A HEAVY CONDITION: THE ART OF GORZO

—MAREK BARTELIK

“Iconoclasm and l’Art pour l’Art are different responses to the same unease.” —T.J. Clark

The Romanian artist Gorzo distinguishes himself from the many East Europeans who frequently exhibit in New York today in a dramatic fashion: He plays with the outmoded, déclassé folklorization of art on both anecdotal and formal levels. By decorating a neutral gallery with flowers, he turns his new exhibition into a colorful visual spectacle, sort of an installation, endowing it with a mis-en-scène that provocatively dazzles our senses, transforming a neutral Chelsea space into a portrait gallery filled completely with large painted woodcarvings that depict Romanian peasants.

Gorzo was born in a village called Ieud, located in the Maramures region of Northern Transylvania, some 550 kilometers from Bucharest. Between 1993 and 1998, he studied painting at the Bucharest Art Academy under Florin Mitroi. Recalling his professor Gorzo observes: “Our relationship started in a classical way: he was the teacher, I was a rebellious student, who wished to reform painting at any price. While he was a decent man, I was an outspoken young person. . . . We were destined to become friends, which happened three years later. Today I recall how much he had believed in art as pure expression.” In a strange way, Gorzo’s insistence on questioning the established artistic norms while understanding their significance for urgency of communication appears to be in synch with provocative Dadaist attitudes toward making and disseminating art (despite, or perhaps because of, obvious formal differences); after all, as Tom Sandqvist and others have argued, “dada comes from the East” —indeed, from Rumania, to be precise.

Although passionately involved in the transformations of the artistic life of the Romanian capital, Gorzo retains an ambiguous attitude toward Bucharest in a fanciful manner by taking on the persona of a rustic rebel. His half-serious, half-humorous yearning for the simplicity of the “natural” rural life of his childhood, is not, however, a pure nostalgia for a paradise lost, but rather a form of distancing, a conscious strategy of contestation from within, which allows him to reflect on the confusing reality of post-Communist Romania. In fact, Gorzo is often viewed as a sharp, even cruel commentator on the changes he sees around him—political, economic, and cultural—which, as he is first to acknowledge, are not all for the better. His art seems to be saying: The Ieud peasants might not be the most politically radical or artistically sophisticated people, but they are far from being fooled by the promises of an easy future packaged as bright advertisements produced and disseminated by media culture. Reacting to the modern world, they cling to their roots to remain people knowledgeable of their history and the agents of what Milan Kundera called “une condition lourde” (a heavy condition), which according to the Czech-born writer is the most mysterious and the most ambiguous of all states, since it is bound to the ordinary.

Artistically, Gorzo’s new works forcefully bridge high and low. His “low” wooden carvings reference Romanian rural tradition both as a material culture and as folk tales (or rather bestiaries), blending fantastic dreams, desires and superstitions. Although highly moralistic in its insistence on traditional values, such a world is also one of bodily transgressions, which the artist exposes by making his curved background figures interact with the painted ones in the foreground in a highly eroticized fashion. Gorzo chooses photorealism as a high-art aesthetic that he contrasts to the low-art folk aesthetic of modern peasant life, which nowadays often incorporates realism as an expression of its own version of modernity. His photorealism is a form of contemporary craftsmanship. However, as if acknowledging the omnipresence of media culture even in the most remote Romanian villages, his silhouetted peasants (sometimes cropped to body parts) painted on top of wooden reliefs often resemble people in modern tourist brochures advertising Romania as an exotic place; the ceremonial, “on-display” aspect of their presence is reflected in their beautifully patterned costumes. Their meditative, wrinkled faces give witness to their courage and endurance through daily hardship. Their shared fate is reflected in the quiet sadness of their eyes. Yet, despite their specificity, they increasingly look like bodies without history.

In fact, there is something highly “ahistorical” in Gorzo’s approach to style in his art, which seems to be quite puzzling considering how much eastern and central Europe has been steeped in history. This ambiguity toward the past has been explored by some of the most adventurous minds interested in the events that shaped the region, such as Kundera, Adam Zagajewski, or Slavoj Zizek, who exposed the totalizing aspects of that history as a form of oppression. Despite its global appearance, the current world continues to be fragmented, a situation that eastern European bodies have recently experienced in a tragic way during the war in the former Yugoslavia, Romania’s neighbor. But this fragmentation—as painful as it is—is also a form of resistance against both the dehumanization of the Communist period and uniformity in present life, which also threatens local contemporary art.

One might argue that Gorzo’s artistic attitude toward the past is essentially “postmodern,” but such a general term does not fully explain his work. Unlike many East European artists who opt for embracing the latest tendencies in high art—be it the “Tuyman’s effect” or excavating historical avant-garde —Gorzo chooses overt “stylization” (as opposed to “style”) as a weapon against the oppressive impact of history and of art history as well. By doing so, he allies himself with those modern artists, and some contemporary ones as well, who celebrate their status as outsiders coming from places considered peripheral. In fact, he reaches to the very basis of his peripheral status and exposes it. By doing so, he becomes his own mirror reflection, rather than seeing himself through the eyes of the center. (With his peripherality being abject, it is not surprising that his works needed to be fumigated before being allowed to enter the United States, in compliance with Federal regulations to prevent potential spread of insects and disease.)

While Gorzo derives power from being a quintessential, “stereotypical” Rumanian, he subverts obvious identity politics, which have turned a large part of contemporary art into a competition for the most politically correct Other. He might humorously ally himself with those who are getting tired of PC agendas in art. Involved in providing sharp criticism of the specific, often contradictory, reality around him, Gorzo resists succumbing to the already stereotypical model of the Other by refusing to plug into the new formal “internationalism” in art in an obvious way. As he continues to play the role of a rustic rebel, he must still recall how much his former professor Florin Mitroi believed in the purposefulness of art as pure expression.

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Marek Bartelik teaches modern and contemporary art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. He is a Vice-President of the International Association of Art Critics, US section (AICA-USA).