The state of painting: from studies to projections
Some notes on Cătălin Bălescu’s painting

The state of painting: from studies to projections
Some notes on Cătălin Bălescu’s painting

Ruxandra Demetrescu

… il n’y a pas de clarté qui ne se tire d’un fond obscure
(Gilles Deleuze)

Any artistic biography is marked by turning points, which can take the form of a retrospective or a synthesis. The former implies a revisiting of the whole of artistic activity, while the latter requires analysis.

The exhibition „Mannerist Projections”, opened at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, offers the public a moment of synthesis, animated by two retrospective sequences. The synthesis is born from the dialogue/confrontation between two defining stages of Cătălin Bălescu’s artistic activity: the artistic production of the last decade, visible in a path configured by two previous exhibitions: „Studies for Mannerism” (Timișoara Art Museum, 2016) and „Mannerism as a State” (Craiova Art Museum, 2016) and the early artistic phase, circumscribed temporally in the first decade after the artist’s debut.

If we accept this retrospective dimension, marked by unavoidable but symptomatic omissions (the series of numerical paintings exhibited in Timișoara is missing), this implies the artist’s voluntary reflection. Let us recall that the Latin origin of the word „retrospective” brings together two key terms: retro (back) and specto/specio (to look, to contemplate), from which „spectator” and „spectacle” were derived. On the other hand, the retrospective character is combined with the dimension of introspection, decipherable as the fundamental attitude of the artist. The Latin etymology is once again emblematic: intro (inside) and again specto. Retro- and introspection seem to come together in the spectacle of Cătălin Bălescu’s painting, inviting contemplation and provoking the exercise of looking (of the spectator). The bridge between early and recent paintings can be identified in the artist’s fundamental attitude towards the image itself. I have tried to decipher it, in the hope of understanding how he relates to the reality from which he draws his subject and to the pictorial material that makes up/forms his object. I have thus discovered, step by step, a new dimension hidden in the play between the visible and the invisible, the known and the unknown, the predictable and the unpredictable. For what we see in this exhibition represents the artist’s „path” into the world of painting: a winding road at the end of which we are greeted by compositions with an undeniable Baroque „breath”. Using Marco Boschini’s Carta del Navegar Pittoresco, the most baroque example of artistic literature, I could say that Cătălin Bălescu is haunted by the ghost of the baroque on his own journey on the „sea of painting”, which seems to show him the „path”. In discovering this path, he makes use of the Aristotelian Spyglass (Canocchiale Aristotelico) imagined in the mid-17th century by Emmanuele Tesauro, to exalt the new values of painting: ingegno, a faculty superior to the intellect, because it produces argutezza, or acutezza, more important than beauty itself. The result is illusionism, the supreme quality of Baroque art, capable of provoking pleasure through inganno- deception; and deception, in turn, generates amazement: stupore and meraviglia. Let us not forget that the Baroque treatise on perspective by Pietro Acolti was called Lo inganno degli Occhi, and let us remember the words of Sforza Pallavicino, who published in Rome in 1662 the Trattato dello Stile, dedicated to Padre Oliva, leader of the Jesuits and responsible for the Baroque decoration of the Gesu church: “any master of art is all the more praiseworthy because he deceives the better, for when deception is discovered, it engenders even greater admiration”.

The pictorial substance created in the last decade by Cătălin Bălescu can be deciphered – from this perspective – through the binomial ingegno-inganno: his exercises, confined to the easel painting, methodically rework the illusionist formulas of monumental painting practised in the 17th century by Pietro da Cortona or Andrea Pozzo. The purpose of these exercises seems obvious to me: above all, one can observe a certain pictorial virtuosity, which manifests itself in the „flesh” of the painting, which is deep and distinct from the inevitably superficial „skin”.

More ambiguous, however, is Cătălin Bălescu’s relationship with modernity itself. He is modern in a more subtle way, hidden under the baroque layer of mannerist studies and projections. I am convinced that the „baroque breath” – which I evoked when writing about the 2016 exhibition at the Timișoara art museum – really animates the paintings made after 2010. Although more difficult to identify, I deciphered the connection between the early paintings and the current ones in a certain elusiveness of resemblance; there is a definite assumption of a distance, which interposes itself between the artist’s eye and the reality he is looking at, in a mechanism of concealment and revelation. The early paintings were clear evidence of the acquisition and cultivation of a remarkable virtuosity of painting, understood not only as craft but also as a dialogue between faire and magic. What is striking even now, decades later, is a certain stubborn cultivation of the fragment/detail, in which the fold predominates. Was this a first encounter with the Baroque fold? For the drapery tends to dominate all compositions, folded in multiple ways, masking landscape, still life and even portraiture in a play of imagery that subverts the genres of painting to the point of confusion. Seen in retrospect, the early paintings seem inspired by the lesson of the great modernity from Manet to Cézanne, which inevitably marked any innovative gesture in Romanian painting, becoming an integral part of the pedagogy of the Bucharest art school.
On the contrary, the „baroque” paintings of the current stage of his artistic activity are striking for the integrating totality of the compositions, in which detail is sacrificed for the sake of the whole. The themes are diffuse, without any iconographic constraint, and the characters – when they appear – seem to float in a kind of magma that is no longer landscape and that goes far into the depths of pictorial space, cancelling out the background, while the pictorial matter is dominated by an almost visceral dimension.

