“A wooden die can be described only from without. We are therefore condemned to eternal ignorance of its essence. Even if it is quickly cut in two, immediately its inside becomes a wall and there occurs the lightening-swift transformation of a mystery into a skin.
For this reason it is impossible to lay foundations for the psychology of a stone ball, of an iron bar, of a wooden cube.”
“Wooden Die,” Zbigniew Herbert

The characters inhabiting Mircea Suciu’s paintings are searching, or rather hunting, for a way out, in, around or through. Down the rabbit hole? Out of the picture? Off the frame? They are quite believable, these dramatis personae, palpable presences acting in a spare and mute tragicomedy. Perhaps these are split-second moments from an anti-narrative, from Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd. We are voyeurs to the often obscured scene of the characters’ looking, gesturing, and moving. Toward what? What hides outside, below, above, beyond the compositional frame? Cumulatively the scenes and characters become echoes of the real, strangely evocative unhinged shadows, placed who-knows-where. Shadows are all that one can optically grasp of substantive reality in a Plato’s cave.

The painter Mircea Suciu (b. 1978) was born in Romania, where he teaches at the Cluj Art School, his alma mater, in north-western Transylvania. Cluj-Napoca, the capital of the historical province of Transylvania, is roughly equidistant from Bucharest (201 mi), Budapest (220 mi) and Belgrade (203 mi). At the geographical nexus of historical conflict and a rich cultural hybridity, it’s not surprising that Suciu would display a historically-minded sensibility heavily tinged with irony and dark humor as well as with metaphysical overtones. Born during the era of the exhausted regime of Nicolai Ceau┼čescu, whose megalomaniacal visions of the Great Utopia descended into a bloody tyranny, the artist came of age during and after the 1989 Revolution, and Ceausescu's subsequent trial and execution. Post-communist Romania continues to struggle with economic instability and hardship, fragile political coalitions and periods of civil unrest. How to survive and translate this ongoing historical trauma, this multifaceted menagerie in social and political deadlock, a gray zone nevertheless volatile and uncertain? “Romania is often called the Land of Dada, not because one of its sons, Tristan Tzara, was a founder of Surrealism, but because of the absurdity and paradoxes of its daily life, particularly in its politics,” writes the Romanian-born novelist Norman Manea. (“New York, the Dada Capital,” 2005)

Absurdity and paradox, an unrivaled brew for the creative imagination, emerge in full, and yet, quiet force in Suciu’s oil paintings. A prolific artist, Suciu’s vision, strategy, and style, condense and pressurize everyday moments into iconic images. He seems to track the anonymous individual for the human specificities of curiousness, vulnerability, resilience, desires and dreams. His often obscured characters are caught in physical ambiguities, facing the limits and surprises of individual choices or of obsessions and compulsions.

Foregrounding the exhibition, “How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes…” are two paintings, The Young Dictator (2008) and Sublime (2007). As a keen observer of gesture and subtle details of movement, Suciu paints the Young Dictator rehearsing his destiny in a childhood scene of a boy standing on a chair holding aloft with raised arm a cross-like object, perhaps a broken scale of justice; while a miniaturized figure pointing with his authoritative finger into space, a Lilliputian father figure with his shirtsleeves rolled up, stands below the boy’s gaze on the floor. Monochromatic shades of sepia define the scene as the boy mimics the gestures of absolute authority and hierarchy. Sublime is the only close-up full-face portrait in the exhibition, a man with eyes averted and bleeding from his nose, bright red streaks descending down his face in an iconic martyr-like pose contrasted against an empty white background. Set within the historical context of twentieth century totalitarian regimes, and the political realities of a public in the throes of an identity crisis thirsting for new communitarian mythologies, these paintings point to the incidents Suciu depicts in his other paintings.

Suciu’s images originate from the everyday media: “I recycle in the postmodern tradition. I use images from advertising archives, whose characters I deconstruct, remake, take them out of their context and give a new sense to the images. Usually I use images from the 40s and 50s. I prefer them for the care with which these pictures were taken, for their picturesque qualities as well as for their poetic and distinctive situations.”

The artist deploys a fluid and supple brushwork in the service of a detached, Cartesian form of classicism in tension with elements of concise renderings in subdued, cool tones. Therefore Suciu’s moderate-sized paintings oscillate abstracted, simplified forms with the odd naturalistic detail. In an economy of strokes Suciu describes believable objects and people in light and shadow, with volume and a consistent texture of paint. This technique, jettisoning overt expressionistic attributes, amplifies the implications of the cliché; the cliché, as in the programmatic style of socialist realism, was the common currency of all Communist dictatorships. Routine increases banality and thoughtlessness, until the personal disappears. But Suciu slices the banal gesture out of its usual mass-media context, crops it, reorients it and distorts it slightly, and then repositions it within an alien, faceless environment. Mystery accrues to the seemingly banal; the rabbit hole is everywhere opening up, in a continuous loop.

The individuals in Suciu’s paintings are often cut off, isolated in bare rooms, standing against walls or at the edge of an abyss, plunging into space or through improbable wall openings. These devices knock the viewer’s bearings off-kilter. In addition, many of Suciu’s paintings contain lost profiles: Wow!, The Other Side, Ignorant, You Don’t Want to Know, and Bigger Than Last Time. The profile view implies detachment, a mask, a vague “he” or “she” offering few visual clues as to mood or emotional state. The frontal face, as in Sublime, signals intent, a latent or potential glance directed at an observer, “I” or “you,” existing in a space contiguous with the viewer. But in Suciu’s world, heads sometimes disappear altogether, as in Border, Ostrich, Blue, One Day at the Office, Tired, and Airbag. Protagonists in these paintings hunt futilely for their own ghosts or shadows, through a door/window/hole. As a symbol of liminality or the transition from one state to another these “doors” can be traced back in time beyond the nineteenth century Danish symbolist Vilhelm Hammershøi or the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Moving into the twenty-first century, Suciu builds multiple ambiguities that manifest an ontological decentering of his characters’ very being.

In Suciu’s painting, Something Different (2008), the protagonist, wearing a business suit, has his back to us as he faces a flat cerulean blue rectangle; his figure casts shadows while his arms are bent at the elbow as though resting on a windowsill. What does he see? What is he looking for? Suciu’s Something Different seems to be in dialogue with Rene Magritte’s The Human Condition (1933), in which the painting of a landscape is placed before a window that opens up onto the identical landscape and the two appear to line up perfectly, except for the nagging suspicion that the “reality” against which one measures the painted representation is the representation itself. We are looking at Suciu’s protagonist looking at a blue screen, our virtual reality. Is the blue a reflection? A “window on the world” or a screen? Suciu calls this kind of engagement the “boomerang effect.”

“I stood in silence before a dark picture,
before a canvas that might have been
coat, shirt, flag,
but had turned instead into the world.”
from “Canvas,” Adam Zagajewski,

Deborah Frizzell teaches modern and contemporary art history at William Paterson University in New Jersey. She writes for the journals Cultural Politics, Woman’s Art Journal and New York Arts Magazine.