They are broken but beautiful
Artist's collages reflect a dark past in Romania
TRACEY O'SHAUGHNESSY | REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
The women avert their gaze. They look downward, or away. They are blinded, by ribbon or reluctance. They turn their backs. They shut their eyes. They offer beauty that rots and time that passes. They are incarcerated - and tantalized by butterflies. The figures in Florin Ion Firimitã's multimedia works at Good News Cafe are not all women. And they are not all demure. But the female figure commands a hypnotic and ambiguous position in his surrealistic collages. They are gorgeous - all curves and sinews, mystery and majesty. But they are elusive, imprisoned in strange bird cages and metallic dress forms. Either they are incarcerated or splintering apart. In "Muse," a woman grows out of a dress form, her shoulders pinned by two metallic gears. Below, a house painter's brush hardens with inky pink paint. To the side, a woman's hand clutches a rope of chain link. Someone seems conflicted here, between escape and enchainment.
So much is going on in Firimitã's assemblages that it can be dizzying and destabilizing. Churches grow towers of toast. Classical sculptures hold marionettes of silhouettes. Women hold harlequin masks over their faces, and are shackled in copper cuffs. Wooden palms drop juicy, half-cut apples. These assemblages, formally composed with a wink toward neoclassicism, seem to be as much about velocity as they are about confusion, truncated dreams, missed opportunities and the ever-present scrim of mendacity. Images of women as they are and as fashion sees them - exploited by dress forms and classical images of ideal beauty are diced and divvied up. Thighs stride forward, disembodied; hands collapsed and then shattered in mirrorlike splinters. Catching up with these women, holding them, seeing them clearly and directly, seems impossible. They change and alight, like the butterflies that appear, talismanlike, in so many of these works. Life whizzes by with furious celerity, which is part of its charm and part of its chagrin.
It should be no surprise that Firimitã, born in Bucharest, only came to the U.S. in 1990, a year after deposed Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were shot by a firing squad. Someone who spent time behind the Iron Curtain must have been blinded by the speed and abundance of the U.S. Firimitã was the son of a factory worker father and an aristocratic artist mother whose brother had been a cultural attaché to France. After her brother died suddenly in a car accident, and Romanian officials labeled the death a suicide, much of Firimitã's mother's hopes died as well. She had hoped her brother would secure her a fashion design studio in Paris. After his death, Firimitã said, "I never saw her pick up a pencil again... She was in her own personal prison, really." Firimitã's mother died when he was 17 - just one year after his father and only months after an influential art teacher who had given him the keys to his studio. He spent his senior year living in a hospital, just adjacent to his dying mother, who spent the last six months of her life in a coma.
None of this should be necessary to know, looking at his engaging assemblages, which recall Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg, but it certainly explains much of the heartache that runs through them. It is a beautiful, mesmerizing, jarring, and trenchant exhibit, about the disjointedness of time and the unbearable brokenness of being.
EVA DEFESES/NIRAM ART MAGAZINE, MADRID, SPAIN, 2007
E.D.:What is your view on the artist-gallerist relation at present? Do you think that the role of the gallery has changed?
F.I.F: The art world is global today. There are no more regional markets. It is hard to find a gallery that would support you the way, let’s say, galleries used to support and promote the Impressionists, the American Pop artists, or the Abstract Expressionists. There aren’t any Kahnweilers or Durant-Ruels out there anymore.
It took me five years to build what I thought it was a decent body of work, and obtain my first gallery representation. Since then, I dealt with good galleries and not-so good galleries. Right now, I am represented by two excellent galleries, Lascano in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and White Space in New Haven, Connecticut. It is a business relationship, of course, yet, it must be so much more than that. If all a gallery does is display your work, that’s not enough. If a gallery tells you what or how to work, that’s also a sign that you must pack up your bags. There are a lot of talented gallerists out there, and many are willing to go the extra mile and sustain and nurture a relationship with the artist, allow him/ her to grow without the pressures of the marketplace. I have been visiting galleries in New York City at lest once a month for the past seventeen years, often with my students. Especially in the large, well-established spaces, I have rarely encountered anyone willing to talk about the artists they represent. Those places give me a funeral-home feeling. If it is a turn-off for me, as an artist, imagine the person who walks in there for the first time. Some of the best art out there is not shown in the big galleries, but rather in small, alternative spaces, away from the centre. A lot of interesting stuff happens in those smaller galleries, they are constantly reaching the public, bridging that gap left by the absence of genuine critics. A good gallery is not just a place that sells, it must be a friendly link between art and the public.
You are a European artist living and working in the USA. What are the main differences between the dynamics of the 2 great world art markets? Do they work differently; do they have different objectives or art values?
