There’s a cluster of low-rise buildings tucked off La Cienega Avenue in Culver City that looks like an office park—an odd extension of the prominent galleries here. The sun beats down on the area’s paved interior and it’s a relief to duck into Mihai Nicodim’s aircon-ed space. The dealer is smoking cigarettes in a concrete alcove out back, the combination of tobacco and cement creating a particularly Eastern Bloc atmosphere. But this is Los Angeles, home to sunshine girls and surfer dudes, and contrasts as such are easily, if not welcomingly, made. Nicodim’s harsh features and thick Romanian accent—possibly the world’s scariest accent thanks to centuries of terrifying Romanian folk tales—belie a gentle intelligence. And we realize that Romania’s moment in the contemporary art landscape is now.
“Serban obviously paints ‘Romanian,’” Nicodim is explaining. “Everybody in Romania would recognize that kind of painting. With Ghenie, his language is universal.”
Serban Savu and Adrian Ghenie are two of Nicodim’s most prominent Romanian artists. As painters, the two—who are friends—could not be more different. Savu, as Nicodim points out, paints in soft realism scenes of Romanian idleness from a distant viewfinder, as if he is using a telescope from a helicopter. Ghenie paints muddy, surrealist images that conflate politics and art history. Each shows a different sense of what an artist is supposed to represent in Romania today.
Four years ago, Romania joined the European Union. It was a long journey from Nicolae Ceauşescu’s autocratic reign, which ended in a bloody revolution in 1989. In the 18 years prior its induction into the E.U., Romania picked up the pieces from Ceauşescu’s Communist regime, a rule that caused an entire nation of Romanians’ impoverishment, and led to the deaths of approximately two million citizens. Romania today is quite a different story. “The Tiger of Eastern Europe” has seen growth rates skyrocket. Where artists were previously coerced into creating propagandist imagery, many now have rejected politics as a subject, mainly because they can.
“Politics and social issues are always a very tempting subject for artists everywhere,” Ghenie explains, just prior to opening his show at Haunch of Venison in London. “Before ’89, Romanian artists were forced to deal with these issues in a manner imposed by the regime, which was a major turn-off. After ’89, political issues as a subject in Romanian art were everywhere, and this was because they could do it freely, but mostly because the country, at the present time, was so dramatic. To put it simply, artists were just looking around and feeling that they had real subjects. And they explored every aspect possible of the schizophrenic reality of a society in transition from Communism to a market economy.”
After this period of political exploration, Savu says, the artist was able to open up his or her expression into more unrestricted contemporary art themes. “At this moment, Romanian politics is unidirectional towards Europe,” he adds. “Of course, the local touch makes things more complicated and sometimes it looks like that there is no direction, but things change even if they change slow. I am not really interested in politics. I am more attracted by the social mechanisms, by the recent history, and more particularly I am interested in deciphering the present.”
Romania finds itself in a unique new space in the globalized world, a position we may see for Libya in the near future—as a newcomer to the global market, its domestic market a nascent area of bewildering complication. “Some [Romanians] might confuse democracy with doing whatever it is that they want,” says Nicodim of the free-for-all in Romanian capitalism, but that didn’t prevent an art market from emerging, no matter how small. Mihai Nicodim’s sister gallery in Romania is Plan B, a small white cube in Cluj, Romania’s arts center. That Plan B is the nation’s most market-aware gallery says a lot for the country. Ben Borthwick, an assistant curator at the Tate Modern, recently remarked, “[The] art scene is being built by artists from the grassroots up in the absence of a coherent national infrastructure for the visual arts.”
Cluj is as close as it comes to Romania maintaining a global arts presence. But Nicodim points out that, unlike the New Leipzig School (which was actually just an apt marketing term coined by the New Leipzigs gallerist), the so-called “School of Cluj” is a bit of a false construct. “Three or four years ago,” Nicodim elaborates, “when the artists from Cluj came out, everybody was talking about the School of Cluj. [These artists] happened to be from Cluj, but they were the least popular people in the ‘school of Cluj.’ There is a school in Cluj, but that had nothing to do with it, and actually the school didn’t support the artists. Serban was telling me that when the whole School of Cluj came about, it was hard for him to buy art materials because everybody started painting in Cluj. Doctors started painting in Cluj because it became popular. So, [the artists of Cluj] hate the term, and they hate to be labeled. There is no such thing as the School of Cluj.”
And so, what remains is a big question mark. The Romanian government has few ideas on how to handle contemporary art. The Romanian people understand the value and importance of art, even as its reference point rapidly evolves, but few know how to monetize it, to collect it, to show it, or to truly understand where the market is going. “I think the big enigma for the Romanian scene is the market,” Ghenie states.
“Contemporary art as a cultural phenomenon is understood like everywhere else—nobody can deny it. It is developing along with tradition and more conservative stuff and attitudes, which creates conflicts. People are afraid that the market often vulgarizes the fragile contemporary art scene, and reduces artworks in order to sell. The market is seen more like a source of perversion rather than an instrument that an artist can use in order to make things fluid.”
There is indeed a dark side to Romania. Bram Stoker cemented Transylvania’s reputation as the home of Dracula, and the country is the homeland to strigoi (undead souls), pricolici (vampiric werewolves), and Solomonari (a secret congregation of wizards). But, L.A. is dark, too. There’re vampires and undead souls here of a different sort. “I think,” says Ghenie, “L.A., despite the sun, is a darker place than Transylvania, so I never felt that there is a problem in L.A. to digest dark images.” Considering the unique formation of Romania’s fine art identity, it may be there isn’t an alternative.