Looking at Cătălin Bălescu’s very recent paintings, I have tried to identify a particular dimension that differentiates them, albeit subtly, from those made between 2012-2018. I have sometimes noticed vegetal elements that seem to configure an imaginary landscape; I sense here an artistic will that tends to recover fragments of an abstracted nature from a familiar universe, rediscovered by the artist’s attentive, poetic eye. At other times I have found concrete, precarious models, transposed into a pictorial universe that transfigures their banality. Thus, I recognised a small statuary group of six chained putti, transposed into a painting, in which they converse with (pro)venient figures from sketches made after murals discovered on a recent trip to Sicily. I was also struck by a singular painting of a face, which reminded me of a sui generis portrait, in which resemblance is no longer cultivated, but rather becomes a pretext for chromatic research, through the contrast of complementary colours. Finally, I was struck by a mask that blends into an uncertain pictorial mass, dominated by a diffuse materiality.
This is why titles ultimately remain a mere accessory: the paintings might as well remain „untit-led” or bear allusive-metaphorical titles, in keeping with the profound – and ineffable – poetic substance of the Baroque. The author himself seems to have experimented with the literary titles of his works: in this respect I am reminded of a series paradoxically entitled – as it seemed to me at the time – „Neoclassical”. On returning later, I realised that there might have been a hidden meaning, such as that identified by Germain Bazin when he said that, in essence, classi-cism was a kind of recurrent „remorse” felt by European civilisation whenever it tried – and of-ten succeeded – to move away from it. For the Baroque seems to have always been a challenge to European culture, an irritating phenomenon, precisely because of its recurrence. With the end of the artistic paradigms of modernity and the emergence of postmodern culture, the Ba-roque seems to have become the object of a true symptomatology: more a model than an ob-ject, it is the experimental site of a thought in search of its own history, which seeks to restore the spirituality of the 17th century, in which philosophy, art and science merged into a harmo-nious whole.
Consciously or not, Cătălin Bălescu (re)lives the eternal classical-baroque tension in his artistic activity: in his recent phase, the balance is definitely tilted in favour of a baroque expressiveness, which can be deciphered with the help of Wölfflin’s late – or ultimate – considerations in Gedanken zur Kunstgeschichte: the baroque represents not the decline but the natural development from Renaissance classicism to the „late style” – prevailing since then – characterized by a fundamentally optical dimension, according to an internal law of formal development, dominated by (pure) visuality. All these stylistic features are to be found in Cătălin Bălescu’s painting, which represents, from this point of view, a triumph of the pictorial (in relation to the linear) and implicitly of colour (in relation to drawing).

However, drawing has always accompanied the artistic activity of painter Cătălin Bălescu, from the size/quality of a sketch, to the large-scale one, being able to be seen in the mirror of the painting covered with colours. Let us not forget that in the classical tradition, the drawing is the visible/invisible of the composition. The circumscription of form implies its limits: „Il ne se donne point de visible sans terme” said Poussin. What can be circumscribed escapes the eye. It is the drawing that discerns, becoming an analytical tool, that separates the whole in order to know it better, to master it. The relationship that the drawing establishes between the whole and the part, under the sign of the fantasy of absolute visibility, is one established according to the model of an anatomised, frozen organism, perfectly controllable in the smallest details. Poussin also evokes the „two ways of seeing objects: one is to see them simply, the other to consider them carefully. To see simply is nothing other than to receive naturally in one’s eyes the form and likeness of the things seen. But to see an object by considering it means that, beyond the simple natural reception of the form in the eye, we seek with particular attention the means of knowing this object well”. I believe this is the lesson of the drawing practised by the painter Cătălin Bălescu, and its presence in the current exhibition has the value of a memento for the spectator that drawing is (as Roger de Piles stated with scholastic ingenuity at the end of the 17th century) the proximate genre of the visual arts, and colour/colouring the specific difference of painting. A balanced dialogue is thus created between the continuity of the drawing, which is massively developed through the three large scrolls (about 10 metres) that animate and reconfigure the exhibition space, and the sequentiality of the easel paintings.