Here, in the U.S., the artist has always been looked at as an “outsider.” Every “true” American artist seems to embody that lone-cowboy-walks-into-a-bar type of attitude. Warhol did it, and so did Jackson Pollock. What I mean by this is that artists have traditionally been scrutinized in the American culture. They are suspicious trouble-makers in a pragmatic culture, where most of the time, money and fame matters more than the culture. There is a lot of bluffing in the process, but also, there are enormous opportunities. There is a huge amount of money spent on art in here, mainly by private collectors. Galleries open and close all the time. It is very exciting. There are thousands of them just in New York City. But in the United States, you are pretty much on your own. Unfortunately, we have no public intellectuals, nor a cultural dialogue in the media. It is like going into a restaurant and being offered everything to eat. The government rarely sponsors the visual arts. The art critics don’t really exist, or nobody cares about them. I don’t remember ever seeing a visual artist on an American talk show. I have never read a negative art review in years. No one has the guts to say that the emperor has no clothes. In this context, the art market is a playground with volatile boundaries. Some artists are being offered retrospectives when they are in their 30’s. Then, no one hears from most of them ever again. It is all part of the dynamics of this culture. The temptation of the money is always here, but in time, it will all sort out.
In terms of art values, I am not even sure if there is a difference anymore between culture and entertainment in the United States. “Kitsch,” (from Donald Trump to hip-hop), so prevalent in our culture, is still a term that Americans cannot identify. Europe still values its culture apart from entertainment, and cherishes the humanistic essence of its culture. Modern Europe has been always supporting the arts because it has recognized that the arts are at the core of Western civilization, and that there would be no civilization without art. Europe practices a “soft” capitalism in which the state recognizes that it cannot function without the arts. It has realized that a mature dialogue between its “tribes” based solely on economic parameters is not enough. This is not the case in the U.S. By contrast, we make aesthetic judgements with our pocket calculators near by. We judge movies based on how much money they make at the box office, not by how they move us.
How should a young artist in a foreign country try to promote himself, can you identify several steps in order to construct from zero a successful career?
When looking for a definition of the word ‘exile,’ the one that I could somehow relate to was the Latin term exsilio, which means “spring forth.” All artists are exiles. All artists need to know how to spring forth, how to market their art. The time when artists where “discovered” is long gone. It is, of course, time consuming: you have to focus on two parallel aspects of your career: the work itself (recognizing when the work has matured), and how to promote it. Work comes first, and what I mean by that is that you need to have a coherent body of work that truly represents you. Then you should get involved. You should be working all the time, and first try showing in smaller, not-for profit spaces like restaurants, public spaces and libraries, small co-op galleries, belong to art organizations, and constantly, constantly make connections and send portfolios out. All that is a job by itself; it requires money, talent, and time. A good friend and fellow artist, Stewart Wilson, has recently organized a “salon” type of show in his gallery, Artwell. He called for artists and invited about 50 galleries from three states to view the works and select artists for representation. It was a huge success in facilitating new relationships between artists and gallerists.
About ten years ago I took my portfolio to a gallery in New York City, to a well-known gallery owner. We talked for about five hours, then he said to me: “You’re an intelligent young man, but your art is wallpaper. There isn’t a trace of you in it. These paintings could be painted by anybody.” He also paraphrased Andy Warhol, by saying that artists are always in danger of repeating themselves. (Warhol called it “making cakes.”) I left offended, thinking that he didn’t understand me, and that he was incapable of appreciating my art. Today, of course, I know that he was right. You have to know when you are ready. Your art has to be ready. Timing and maturity are important in promoting your art.
A Romanian artist who has become a success story in the USA once said that it is easier in America for anyone with a little talent to succeed. Do you agree with this line of ideas, in comparison to Europe, of course?
Succeed, but for how long? Talent, success, the United States, they all sound wonderful together. In Andy Warhol’s blender, it is the perfect 15-minute-of-fame melange. Talent is not enough to be successful. To me, talent is not only a gift, an accident, talent is a duty. It is also only a very small part of what it takes to succeed in today’s art world. And of course, America is such an extraordinary, dynamic and tolerant place, that plenty of people with no talent are allowed to become famous! These are the perils of democracy! Not that all artists are equally good, but that all artists have an equal chance to show their work. There will always be the swift stuntmen of art, the one-timers, the elevator music musicians, the kings and queens of kitsch, marching along with the profound voices of our time. It is very colourful to watch. And here, in a country where everything is aimed at being successful, we love to display our clowns in specimen jars; we recycle our fakes and turn them into accessible moral tales. Look at the cases of Anna-Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton.
