With Multiple Masks (2011), scattered objects, including a deserted pram, slip between two registers, becoming both an idealised vision from the past and (as one registers the crow perched on top) a terrifying omen of the future. If narrative was banished from modernism (to become the trope of post-modernism), Bercea’s paintings maintain “touches of modernism” such as “form, function and structure” but similarly act like cryptic short stories in which no plot exists, the characters appearing fluid and changeable. It is through the content of these paintings that something mysterious and profound in relation to personal memory and time is communicated.
Rebecca Wright: Your works appear to me almost like a faded Polaroid picture, evoking memory that is in the process of disappearing. How, if at all, would you define the relationship between painting and photography in your work?
Marius Bercea: There are a lot of connections between these two mediums. Historically, it is not surprising that the theoretical theme of “the death of painting” came to the fore within discussions about the state of art during the during the late 19th/first half of the 20th century. Thus, the death of painting is first proposed as the fate of the major artistic developments with the advent of photography. However, in the early 1980s a strong revival movement of traditional media was an evolution that could not be ignored by any serious and careful observer of contemporary art.
For me painting is more connected with archaeology, because of its attributes: time, space, overlapping layers and pictorial material. Photography plays the role of archiving memory, and also as a 360 degree scanner. Polaroid as an object itself has, for my personal taste, the most painting-like surface. It has a stong pictoral, chromatical identity.
RW: In your work the scenes encapsulated seem to be impregnated by history and by recent events. Do you think the medium of painting has specific attributes, to act as a vehicle to capture the contradictions of history and the passing of time?
MB: As I mentioned before, I believe that painting is more connected with archaeology, and this is certainly true of my practice, which deals with time and space. However, painting does seem partial and subjective, it describes events and ideas and abstract emotions, which are essential responses that are constantly connected to things and states of human nature.
RW: When looking at your work what jumps out at me is an over-riding sense of balance. Each element appears to be engaged in a dialectic. This includes compositional elements such as the engagement between vertical, horizontal and curved lines and the chromatic scale. This also extends to the thematic content that evokes the schism between nature and culture, the personal and the public, growth and disintegration, utopia and dystopia. Do you actively seek to engage balance in your work?
MB: Painting has a very rich and expressive potential. The aesthetic experience is always the source of some sort of investigation. Visual qualities of matter and the sensory became my goals. Painting clearly avoids narrative and illustration and works as a genuine reflection on a particular topic, using selected references. I always try to analyse the subject, metaphor and context. The equation is not conceptualised and illustrated. Painting is a non-heroic identity itself, which contains ideas. The mystery of the painting mediates communication. Elegance is in the content and the geometric hints.
Concepts such as society, nature, history and culture are supplemented by technological determinism. The painting that approaches theses subjects have to do so with a dose of sensitivity and reductive content. Technological and technical abuse is corrected with emotion.
RW: In The Hierarchy of Democracy (2011) you reference Bruegel’s genre painting The Sermon of St John the Baptist (1566). How did your interest in 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painting come about? When you cross-reference these images in your work is it a sign of respect or an act of parody, or something completely different?
MB: The 16th and 17th centuries represent one of the most important periods of Western civilisation. In many ways, what we call modernity has its functional beginnings in this period of European history. In other words, in my view, this period of time can be equated with the birth of oil painting in its real sense. Moreover, in this period, a whole range of social and cultural mechanisms were generated that structured both the production of oil painting as well as the reception of this material and its cultural consumption.
I believe that the 16th and 17th centuries deal with what might be called the democratisation of taste, which can be translated into thematic diversity. In The Hierarchy of Democracy,using a traditional pictorial manner, I reinterpreted Brueghel the Elder’s St John the Baptist. In the spirit of (proto) Protestantism, the artist composed this work adapting the religious scene to a very specific social environment. Characters included in the crowd are not only peasants, who usually inhabit the paintings of Brueghel, but they are also new citizens of the Netherlands and those from the Dutch colonies, alluded to by the different costumes of the figures within the painting.
The painting itself shows a cross section of society and is, besides a purely religious and moral composition, a historic visual document. It is interesting how the artist includes the main character among such a diverse array of colours. The crowds’ clothes are very much of their time, which locates the event in the 16th century. Thus there is a contradiction between St. John and the rest of the crowd.
It is a very suggestive and symbolic theme, and has much to do with Anabaptism. The pictorial scene itself is not dramatic and tense, but releaxed, as if we are in a rural Flemish celebration. For the viewer it is very difficult to recognise the saint within the mass of people. The characters are young, old, women, men, soldiers, people in the colonies, travellers, etc. There are many portraits and expressions. All this information minimises the message of St. John, so this scene is a new conerstone in religious painting. The religious theme itself has become an excuse for depicting a modern social landscape of the 16th century. Curiosity and disorder are at home. Vulnerability and threat are constant.
