The recent images created by Cătălin Bălescu in the intimacy of his Bucharest workshop on Ermil Pangratti street, presented today to the public in Craiova, continue older topics of interest of the artist, all related to the world of the visible. Looking retrospectively, I am able to measure the magnitude of the temporal arc under whose opening the work of Cătălin Bălescu was built in the most natural way, according to “growth laws” marked by an admirable coherence. I can do it because, on several occasions, I have had the opportunity to research his creations in the course of their becoming. The above mentioned “laws” lead from one stylistic stage to another, and as much as one can distinguish between them the paintings made in the different “ages of creation”, one discovers in all of them the same intensity of information, whether of a visual or spiritual nature. Moreover, despite the differences of stylistic nature, a certain constant can be recognized in the work of Cătălin Bălescu.

It is precisely the one that lends – above all – the individuality to the message the painter puts in the work. I have in mind the ever-living curiosity nu means of which he manages explore the cultural foundations of his profession. In the creative act, he takes the painting itself as the guide. Analyzing the whole work, you come to the conclusion that the artist and pedagogue Cătălin Bălescu is deeply acquainted with the “vocation” of the painter art to refer to his own being. As an artist who leaned towards the theoretical, he had the opportunity to form a clear idea about the phenomenon of self-referentiality, a true constant that has accompanied the painter’s gesture since the auroral age of modernity. A constant that Cătălin Bălescu transforms into a major topic of his creation.

As I have already said, I have been a guest many times in the Ermil Pangratti street workshop, and I think I always enjoyed the Cartesian order that reigned there. That was when the paintings were removed, one by one, from the overlapping stands, to be subjected to the act of contemplation. In spite of this rhythmic and sequential perception of the paintings, I was visited by the thought or merely by the simple intuition that the images that had accumulated there in time were, together, the authentic and vivid chart of the painter’s creativity. I was confronted with the very fingerprint the artist left in the world. What I mean to say is that all the paintings communicated between them in an ineffable way, participating in the “weaving” of a wider message, which probably even their creator could not loom when, armed with the coal of the drawer or with the painter’s brush and palette, was concerned about bringing the story in the visible field, or the somewhat miraculous narrative, included in a single painting. Therefore, I deduce that the rectangular space, bounded by the chassis over which the canvas was stretched, must have been imagined from the beginning as a monadic world, sufficient for itself.

When the author is Cătălin Bălescu, the painting is certainly free of any decorative function, the artist being preoccupied – above all – with the shaping of the figurative message he has decided to entrust to the structure of the work. Through this effort, he participates in that essential reality that Pierre Francastel simply called, “figurative reality.” Here is a phrase that today, from the perspective of the time that has passed – but also free from the unconditional and juvenile admiration that I felt at the time of the publication of the book with this title – I am tempted to identify it with one of the most synthetic and at the same time more efficient formulations by which the painter’s art has ever been defined.
A figurative artist par excellence, Cătălin Bălescu brings into play the elements of the recognizable world. Here the anthropomorphic structures that accumulate on the surface of his canvas – as if in a miraculous way – and the simple Baroque curtain that drew his attention, participate in the formation of a complex message that shares simultaneously the “powers” of the verbal discourse, but also those of pure plasticity. Trying to summarize and somehow to explain the iconography of Cătălin Bălescu’s art, I will say that in undulations of a curtain, the viewer has the opportunity to discover as much “narrative substance” as in the amazed expression which sometimes the artist surprises on the face of some of the numerous puttice that are the subject of his visual investigation. They populate the magmatic spaces the artist imagines. A curtain painted by Cătălin Bălescu seems to “speak” often for itself. It brings into play the pathetic movement or the contemplative silence, depending on how the shadow and the light have dwelled between its folds, in other words, as the tension between clear and obscure has been cultivated or, on the contrary, dimmed by the express will of artist.

The genesis of a fluid, auroral, constantly changing world seems to be the main theme, “attacked” by Cătălin Bălescu’s brush. If a prospective and ignorant viewer of his paintings would ask “What did the painter want to depict?” one can answer to him/her that on the canvas a conclave of putti was painted, waiting for the miracle that has not yet occurred, but it is certainly going to happen, this uneducated and totally hypothetical viewer would, of course, remain unsatisfied in his/her expectations. But it is precisely in his/her dissatisfaction that the very essence of the painter’s quests would let itself be uncovered, the one who decided to extract the significance of the work, not from the facts of direct life, which succeeded impassively and monotonously in front of the eyes, but from the very multi-layered cultural substance of the phenomenon to whom we usually call “history of art”. From its unprobed depths, Cătălin Bălescu strives to extract the spiritual substance of the work. The visual information accumulated over time, which is the living tissue of the history of art, is converted into characters-energies that populate the figurative compositions proposed by the painter. In spite of their anthropomorphism, the above mentioned characters are perceived for the time being as an indistinct fact as a diffuse emotion that has not yet crystallized, but can induce to the spirit of the viewer the tension of an indefinable expectation. As a contemplator of the paintings, you realize late that the above mentioned expectation finds its fulfilment and target in the very act of consuming it. You discover something similar to the message that Samuel Becket included in the play he so inspiredly called Waiting for Godot. The viewer of Cătălin Bălescu’s paintings identifies the magmatic characters, tries to distinguish them from their interweaving, perceives the interaction between them, but fails to recognize the concrete actions in which they are engaged. The tension of expectation seems to have settled between the enigmatic gestures the characters delineate. It is that which actually replaces the denotative message expected by the hypothetical, artificial and uneducated viewer, which I have evoked experimentally, only to delimit the “significant field” of Cătălin Bălescu’s painting.