There is always a tendency to de-mystify profound art, to dilute everything and bring it to the consumer’s level. Subconsciously, we are afraid of what a Beethoven symphony might rouse in us, so we turn it into elevator music. In this light, making art is opposite to the art world. You have two contrasting aspects: being in your studio, away from the world, is probably one of the last bastions of privacy. There is a certain vulnerability in being in the studio, dealing with your art, it is something sacred if you wish. But then, you have to show your work. Sharing that intimate experience by leaving the comfort of your studio and getting out there, attending openings, contacting galleries and museums, etc., is a totally different game. It is like a monk spending his evenings in discotheques. On top of that, what you are dealing with as an artist is this constant chase between skills and content. You think you have things to say, but you don’t know how, or your technical skills are great, but your content is barren. When the two agree, something magical happens, and then you could finally talk about making art. Bottom line is: do you have anything to say? Are you able to transfer a private, personal experience, into a universal truth? Beethoven did it. Pessoa did it. Van Gogh did it. The guy who composes music for TV car commercials doesn’t. I am not saying that his skills don’t have a place and function in the daily mechanism of our lives, but “true” talent always elicits what I call the “WOW!” effect: you are so deeply affected by a poem, a film, a story, a painting, or a photograph, that it stops you in your tracks, it takes your breath away, it brings you back, it moves you, it stays with you. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, you know it. It’s like falling in love. Success means being true to yourself, and being fortunate enough to be able to share that with the world. Sooner or later, anything less than that is bound to get flushed down the drain of oblivion.
How do American galleries and art collectors view contemporary European art? Do they want to promote European artists?
I think there is a huge enthusiasm for new, contemporary European at in the United States. Americans are fascinated by Europe the way Europeans are fascinated by the U.S. Europe has always been the mother-ship, and American artists love looking back at “old” Europe, ever since Duchamp, de Kooning, Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, and so many other artists landed in here. There are always quality European artists showing here. I am personally very fond of Pierre-Marie Brisson’s work, discovered through a show in New York a few years ago.
How do you actually work your paintings, the materials and the technique you use is very interesting.
One of the most important epiphanies of my artistic development was an encounter with the work of Pablo Picasso in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1996. Through Picasso I have learned that art has nothing to do with mimicking nature, but rather restructuring it based on personal observations. He taught me that the world is a puzzle, a collage, and that we all re-arrange reality based on our own experiences. If left undisturbed, the proverbial mirror facing reality would be just that: a pale reflection of a commonly accepted truth.
My approach to image-making has a lot to do with rejecting the formulaic, overtly-simplistic communist aesthetic under which I grew up. I love complexity, symbols and labyrinths. I look at everything. I am trying to be aware. I think that artists are people who are aware. In my imaginary museum, the films of Theo Angelopoulos share space with the books of Marcel Proust, the music of Miles Davis, and the rain that I am listening to right now, as I write these words. But even if everything you do is autobiographical, I still do not know why some images, sounds, memories, stay with you, while others vanish. Even the work I was doing in the early 1990’s, when I was painting Romanian landscapes in oils, was autobiographical because I was craving my past, and the physical space of my country. Today, my current vocabulary of symbols are much more abstract, and, I’d like to believe, much more sophisticated.
As an artist, I am a collector, a collector of information, feelings, scents, sounds, and colors. I try to re-organize reality, channel it, and re-transmit it. I always work on several pieces at the time. I used to work on canvas, but now, most of the pieces are on wood or masonite. It takes sometimes up to six months to finish one. I love the process, the making of art. There are a lot of layers, a lot of reworking the surface. I use everything I find in the studio: paint, charcoal, photos, markers, inks, colored pencils, etc.
Do you want/think that your paintings transmit an idea, a feeling? Does your art has a message?
All artists are messengers of ideas and feelings; we are pointing the flashlight at what we feel is worth sharing with the world at large. We could go out in the middle of the street and shout at the passers-by, but instead, we go to our studios. We do it peacefully. No artist has ever been a suicide bomber. Duke Ellington once said that “music is what happens between notes.” I like to see my work as that magic space between the viewer and the object in front of his/her eyes. I don’t look for a message when I start, and I am not trying to impose a message on the viewer. We don’t have control over what a work of art says. That’s the beauty of it. I also believe that a true, lasting, work of art is continuously open for interpretation. That’s why we have Proust, or Borges, or Gaudí. Good art never ends.
Maybe it was my early exposure to literature, music, theater, film, that made me explore and decode the complexities of the world around me. I needed a language. Within this reality, I became interested in what Joseph Campbell called “mystery,” which is the secret, invisible essence of things, underlying everything. As scientists have been searching for years for the ultimate “theory of everything,” with every work of art created, artists have been doing exactly the same. In this context, in my art, everything is cyclical rather than linear. I believe in the existence of parallel universes. In this context, everything becomes valuable, everything has potential, everything is the source as well the recipient. I love to sneak behind viewers at shows were I am not known, and listen to what they have to say about my pieces. It is always rewarding to see your work through other people’s eyes. I also pay attention to what my students see in my work. At a recent opening of one of my show in Washington, Connecticut, a friend of mine started crying in front of one of the pieces. I was puzzled by it. In a world flooded with images, we don’t react this way to visual art anymore. And partially because of that, her tears were one of the most profound compliment I have ever received about my work.
