THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 

MANHATTAN CHRONICLES 
These Heads are not just Masks

by Marek Bartelik

 

Public art has been an integral part of our urban surroundings for a long time. Whether we consider the imprints of human hands on the walls of ancient caves in Spain and France or the allegorical shadows described by Plato in The Republic, the very first works of art were “public projects” realized by people who sought to speak to their collective community and perhaps to humanity as a whole, rather than to art connoisseurs. The institutionalization of art brought on by modernity endowed the term “public art” with more specificity: it described works of art displayed, temporarily or permanently, in outdoor urban spaces, such as streets, parks, and squares, instead of in museums and galleries. By entering our environment, public art interacts with our daily lives, in which truth is neither a material nor a subject matter.

The exhibition of Dumitru Gorzo’s paintings in the urban environment of Red Bank, New Jersey, constitutes an unorthodox public art project.
 
His works, installed at various locations around the town, neither “blend” with their surroundings in the way traditional monuments or advertisements often do, nor do they “confront” the space around them in the manner of graffiti art. With distinct painterly qualities, Gorzo’s paintings unmistakably look like works of art produced in the artist’s studio; it is extremely difficult to confuse them with other types of images present in the streets. The same applies to the identity of the people depicted in his paintings: these are not portraits of the locals and they are very different from the characters to be seen on commercial billboards. Gorzo’s people look like fantastic creatures, recognizable, yet products of the artist’s rich imagination, who have “invaded” our public space to generate a conversation about the meaning of art (not just public art) in our lives.

The fact that Gorzo’s paintings belong to his studio is important. It is also important that his studio is adjacent to the street. It is there that his art achieves its universal dimension through being engaged in a passionate conversation with the history of art. His works often contain references to other artists (some explicit, some oblique) and he alludes to different styles of painting. While exploring the visual lexicon of art, however, the artist avoids reverting to the strategy of appropriation so ubiquitous in contemporary art. Despite displaying stylistic similarities to works by other artists, each painting Gorzo makes is distinctively his. He strongly believes that art that lasts must bear the distinct imprint of its maker. As he explained in an interview, “No great artist has trodden on a path already made by others before him.”

Gorzo’s involvement with public art started in the 1990s in his native Romania, where he developed a unique artistic language of bold figuration that combines modernist aesthetics with local sources derived from both folk art and modern urban culture.
 
From early on, making art for him demanded direct engagement with the public in general, and in particular, with those who do not visit museums or galleries on a regular basis. “I wanted to meet them,” he said, “and that is how I decided to take my works to the streets, to create works of art that can challenge the ordinary perception in visual arts.”

He completed his first major public project entitled “Cocoons” in Bucharest in 2003. It involved gluing 350 small plaster figurines to the walls of buildings in the center of the Romanian capital. Although visually distinct, the figurines were not intended to become objects of aesthetic or intellectual contemplation, but—as the artist stated—to surprise the viewer by appearing out of place, therefore initiating a public debate among passersby about their broader meaning. In fact, the forms were quite generic, looking like some sort of primitive idols. The confusion appeared to be total: some people called them “Satanist signs.” The intent of Gorzo’s “provocation” was, however, not to outrage people, but to force them to question their own perception of what they consider natural in their urban environment and their culture.

More specific were subjects represented in “The Fence” mounted along Banului Street in Bucharest in 2007. These were portraits of people from Gorzo’s native village of Ieud. He painted them realistically, using graphite on plywood.  Painting Romanian peasants on a fence in Bucharest was a subversive gesture in itself, because it went against the then current trends in Romanian art that devalued the country’s folk art to the status of backward expression. This project enabled the artist to question the boundaries between “high” and “low,” as well to reflect on the conditions of universality in art. The work took on its own public life when it was covered with graffiti, which the artist welcomed, viewing such an action as a valuable encounter with the anonymous viewer, who claimed his/her right to physically interact with Gorzo’s art.

Since his arrival in New York in 2008, Gorzo’s art has not undergone any dramatic formal transformation. It remains figurative, expressive, and, above all, it is his.
 
What changed for him was the context in which his works were being presented, as well as his audience. Because the viewer was still the center of his attention, he thought about how to communicate with his American audience, acknowledging its specificity, but also recognizing its commonality with any other audience, including the one in his native Romania. Lately, the figures in his art have become more iconic than those in his earlier works, now standing for types of people rather than for specific characters. In some way they represent us all in different states of mind, as we perceive ourselves inside, rather than the way the world perceives us. The difference might be subtle, because the way we perceive ourselves has a lot to do with the way we feel we are being perceived by others.
 
In “Heads” Gorzo exercises the artistic license of a painter to speak about humanity in a highly expressive manner, and in doing so he is not afraid to appear slightly obsessed.
 
He shows himself as relentless in the way he works as an artist in search of his expression with its conditions of production. The expressiveness he employs often verges on being satirical, even hallucinatory. But he always remains highly introspective. His characters scrutinize the world with eyes wide open: green, blue, brown, black, pink, blank, carrying the weight of paint, anxious, wet, intense, waiting, absent, full of joy, confident, cloud gazing, almost. His portraits speak about the human condition that is a timeless neurotransmitter. There is an echo of classical Roman antiquity in the way his characters present themselves: they seem more like “sculptures” than images.

In modern art, the distortion of human physiognomy has often been linked to the interest by Western artists in non-Western cultures, with their specific ways of representation. Since Pablo Picasso modeled the faces of his figures on African and Iberian masks during the cubist period, that kind of distortion has been accepted as part of mainstream artistic expression. Asked about his new paintings, Gorzo replied: “They are not masks,” paraphrasing René Magritte. In his famous The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images, 1929), the Belgian Surrealist painted the phrase, “This is not a pipe” below a realistic image of a pipe. The meaning of this seeming paradox might be quite obvious now: a representation of the object in painting cannot stand for the object itself. According to Gorzo, masks cover the face, whereas his faces are not covered. His paintings are of heads, not faces—hence the title of his outdoor exhibition. He thinks about them as volume and mass, even if their presence can be experienced only in an imaginary fashion. Indeed, despite (or because) they are painted, his heads are as solid as rocks, or even prehistoric dolmans.

The illusionistic third dimension of Gorzo’s Heads might not be their depth, which of course cannot be physically present on a two-dimensional surface. It is the public dimension of the larger space that they occupy. That’s when Red Bank enters into his work, not only as a specific place—with a specific urban dynamics and history—but also as a space where a work of art functions as a work of art. In that context, Gorzo’s “Heads” speak about the urgency of the presence of art in our life, not just as something that blends in with our daily environment, but, in fact, as objects that stand out from it and assert their meaning with their own unique visuality.

Heads by Gorzo is on view at the Museum of Contemporary art at Red Bank in New Jersey Through October 14th