CARROLL DUNHAM In Conversation with Phong Bui
by Phong Bui
Just a few days before his new exhibit at Gladstone Gallery on 24th Street in Chelsea (October 30th – December 5th, 2009), the painter Carroll Dunham paid a visit to Art International Radio to talk about his life and recent body of work.
Please download the pdf for the full interview
by Holland Cotter
The Romanian artist Serban Savu, who was born in 1978 and lives in Cluj in Transylvania, made his New York debut with a single small, gray, silent-feeling painting of huddled figures at the Armory Show in 2007. That same year he stood out in a group show of young Romanian artists at David Nolan Gallery, then in SoHo, and now Nolan is giving him a solo show of 14 paintings in which the sense of overcast soundlessness persists.
When Mr. Savu was a child, Romania was still under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. And although Ceausescu was deposed and killed in 1989, the technological impoverishment and isolationism of his quarter-century rule continues to mark the country, as Mr. Savu's pictures suggest in his slightly dazed and fogged-in version of the Social Realism that was once considered a utopian aesthetic.
In his paintings, most set in semirural landscapes with evidence of towns or cities not far off, everyday life goes on as if indifferent to politics. Commuters wait for a bus; workmen make concrete; a couple lie together on the grass. But beyond the couple looms a hulking building, a factory or an electric plant, apparently deserted. The workmen stand in a hangarlike interior, empty and overgrown with weeds. Only one painting depicts a world filled with material things, and these are wrecked cars and discarded furniture piled up in a trash heap, through which men sift and dig.
There is nothing radical about Mr. Savu's art. It is the opposite of cutting edge, which seems to be its point. Emblems of past promises for a utopian future and scenes of a present still poisoned by those promises exist on a continuum in these wry but unlaughing, beautifully painted pictures. They could be taken as stagnant idylls for a new Depression, except that an old one hasn't ended. (A painting by Mr. Savu is also in the booth occupied by Plan B gallery, based in Cluj and Berlin, in this year's Armory Show, which is reviewed on Page 23.)
by Greg Lindquist
Serban Savu paints the Romanian landscape, a topography where man lounges in nature amid the remaining manifestations of the Communist era. In depicting what is stereotypically perceived in terms of a diametric relationship between man and nature, Savu's portrayal of these forces takes its cue from Romanticism. The distinctions are less clear: nature is not natural—flora, fauna, terrain—but rather evokes man's presence, in such forms as industrial structures, heaps of industrial materials and the visible atmospheric results of industrial processes. If Romanticism involves a psychological desire to escape from unpleasant realities, then Savu's 21st century rendition reinvestigates this concern, imbuing these vistas with a subtle and wry nostalgia for a more economically prosperous time when Communism brought more stable employment.
The painting In the Shadow of the Dam (all paintings 2008 and oil on canvas) is redolent of the bathers in paintings by Edouard Manet and Georges Seurat, which were made at a different moment in the industrial revolution's trajectory. In particular, Seurat's 1884 Bathers at Asnieres comes to mind. The horizon line in this painting contains billowing factory smoke stacks and what appears to be a steam engine train crossing a trestle. In Savu's painting, the horizon is almost completely eclipsed, as the title implies, by the hulking concrete structure of a dam, assumedly made during the Communist era. Even more salient are the bathers in Savu's They Cannot Hear Us, two figures whose upper bodies emerge from and punctuate a river in a haze that extends towards distant factory smokestacks. These figures are all but takeoffs of Seurat's figures, murky cut-outs awash in what appears to be polluted environs.
Although the architecture's physical decay reflects its economic uselessness, such romantic titles as The Guardian of the Valley and Mountain of Nostalgia lend emotional value to these dour and severe scenes. These paintings speak to the failed utopian ideas in Communism. In The Guardian of the Valley, a nondescript figure leans against the railing of what appears to be an elevated concrete structure with small sheds atop of it.
The figures in Savu's scenes are similarly painted in an anonymous fashion: In The Edge of Empire, facial features are suppressed, blurred in suggestion of an overcast recollection or impression. In several paintings, but most strikingly in Peripheral View, this hazily, blurred quality is reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's landscape series. The figure's isolation also recalls the young contemporary German painter Tim Eitel's lonely figures in empty spaces but also the romantic trope of the individual at the center of life and art, crafting an expression of unique feelings and particular circumstances.
Although this work appears to have a social realist ethos, Savu's paintings remind me of Italo Calvino's magical realism. In particular, the collection of short stories "Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City" comes to mind. In this cycle of stories the eponymous narrator, a romantic and a blue-collar worker, longs for nature in a northern Italian city in the 1960s during the illusions of an economic boom. In these stories, while what on the surface may appear conventionally realistic is in fact paranormal or preternatural. Nature overshadows urban life, rewarding Marcovaldo in surprising and unexpected acts of beauty. In Serban Savu's painting, I sense a similar longing for nature, a desire to escape from the unpleasant reality of the present through these wistful images of the architectural relics in the landscape of Romania's past.
by Adina Popescu
Based in Cluj, the painter Serban Savu is one of the most interesting artists to emerge from post-Communist Romania. His paintings depict vast postindustrial landscapes in which people walk around, swim, and engage in everyday activities. His titles, such as Early Days of Summer (all works 2008) and The Traveler, recall Romantic motifs. Although the titles suggest landscapes in which people might feel safe and at one with nature, this is by no means the case in the paintings. Genre Scene and Mountain of Nostalgia depict concrete ruins and junkyards. In another work, an enormous industrial highway overpass casts a shadow on a figure trying to sunbathe.
One wonders whether Adorno's contemplation of the Romantic concept of nature, in which a wall overgrown with moss is experienced as a natural landscape, might also apply to a dilapidated industrial road running through a farming village in one of Savu's paintings. There is nothing Romantic about the Communist infrastructure, now scattered about the landscape, as functionless as Duchamp's urinal. One could also describe Savu's paintings as the ruins of a recent future, since his paintings entail an almost existential engagement with Communist utopia: These urban landscapes, which once promised to pave the way to the future, have, in the course of a decade, become relics. People, however, must continue to live in them. Romanticism devalues the present in favor of the elevated and the remote. Savu, however, diminishes both the present and the so-longed-for transcendent. Somewhere in the middle stand his figures, lost, doing what they do every day––primarily, just living.