Can you include your art in a current?
“Isms” are prison-words. I am not a fan of “isms.” I am influenced by everything that brought me here, to this day. I am constantly looking, constantly changing. My style ten years ago is radically different to my style today. During the 1970’s, while I was growing up in Romania, my life was marked by several powerful and formative events: the discovery, at the early age of ten, of my own and others’ mortality, writing a personal journal as a form of confession, the discovery of books and movies, and making art. My father died in 1982, when I was sixteen. Back then, I loved Cezanne, Pallady and Van Gogh. The next year, when I was about to graduate from high school, my mother died, too. I was an only child. Between dealing with the hardships of growing up alone and the pressures of living in a police state, I found shelter in art. For many years after that defining point, art had replaced almost everything in my life—my friends, my mentors, and the idea of home. I attended hundreds of classical concerts, ballets, and plays. I read thousands of books, from the classics to contemporary authors. I even read my way through the mazes of Greek philosophy and existentialism. I was an impressionist and later, a fauve painter. At 17, I discovered the films of Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Art repeatedly saved my life by keeping me sane. In a way, it is still “saving” my life today. Back then, I did not hope that art would give me immediate answers or solace; I was too young for that. I had found refuge in art because I was angry, and I felt abandoned. Art became the best vehicle for preserving my memories, and for making sense. Art was an attempt at dealing with life. The closeness of art gave me the illusion that I could create and inhabit a different world. Art became a vehicle for escape. I still like to escape, “isms” included.
What are your favourite painters and who (if it is the case) inspired you mostly?
My parents are among the most important influences in my art. Although their contribution to the history of art is insignificant, their influence on my artistic development is not. First, my mother. Unfortunately, I do not have any of her work, or any references to it, except for my memory. She dreamt of becoming a fashion designer, but she ended up being a seamstress. I spent my childhood among colourful fabrics and dress mannequins. I remember her sketching all the time. Because of the political changes in Romania in the 1940’s, when we were invaded by the Russians, my mother never realized her dreams. Like her life, her sketches remained unfinished. But how could I forget that she bought me my first set of watercolour paints?
My father, an amateur photographer, allowed me in his darkroom from the time I was six years old. Five years later, he gave me one his expensive cameras. He was also making for a while some strange, quite tacky reliquary pieces out of paper pulp mixed with saw dust that he learned how to make in prison, I believe. I see the echo of that technique in my current assemblages. I owe him the fact that today, photography and assemblage has become an important part of my visual explorations.
When I immigrated to the United States in 1990, I faced the challenge of adapting to my new environment, and, in the process, gradually, I began to be influenced by it. I started visiting art museums and galleries. I also started reading art magazines, art criticism, and artist biographies. It took me several years to discover major affinities with several artists like Picasso, Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, R.B.Kitaj, Jim Dine, and David Salle. During the past several years, they have opened new artistic doors for me, and they have left their mark on my subject matter and my technical and stylistic approaches to art-making.
"Short Stories" is About Creating Meaning Between Us
On my mother's bookshelves are two sets of photo albums: her family's and my father's. My mother's photos are labeled and marked sometimes front back and on the pages themselves. Little of our past is left to chance. We know who we were, where, when, how, and why. Over the years the note-makers have fixed our story so that it has become a set of roots. My father's albums are full of unnamed strangers whose foreheads, eyes, chins, and the like remind us of our own in the right light at the right time of day, but that's about it--and, really, it isn't much at all. They are our people and they are nobody. Somehow they arrived on a boat in Jersey City from Scandinavia a long time ago. These are the branches that reach through the dark night air, unnamed and unknown.
Thus, I have always understood my family as everybody and everybody else; the general and the particular speak to each other in ways that invite the imagination to push open doors in search of meaning.
So it was when I visited the Marie Louise Trichet Art Gallery at Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut, that I knew and even was one of the strangers in the black and white and sepia photos--some portraits, others candids, and many others taken in photo booths a long time ago--that figure significantly in the mixed-media exhibition of Romanian-born artist Florin Firimita in his mixed-media exhibition entitled "Short Stories."
"Short Stories" mixes past and present and the here of this and the dream worlds in moments of awareness that invite the viewer in to connect with the images. They are poignant explorations of identity. One looks into a mind that cannot remember; another looks at a woman whose dreams are curtailed by political circumstances; yet another looks at immigration--disconnection and the adventure of reconnection.
Commenting on his use of anonymous photos, Firimita said before his January 27 opening at Wisdom House, "for better or worse, they become the subject of art." It's a beautiful marriage and a challenging one that invites you to be a part of the experience.