TRANSYLFORNIA p.n. (etym. < Transyl-(vania) + (Cali)-fornia); origin > the right cerebral hemisphere of a creative mind; cca. 2008) a coinage by visual artist Marius Bercea designating the fascinating utopian hybrid realm resulted from the ongoing painterly entwining, juxtaposition and merging of various distinct elements of the two transatlantic regions forming the etymological base of the name.
TRANSYLFORNIAN adj. characteristic of or relating to Transylfornia, whether inhabitants, mood, colours, light, atmosphere, landscape, architecture.
About a decade ago, when he came back from Los Angeles after a first trip to the United States, Marius Bercea felt like an Ulysses returning from a voyage at the other end of the world. An enthralling experience! He brought back a baggage of fast and voraciously accumulated Californian information – of the visual, cross-cultural, sociological, antropological, etc. kind – that he only began to digest in the tranquility of his hometown of Cluj, Transylvania. Los Angeles vs. Cluj – two urbs quite opposite in nature. Born and raised in Cluj, Bercea’s mental imaginarium had been injected with data provided by the cinematographic industry of the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and by his own readings so that the moment he set foot in Los Angeles, a strange feeling of familiarity would follow him like a shadow. The chemistry with the city was instant, even though its infrastructure can be quite challenging for a new comer and motion-wise you depend entirely on a means of transportation. In L.A., the vehicle becomes an extension of the human legs. The entire Hollywoodian iconography made driving around like being in an already seen movie, and still there was something else that would strike Bercea as familiar – certain architectural features that reminded him of the modernist structures typical for Central and Eastern Europe. The cultural migration towards the West Coast – a characteristic of the first half of the 20th century – had left visible marks in the aesthetics of the local architecture. The relocation of some Viennese architects, such as Rudolf Schindler, Adolf Loos, etc. formerly responsible for the modernist archi-style in Mitteleuropa, had led to the birth of the coastal site-specific “modernism under the sun”.
Besides, with a range of literary interests including the beat and post-beat genres on top of the list, Bercea had previously retained a particular feel of European presence in California from his readings of John Fante and Charles Bukowksi, both L.A. authors having their genealogical roots in the Old Continent – Italian and German, respectively. Yet no amount of motion pictures seen or books read could have made him visualise in all accuracy the spectacular light, the enormous scale and vast dimension of the city until he experienced it first-hand. A transformative encounter that would later cause a radical shift in his artistic practice!
In Cluj, Bercea’s studio is centrally located in one of the many buildings left as legacy by the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – an attribute easily identifiable in the architectural iconography of historical Transylvania. Past its main entrance, the atrium-style rectangular courtyard offers unobstructed and democratic views of each of the floors where human habitation is easily detectable – bicycles, pots of geranium in full bloom, drying laundry. An apartment that used to serve as residential space is now the artist’s atelier – where the space is shared amongst the usual painting paraphernalia, shelves full of books, albums and magazines, sparse furniture. The traffic noise invades the space rather abruptly through the large windows overlooking one of the busiest boulevards and a major intersection of the city. Gradually though, it just settles in, populating the space like anything else. Several very large canvases – executed in the vibrant palettes and vigorous gestures that are now the artist’s unmistakable signature – lean against the walls. They are works in progress for a solo show scheduled in Berlin for the first half of 2018. Complementing the studio time and work is his career as an associate professor at the University of Art and Design, Cluj-Napoca, a part he treasures as a great exercise to discuss art with young people so zealously intent to build something in the future. It is also time socially active as opposed to “the work of solitude involved by the studio time”.
The portrait of the artist as a young child does not necessarily depict a youngster with an early calling for art who would spend hours and hours drawing and experimenting with colours. More accurately, it is about a boy playing soccer in the courtyard of the neighbouring school for arts with some boys who studied there and who became his friends. In time, this unknown laboratory – their atelier – seemed more and more appealing to him. He chose to go to the arts highschool, even though he had always been more drawn to study architecture. In the last two years of highschool, the laundry-room of the building where he lived with his parents became his improvised studio. Painting as a medium would seduce him increasingly and was at the core of the passionate discussions with his friends. That was a time of scarcity when it came to anything related to art. There were hardly any art galleries – in fact, the only platform was the municipal gallery -, and the only art books were the ones published by Meridiane Publishing House – in which the reproductions of artworks were mainly black and white. They even invented a game – to guess how paintings look in colour in reality.
It was a shocking revelation when, years later, I saw one of the works by Bonnard in a museum. I had not expected it to be in those colours at all.
In 1998 he was admitted at the Painting Department of the University of Arts and Design in Cluj. Five years later, he was awarded a post-graduation scholarship for Belgium. Nothing more opportune at the time, as his major interests were in Flemish and Dutch painting of the 17th century. At the time, Romanians needed visas everywhere in Western Europe. His student visa in Belgium allowed him to travel in any other European country. In addition, there were also the benefits that student transportation fares offered. Taking the opportunity, he travelled to France, The Netherlands, Germany to visit as many museums as possible, before returning to Cluj in 2004.