Cătălin Bălescu is aware of the fact that the sketch – tirelessly practiced in drawing – remains the most obvious demonstration of the mnemotechnical process that art and relating to it entails: the imagination is called upon to complete the artist’s project, to make up for the absence of those elements that can complete the image of reality. Imagination is here a derivative of memory. I have tried to reconstruct the scenario – inevitably imperfect and fanciful – of the painter at work, starting this time from the dilemmatic relationship with the model. By the time the painter, having looked at the model, turns his eyes to the easel, the model has disappeared. When he has the model in front of his eyes, the painting disappears in turn. As Diderot pointed out, each time the painter discovers something else, someone else behind the canvas. Behind the representation, we have the irretrievable loss of what is represented, for its image is there to convince us that it no longer exists: si videbis non videris says Amor to Psyche when she insists on seeing it. The equivalence between seeing and believing follows here. Representation corresponds to a desire: a desire translated into the need to isolate the simulacrum, to frame it and adore it. We can therefore distinguish the idea of loss as the result of a strange and spectacular dichotomy: the signified or the pictorial signifier; figure or matter; whole or part. The significant production of the painting must guarantee the clarity, legibility and transparency of the image. But from the moment the eye has approached the painting, in order to designate the visible and to totalise it, an economy of desire is revealed to us in/through this advance, in which the painting becomes a body, endowed, therefore, with a symptom and ready to respond to a phantasm of the subject before the image. Thus, the cutting away of the visible, the fragmentation of painting reveals a dazzling, aura power in the hesitant play between near and far, between tactile and optical.

The distance, which separates Cătălin Bălescu’s studio from the museum hosting the exhibi-tion, will not be cancelled until the opening. Until then, the only link is the artist’s view of the paintings, which is par excellence Baroque, using a convex mirror, one of his favourite tools. The world of his paintings – seen through the mirror – is for me a baroque metaphor par excel-lence, defining the artist’s self-assumed mannerist studies, moods and projections.

I cannot end these notes without trying to elucidate the dilemma of mannerism (preferred by the artist himself) and baroque, under the sign of which I have viewed the current stage of his artistic activity. Five years ago, Cătălin Bălescu said at the exhibition „Mannerism as a state” at the Craiova Art Museum: „Mannerism as a state is, from my point of view, a late finding; I woke up in the state of mannerism, since I cared about the painting, I still care about the painting, I care about technique, I care about vision, I care about the experiences of drawing. Against the backdrop of the current upheavals generated by modernism and postmodernism, I have had to and still have to define my position. And so, like it or not, I am a mannerist in my approach, but it is an attitude towards vision, technique, painting itself and the painting, not necessarily a pejorative, as is the common understanding of the term”.

If we accept that some features of historical mannerism could be defined (also) as ambiguous, discontinuous space, obscure image, deformation and tension of the body, then Cătălin Băles-cu’s paintings can be seen through the mannerist lens. We can also recall that, in his critical recovery of mannerism in modernity, Arnold Hauser defined it as a way of affirming an alienat-ed artistic expression, characteristic of an era of crisis, in which the work manifests a process of transformation of the subject into an object, indicating a loss of self. It should also be noted that Hauser was marked by the Hegelian view that alienation is the inevitable product of artis-tic creation in which the work of art transcends the control and intentions of its maker, assum-ing an autonomous character, akin to reflection. If we accept the Hegelian premises fructified by Hauser, then we can wonder to what extent Cătălin Bălescu’s recent artistic activity could be a response, implicit or unconscious, to the successive crises of modernity and postmodernity. Seen from this perspective, the path that began with „studies for Mannerism” and continued with Mannerism as a „stare” now ends coherently with „Mannerist projections”: the studies „for” and not „ about” “about” affirm the dimension of reflection mentioned by Hegel; the Mannerist „state” could indicate the transformation of subject into object, in the sense that certain subjective experiences and projections of the imaginary are embodied in pictorial mat-ter/materiality; finally, the „ projections” now recall another essential fact in the author’s artis-tic metabolism, namely that the principle of resemblance is definitively eluded, in the play be-tween opacity and transparency: the opacity of poiesis and the transparency of mimesis.

As far as I am concerned, I continue to look at Cătălin Bălescu’s paintings with the Baroque „spyglass”, because this is the only way I can see their specific features, so atypical, in the end, in the world of contemporary art: they seem to come from afar, from a background fed by the phantasms of the Baroque, now recovered by the painter’s attentive eye.

Ruxandra Demetrescu
March 2022