The work that I have created is following Brueghel's compositional data, and is intended to be in the spirit of the Flemish painter. You can read a psychological instability within the painted characters. The natural environment is dominated by objects and modernist buildings. Transition appears as a fresco in which traditional elements are merged with those of Western consumerism. Populating the various elements are: a group of Catholic priests blessing a couple of grooms, while another group of Orthodox priests sanctify a nonexistent memorial. The two busts are unclear, indicating the two sovereigns. There are also two creations by a fashion designer, and a high military campaign tent at a rustic festival with musicians is also present. All this is surrounded by a light that heralds something strange, possibly even a calamity. The work is not meant as a parody, but has much to do with a very strong believe in Brueghel’s painting as being one of the earliest works which depicted the new concept of the democratisation of painting and taste.
RW: A lot of critics discuss the predominance of yellow in your work, often drawing the analogy to a cloud that hangs over your work, which suggests the disaster of Chernobyl. Does the use of yellow signify anything for you? If so, could you explain its poignancy?
MB: My strategy was always to bet on the time test. Before, I was dealing with the 1980s which focus on scenes from school – in the classroom, school yard games. A hot summer atmosphere locates my compositions around 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As a visual identity, the 80s are the “yellowing of radiation” years. The scenes are easy to describe; they are innocent, wrapped in a sensual faded light. I believe in Alberti’s space model, which is that of painting as “a window onto the world”, producing as a consequence a space with multiple entries, multiple access points, although apparently sharply limited, which eventually becomes a geographical-philosophical paradox.
In reference to the yellowish cloud, which is present in my work, I should start by discussing my experience living into a mountain lanscape, which pushed me to understand the “logic” of the skies. In an landscape like that, the sky is constantly changeable, from a calm air to a lightning storm. I think that my pictorial compositions make sense only in the final moment, when setting the air, the disaster cloud, the radioactivity, which all stay inside the frame of the painting, located on the top band of the composition.
RW: Emily Gosling describes your work as “surreal psycho-geographic” images, which interested me. How would you describe the relationship between the psychological and the geographic in your paintings, or is this not something that you see in your work?
MB: Emily’s right. Most of these images locate memories, seen through a lens of the recent history of Romania. This faded and contradictory history is particularly dynamic and fascinating because of the degradation of an absurd political system and the emergence of a capitalist political system, which is rather incoherent. My work also indicates the contrast of the architectural trends which evolved during the modernist era: Corbusier, Fascist, Soviet, and also architecture relating to science fiction at the beginning of the 20th century. Maybe that’s why Emily chose the word “surreal”. However, all these buildings do exist. I would rather say a “naturalistic observation, like a psycho-geographic” image.
RW: Could you discuss the prominence of architecture in your work? When and why did you start using it as a motif?
MB: I have conducted a series of architectural modernist portraits. From the beginning, I tried to draw on some specific theoretical “touches” of modernism, so I constantly keep the rules of modernism in mind – according to the form, function and structure, which finally gives authenticity to the work. In modern architecture (my work shows examples that suggest the 60s and 70s), a trend can be traced towards historical modernity, expressed in the attempt to equate economic efficiency and industry on the one hand with a beautiful aesthetic on one another.
I work with recognisable buildings that are located in a well-defined geographic area. These provide architectural solutions, which are visibly marked by several influences, while also displaying a science fiction, cosmic air. The urban plan of “Metropolis” – Fritz Lang, is where modern man operates. Antihumanism is a defining character of this modernity. Conceptual “cold” space is a space where the brain “sits” in front of the eye. In my compositions the public space is a cavernous space. The architecture is formalistic and personal nostalgia is obvious. Discipline and rigour are two components which pack the pictorial composition.
My previous research is very connected with these new interpretations of the environment. Before, I was into tracing a physiological profile of the youth, during the beginning of the 1980s, but I didn’t offer too many clues about the space where these scenes were happening.
During 2006–08 my interest focused on very banal scenes, everyday moments: a walk in the park, children playing, and holiday scenes which were infused with a dose of nostalgia and a sense of absence. The characters who populate these compositions have not drawn a specific identity – memory can be destroyed because of the presence of too many clues. All these characters seemed suspended in an undefined territory. Within my latest works, I have depopulated the lanscape, chosing to focus on capturing the environment.
RW: In 2010 Marie Maertens wrote a piece on the school of Clujfor Art/Press in which she quoted an observation on the Leipzig School by art critic Arthur Lubow that “an atmosphere, and not a message” marked it. In reflection, she asked, “can one think of a Cluj School?” How would you respond to this question?
MB: I am sure that that quote was extracted out of a certain context, which is why I am not a big fan of giving a prognosis that easily. I am an insider, and there is a need for more visitors to conduct surgery on this “Cluj School”. I am sure that the test of time will prove to the world that there is a School of Cluj, with a solid background, a solid training at art schools and universities, and a very vivid community, which is extremely involved in artistic research.
RW: Why is it, do you think that Cluj is such a fruitful environment for painting?
MB: I am sure that the painting from Cluj is associated with the term Figurative Painting, which has regained more than a fashionable status in the art world, and the “old masters” have become key reference points for many contemporary painters. Painting, as setting unctuous and savoury paste on the surface of a canvas, painting the craft, and painting the picture that can express an attitude are values of the environment within Cluj. These values have been taken by force within the last years by artists who have been bent on artistic productions that stretch the boundaries of the medium.
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