2004 – a pivotal year in the Romanian contemporary art timeline! The year when many other fellow artists – Victor Man, Serban Savu, Adrian Ghenie, amongst them – returned to Cluj after 3-4 year stays in various other more culturally evolved places. A period of forced maturation, too! After having experimented a Western life-style, they all had to readjust to the town and living with their parents. It was not easy. Still, there was a lot of energy they brought back with them and a lack of fear to regroup in a town that, unlike a metropolis, did not exert any pressure on them to form hierarchies and careers. They started setting up studios, meeting, discussing. The cultural infrastructure was still barely existing, the private galleries could be counted on one’s fingers and were mainly in Bucharest. Nevertheless, it did not take long that the first curious visitors started coming to Cluj in 2005-06. It was a flourishing period for the Central and Eastern European art scene – the Prague Biennale, the Istanbul Biennale, the Tirana Biennale were all making waves and raising curiosity for this less explored European territory. These were ideal events and venues for meeting important players on the Western art scene. Victor Man was the first to be included in the Prague Biennale in 2005, and in 2009, art historian and curator Jane Neal made a selection of several Romanian artists which stirred much curiosity and reshifted the focus on Romania.
I would dare drawing a parallel with what is happening now, namely the re-discovery of artists belonging to the generations of the 60s, 70s, or 80s. These artists did not get a lot of recognition at their time. The light is finally on them. Think of Geta Brătescu with a most coherent display at the Romanian Pavilion in Venice, 2017! Or the amazing solo retrospective of Ion Grigorescu at the National Museum of Art, Bucharest this year. Or Ana Lupaș, Cornel Brudașcu, and many others.
In 2005-06, Bercea’s works had a nostalgic load. Some themes evolved around childhood games of the 80s within the context of urbanisation and restructuring of the town and the resulting repercussions. The playgrounds between the buildings were rather small, and the children had to improvise games that would require little space. On the other hand, there were a lot more interactions among neighbouring families of different social classes that hardly knew each other. The 80s were also the epoch when Mario Brothers games entered the Western market. They were taking the children out of a shared space and placing them in a zone of solitude, void of social interaction. The architecture typical for the paysage of the 70s and 80s – the pure brutalism or even more eclectic style – was also adding to the repertoire of his interests. The 80s also witnessed one the biggest human-made disasters to-date – Cernobyl nuclear plant explosion. And the secrecy of information in the Eastern Block. Radio Free Europe would be the most reliable, but also the riskiest, source of keeping informed on the real dimension of the calamity.
I felt like a witness, a contemporary of that situation. Cernobyl interested me more from a metaphorical perspective. It was the fastest relocation of human communities – 24 – 48 hours. All that was left behind was a ghost town. Overnight!
Two decades after the incident, in 2006, he focused on researching the manner in which flora and fauna adapted to the new conditions. His paintings were gray, yellowish, showing a maladive sun depicted in radioactive yellows. Meanwhile, a ghost town – all humans evicted – allows full access to its urbanism and architecture.
Another key event happened in 2009 when the former Paintbrush Factory in town was converted into a cultural hub with artists’ studios, galleries and cultural events halls – a unique thing in Romania at the time. Cluj is a rather small town, the friendship relations are tighter, a genuine community consolidated effortlessly.
Bercea had his first truly large-scale show in Los Angeles, in 2008, which coincides with his first encounter with the city – only “an apéritif”, as he says. The immensity of the city requires long sojourns to understand its mechanisms. All life there is in constant motion. Everybody drives. It was fascinating to watch the traffic partners, the city citizens always moving like this. It made sense why all the art galleries were crammed in certain key-areas. They had to be easily accessible by car.
During my first visit, there were a lot of galleries in China Town, which then moved almost compactedly to the Southern part of the city, and then Downtown – again almost in the same formation. It dawned on me that the respective avenues played a crucial role – to provide easy access.
Exploring the area more extensively, he discovered the paintings of the North-Californian artists of the 60s – the so-called San Francisco Bay artists – who, rarely present in public collections, were hard to find in Europe. Their works – atypical for the American art practiced in the 60s, dominated by the New York Abstract Expressionism – recalled the European painting, a figurative style. Subsequently, he learnt that their mentor – trained at the University of Art of Sankt Petersburg – would teach according to a curriculum closer to Russian academic rules rather than an American multi-disciplinary approach. He had the opportunity to see works by Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Paul Wonner, etc. owned by private collectors, and in 2015 he visited the first Dieberkon show at the Royal Academy in London. Everything was starting to take meaningful contours as sequels of the former cultural migration.
The light in California is remarkable, intense. For visual artists, in particular, it has a unique identity. All the air masses that interact atmospherically between ocean and desert alter the perception of light. The Californian light is also seasonal. He would take several trips to the desert at different times of the year. In winter, the wind coming from Mexico – a warmer wind -, causes all sorts of storms, of atmospheric reactions. In summer, the intensity of light varies in certain flat areas. Autumn has its own special light. And the natural light is in an ongoing play with the cold light of electricity.
All the neons and artificial lights interfere with the natural light at twilight, at sunset, and a single light that goes off may change the whole scenery somehow.