All this experience consumed in the very act of contemplation – which I tend to place under the sign of diffuse emotion, born in the absence of concrete, easily recognizable actions – becomes an equivalent of the classic catharsis, yet without identifying to it. In the scenario proposed by Cătălin Bălescu the “vehicle” of a mimetic vision is lacking, in which the viewer of the painting can project or recognize his own experiences, in order to finally get rid of their ballast. The approach the painter proposes to us resembles more that of the theologian or the ascetic. In the images that are the subject of these considerations, the tension of pure expectation replaces the recognizable, verbalizable action in sentences and phrases. The spiritual experience Cătălin Bălescu proposes to us is related rather with the spiritual exercises of the one immersed in prayer, oriented to the searching of the inner ones, the ultimate goal being that of “self-emptying”. This is only to make a place of a higher reality, impossible to define the existentialist philosophers call “being” and the simple believers call “divinity”.

Arrived at this point of my considerations, it is time to observe – without feeling of surprise in any way – that the mannerism understood in its stylistic dimension is the one that is just entering the stage. It does so in a recognizable way and fully assumed by the artist himself. Since this style of the 16th century is above all an artifice, it becomes clear that in the art of Cătălin Bălescu the experience that I have identified as an equivalent of catharsis is seen isolated, kept away from any mimetic-naturalistic manifestation, as prescribed by Aristotle in his Poetica. So the viewer of the paintings is not invited to recognize his own experiences. On the contrary, he/she is confronted with a completely new spiritual, almost mystical experience. It is as if the painter, before engaging himself in the creative process itself, began by decanting the cathartic energies spread in all the literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic and plastic works on this earth, after which, with a sovereign gesture, would have placed them directly on the canvas, instead of the colours, in this way denoting to be a painter of pure emotion or emotion-energy. It, the emotion, is the real hero of the paintings. Through her intercession, the artist communicates the message with the natural with which, in material order, it knows how to handle the canvas, the colours and the brush. That is why I believe that the visual experience Cătălin Bălescu proposes is the equivalent of a mannerism at the “second power”. The representatives of the historical mannerism wanted to achieve plastic perfection, bringing together the various “perfections” gathered from the works of the maestros they worshipped: drawing, colour, grace, harmony. Unlike the eclectic approach of the mannerists, Cătălin Bălescu knows how to decant from the vast basin of art history a whole range of emotions, which he orchestrates as a skilful director.

By penetrating into the magmatic atmosphere of Cătălin Bălescu’s canvas, I realize that the characters-energies tend to generate a space of their own, in which they manifest themselves autonomously and sovereignly. That’s why I think the perspectives the artist imagines are the opposite of the classical Renaissance, rational and, of course, limited perspective. At Cătălin Bălescu, space proves to be an endless reality, constantly transformed, installed at the point where the abstraction flows into what at the beginning of my considerations I designated by the phrase “figurative reality”, a reality which, in its turn, tries continually the nostalgia of abstraction, of void, or even perhaps of nothingness. Expressing myself in simpler terms, I will say that the characters of Cătălin Bălescu generate their own playing space, which is at a “balance of the opposites”. Ghostlike, woven from the ineffable, fuzzy substance of a mannerist horizon, they appear on a scene only imagined, which they have just generated. And this evanescent scene is too little related to the traditional scene – the equivalent of the Renaissance perspective cube – , but rather with a fluid space, inherent in the inner world we generally call “soul life”.

As it happens such a space is true to the movie world, where the movement of the lens often turns into a “chart” of pure emotion. Perceiving Cătălin Bălescu’s paintings from a cinematographic perspective, it is not difficult to mix the characters-energies, and thus – more by crawling – to penetrate into the “film” that, as a painter-film-maker, the artist proposes to you. The interpretation that I am describing is not – as one might think – the source of the unleashed critical inspiration, off the support of the concrete fact that any historian or critic of authentic art seeks for, in order to check his intuitions and ground his demonstrations. The accuracy and the passion with which Cătălin Bălescu knows how to analyze the latest cinematographic creations, to dissect them, to re-create the atmosphere in their own pictorial creations, or to propose them – as “ferments of inspiration” to his students.

Mannerism precedes the seventh art – that we usually call “cinema art” – seems to be proven by the famous Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, painted by Parmigianino. In the circular and convex mirror waters with which the painting also confounds, the image of the young painter is seen exiled in the farthest plane of the image. In exchange, his hand – considerably amplified – tends to penetrate into the viewer’s space. Through such an artifice, Francesco Mazzola – whom the contemporaries called Parmigianino – foretells the famous cinematographic effect by which a locomotive at full speed rushes over the terrified spectators in the darkness of the room, that room in which “the seventh art “still lived its childhood. Not less ” cinematographic” are the images of Jacopo da Pontormo’s Evangelists. Present in the high Capponi Chapel in Florence, they are depicted as leaning over the circular sills that fit them and separate them from the real, three-dimensional space of the chapel. They do it as if deliberately, so that they could explore the deep space, the one dedicated to the worshipers. But in this way, Pontormo delegates them a special and somewhat mysterious mission, that of vigilant supervisors of those who come to pray.

I will observe – in the conclusion of these considerations – that interpreting mannerism only in “cinematographic key” means to drastically restrict their spiritual action and, of course, the significance. That is why I propose a return to the searching of those magmatic spaces imagined by Cătălin Bălescu, where, in a spectral light, the characters- energies evolve. Designing the viewer of the paintings in such a world – which he invented on the whole – the painter urges him to discover in his own soul formation the emotions and states that once formed the spiritual tissue of an entire age – the one the art historians once decided to call “mannerism”. This is a way by which the present is allowed to effuse its energies in a fulfilled time. But this is how the past itself is called to a new life. It is precisely the path at the end of which – wanting to define his creative approach – Cătălin Bălescu perceived “mannerism as a state”.

Cristian-Robert Velescu
April 23, 2018