Same language, new story

BMoCA exhibit on Romanian painting a rare look into a dark world


Among the anachronisms likely to linger in former Communist-bloc countries, where borders were closed and travel limited for half a century, one might not expect to find figurative painting. But for a handful of rising artists from a generation who have forgotten figurative painting’s legacy as a tool for the Communist propaganda machine but remember the imprint of that rule and see its shadow in the now capitalist Romania, figurative painting has proved a way to bring some of the dark truth into the light.

The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is featuring those painters in their winter exhibition, Defaced — an exhibition Mardee Goff, associate curator of BMoCA, says hasn’t been done anywhere else in the U.S. and a focus area not frequently touched in exhibitions anywhere.

The show isn’t meant to be representative of the artwork being done in Romania as a whole — nor is this a set group of artists who identify as coming from one school, despite some of their similarities. It’s just a glimpse into a world where figurative painting has endured in ways western countries have forgotten.

“When you see the works, there’s something undeniably similar in the aesthetic, no matter how they’ve approached it, and I think there’s a little bit of an undertone and less direct conversation about the very violent past,” says Goff, who has been following Romanian art movements closely for the last five years. “Romania’s history before Communism came in was — they have a very violent history, and a very unsteady history, all of these different government systems coming in and completely transforming the systems. Communism though, in Romania, under Nicolae Ceausescu was incredibly oppressive, probably one of the more oppressive and more isolated … and the revolution that happened in Romania was the most violent of the Central and Eastern Bloc revolutions. So that’s something that’s definitely there.”

During Communist rule in Romania, among other oppressive moves, the government forcibly relocated people from their rural communities into cities, then scraped those small towns down to the church foundations, and, convinced the state could raise children better than their parents, created hundreds of orphanages that housed 170,000 under-nurtured children. Romanians who lived through that era have recounted a barrage of propaganda that concealed the deprivation they lived in, being imprisoned for trying to escape the country and living surrounded by informants and ongoing surveillance.

The generation Goff has specifically chosen to work with — eight artists in their 30s and 40s — were children in 1989 when the Iron Curtain came down. These artists’ memories and experience of that era are largely secondhand, but the fingerprints of that history cover their work.

“There’s this sense of isolation and alienation and some of that is the figures in their own world, some of that is the fact that we’re not really given access to it, so we feel isolated,” Goff says. “Additionally, though, there’s this kind of collective understanding of doom.”

Many artists old enough to remember the threads of Communist rule in Romania avoided figurative painting, particularly because it was used by the Communist regime.

“There was actually a trend towards going away from representational painting because that’s something that the Communist regime used for propaganda, so  there’s this social realist art that was used to show this reality that didn’t exist,” Goff says.

New media and video work were more popular art forms immediately following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

What these artists did grow up amid was the thrashing development of the country immediately post-communist society, and its sudden influx of consumerism and capitalism, leaping into the line marching toward the information age along with every other country. Some of the more direct wranglings with this newfound capitalism appear in Teodora Axente’s paintings — she shows human forms so wrapped in materials that they can’t escape. Whether they’re living or dead, or dying, is obscured in the objects that encase them.

“I think it was hard for everyone at that time, right. All the sudden, we’re in the information age, and we’re inundated with more and more technology and information readily available. Everything has become a hyper-mediated world, and I think everyone has had a struggle with that, every culture,” Goff says. “But I think you can imagine how dramatic that might be for a culture that really was isolated to all of the sudden have it thrown at them … and you see that in the work.”

Each of the artists addresses it differently, but Goff points to a few common themes — a general sense of darkness and sinister presences, paintings often provide the viewer a look into that world from a bird’s eye view, or perhaps the view of a surveillance camera, and an almost total absence of faces.

“In all of the works that I’ve seen from the artists that are figurative painters from Romania, I would say that in 90 percent of the work, the figure’s faces are intentionally blurred, turned away, obscured — we’re not given access to them,” Goff says. “This exhibition is not providing answers for why that is, but it kind of is asking questions about why it might be, and I think that it gives a psychological distancing and emotional impact to the viewer.”

The surveillance view, she says, equates to looking into worlds we’re not given access to. The narrative moments are ones that feel purposely unresolved — the energy is stagnant, or the action and its intentions are unknown and unknowable.

“I think that this has to do a little bit with this idea that one, they grew up under this idea of universal truth in communism and this lack of individual, and all the sudden, now they’re able to be individuals, and there’s this erasing of a past identity and a discovering of a new identity, as well as an erasing of a past history and a development of a new history,” Goff says.

The fate of communism itself comes out a bit in Marius Bercea’s work “Untitled (cement flower),” in which a skyline of Communist-era blocky cement buildings is being slowly overtaken by vegetation. It represents the inevitable return of those reluctant urban residents to more bucolic communities.

Beyond the subject material, there’s a story in the paint itself, and the paint itself sings.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, when painting was proclaimed dead in western art history, figurative painting particularly passé, Romanian artists actually held on to this under the Iron Curtain — and some of that was because that was what they were being taught at the academy — and they never left it, and it never left their history,” Goff says. “I think that artists in western contemporary art, when they use painting, there’s a tendency to need a conceptual twist to it to justify it. That it can’t be about the paint anymore — that that’s been done. But I think here, what you’re seeing is that actually, there’s still a lot to be discovered in the medium and that you don’t need to revert to some sort of conceptual twist to make it relevant or interesting.”

The images are both representational and abstract — clearly drawn, many times, but in a way that obscures some of the purposes. The influences of earlier European art movements shine through. Axente’s paintings show echoes of Dutch and Flemish still life painters from centuries before in the textures of velvet, fur and tinsel and the way the light catches on the hard edges of cellophane — as that plastic is being drawn over the head of a kneeling person or that tinsel drips from sealed lips, a decidedly twisted take on the subject matter. In Razvan Boar, the textures of flesh shows in the kind of smooth, painterly brushwork that’s often been set aside in the last century for rougher, Impressionistic-style brushwork, though there’s that, too, particularly in Serban Savu’s work.

“All of these artists are holding on to something that’s really Old Master, even though they’ve reinvented it,” Goff says. “They’re using paint in a way it’s been used for centuries, but telling a new narrative.”

The stories they’re telling in some ways bite as much into the dark side of America as they do Romania.

In Mircea Suciu’s painting “Liberated I,” from a series called “The Fall,” a row of children stands before a black background, the rough brushwork drawing in shoed feet, legs, the somber grays and browns of their skirts and pant legs all the way up to their shirt collars, which open to the black background. The painting was done shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, and in this row of headless children, we’re meant to see a referendum on our own capitalist economy — the empty promises of commercialism, the rosy picture capitalism has painted that, like those communist propaganda images, has turned out not to exist at all.

“It’s this idea that capitalism has also failed us, the same way that it’s failed Romania,” Goff says.

With the Iron Curtain down, these artists are no longer limited to talking about their own failed ideologies. Now they can talk about ours, too.



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