Two other facets of California would strike Bercea as bizarre. Firstly, the odd sensation he felt – while driving in the desert – not being able to tell the real scale of the surroundings in the absence of any reference points – no gas station, no trees, etc. A coyote crossing the road might give you a clue of how tall a hill was. Or how wide the road. Secondly, being in the car all the time, the reality was already photographically framed and zoomed by the windshield like a camera lens. Bizarre in a fascinating fashion!
Could it be that his instant attraction to California was subconsciously rooted in a family story unknown to him? He had already taken multiple trips to the Golden State when his 95-year old grandfather told him about his relatives – miners in Rosia Montana, in the Apuseni Mountains -, who had migrated to California in the 1920s. His grandfather was extremely well-informed on Nothern California (Sacramento, San Francisco). It was a period when a lot of people from the Apuseni Mountains left for America, drawn by the mirage. Unfortunately, the correspondence stopped in 1933-34 when they changed their identities. This family story was like an emotional shot for Bercea – the realisation that he was actually re-enacting the itinerary of his ancestors, unknowingly.
I was stunned when he pulled out a box with letters and postcards from California. It was precisely the ingredient that was missing from the whole picture – namely, the personal ingredient. This boosted even more my curiosity to explore the abandoned mines of Arizona, Nevada and California. And I spent one month in the desert, day and night. Looking for the abandoned venues. Attempting to chart the routes of my ancestors.
The Californian life in all aspects with its social mechanisms captivated him, and added to the iconographical range of his compositions. Snippets of scenes by swimming-pools, laidback personages, lush vegetation, buildings in the sun, etc. were now populating his canvases. Effervescent palette, vivacious painterly gestures. His tourist shoes put aside, he began exploring it from other angles, mingling with the local communities in many areas prior to their gentrification.
You become aware of the recent history of the city which, when I first got there, was the Berlin of America, an art city where all artists were also involved in various other activities. Many of my friends – teachers at art schools – were punk rockers, multimedia artists, etc. Discussions about artistic careers came in very secondarily. They would rather focus on the creation labs of each of them. Recently, now that big museums with important collections started opening and notorious galleries relocated there, it is very probable that the whole scene changed and artists had to move to different areas because of higher costs.
The architectural references in his works are tightly connected to his keen interest in the subject matter. With no regrets for not pursuing studies and an eventual career in architecture (“I did not excel in technical matters so I would probably not have done so great in school”), Bercea has a voracious eye for this type of aesthetics. In 2009-10, after tackling the nihilist architecture of Cernobyl, he started exploring the leisure architecture of the Black Sea shore – the modernist-brutalist type, very similar to the Niemeyer-like architecture of the former or existing South-American communist countries. Still, with one major difference – the éclairage. A resort in Caracas or Venezuela might resemble Olimp or Neptun functionally and iconically, yet the light is strikingly different. Progressively, in his research of light and modernism he tuned in another geographical hemisphere.
Southern California had a type of architecture influenced by the same Viennese architects we can cite in Romania as well. I was interested exclusively in the resort architecture – not institutions, or schools, or anything political. Merely the usual milieus where there would be a swimming-pool, an umbrella, etc.
Buildings have a visible presence in his paintings. Previously, there were a lot of references to the Central and East European modernist architecture heavily influenced by Le Corbusier and the Nazi architecture going through the socialist layer or the buldings typical for the transition period of the 90s. The characters populating his paintings are not identifiable in real life; they have the mere functional purpose of giving architectural scale to the buildings. Sometimes these personages – a reflection of a certain recent memory -, would be stripped of their identity not to interfere with the reconstruction of a memory, as intended by Bercea. Thus, he would use presences or absences of some entities of individuals rather than identities. There is one painting, nevertheless, in which the represented character is very real and very much present in the artist’s life – his son, Marc. Could it be that it is the beginning of a new period now? With themes orbiting around his recent role – that of a father?
The new status is already visible in the studio. He has been moving away from the social-political-historical zone explored so far. He confesses letting himself guided by more instinct and less reason. He has lowered the level of spartan discipline of studio time and work – the reading, documenting, reseach time, very rigurous practice. He is now more relaxed when it comes to his painting practice and has a slightly more chaotic approach towards the surface and manner of gesture execution. The paradigm has been changing.
To date, my son appears in one painting only – it was an absolutely natural gesture. Ever since I became a father, I have been waiting for that moment when I would feel this urge – like a hook -, to pull me into a zone of paternal-related themes. It took a while. Then last winter I started painting a small, stamp-sized portrait of Marc and me which, gradually, became larger and larger with a whole composition around it. The new works feature some self-portraits as well.
In Bercea’s studio, the latest works seem to have a slight shift in direction. The Californian light can still be distinguished under the layers of colour spread on the large canvases. It is not the leading actor anymore, nonetheless. It simply seems to be orchestrating the information collected by the artist during trips. And mingling with the natural Transylvanian light pervading the space, it gains the most distinct Transylfornian luminosity.
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Text ✒ ADINA SHOLLENBARGER
Photos © RALUCA CIORNEA