Despite a B.A. education in ceramics and decorative arts, Virginia Toma has shifted to painting. A painting marked by order, geometry, accuracy, chromatic purification, contemplation. Her current project – spanning five years already – is built on coincidental mathematical and aesthetical notions – the line, the point, the plane. In order to represent them she is in constant search for manners of construction that respect self-imposed rules meant to engender constancy, discipline, rigour, predictability and also to point out the complexity of certain simple notions via rhythm-symmetry-repetition.
As a child, Virginia Toma could draw effortlessly. And passionately. She would spend countless hours in front of the drawing papers and cherished that time immensely. When she was 8 years old, her parents decided to enroll her into a painting class to acquire further skills under an instructor that would introduce her to art in a more technical and methodical manner. After 4 years of training diligently, she was admitted at the arts high-school in Bucharest. During high-school she experimented with various mediums, and showing a particular ease in modelling, she worked in sculpture for a while. The transfer to the ceramics department was caused by her desire to participate in the field-dedicated national competition. She furthered her studies at the Department of Ceramics and Decorative Arts of the University of Arts, Bucharest.
Presently, nevertheless, she sees ceramics as a rather restrictive medium, since, tehnically speaking, it imposes rules which, unless observed, limit your potential and ideas, even though many find it very experimental because of this very aspect. She believes that if artists have something to say, they find the best way to bring the concept into practice. Her manner of approaching painting is more peculiar. A first glance at her works and it is very tempting to define her as an aesthete of grays. Nonetheless, she rejects this definition and states that her works are purely strict representations of what she has in mind to do with the support of certain materials.
She does not adhere to minimalism either, or in a very insignificant way. Minimalism is mainly characterized by the lack of personal touch, of subjectivity or of auctorial impression; here it is the object that has priority, not the personality of the artist; it is also about over-simplification to reach the perfect shape, a synopsis of a category. And Toma is keen on searching for an infinite number of possibilities within the frame of a category.
In my case, the product counts only as a physical representation of the concept. When you do this type of rendering in the abstract area, when you sketch abstract notions with lines, you reach a point when you are curious to see how they can materialize, how they shape up. It is not the aesthetic value that interests me, but strictly the manner of representation of certain notions. Technically speaking, they only support the concept.
On the other hand, the minimalists abandon details while in search of the perfect object. Au contraire, Toma believes that in the absence of details – which make up the whole -, there would be a lack of equilibrium. In this context, equilibrium is about putting together pieces of information belonging to the whole and defining it as a total sum. As such, she distances herself again from minimalism: she does not renounce details.
Introspectively, she attempts to discover to which concepts she could relate, or with which ideas and ideologies of other artists she could identify. So far she has found certain similarities which are not substantial and relevant enough for a complete adherence to any art movement. Some even suggested a possible zone of mysticism to be found in her works, but Toma opposes such idea. Nevertheless, she feels the closest to conceptual art, where the artistic endeavour is important, whereas the object – a mere translation/rendering of such endeavour – is part of the project.
Each work is based on a plan to which she sticks religiously, even though sometimes there may occur aesthetic asynchronies – the final result may not be spectacular for the viewer or the work may not be perceived as beautiful. The rules of representation are very strict and the works are not a purpose, but rather a consequence of research and analyses imposed by the rules.
The artist describes the stages of the creative process – precisely and rationally – as follows: at the edge of the surface she notes a number of points/references. A probability of relations is created among the points. She connects the points with lines that form a symetrical network which preserves the initial rigidity of the distance between the points. The lines generate planes, and the planes keep overlapping onto a common surface. This common surface – through successive explorations -, becomes opaque, saturated. The point and the line lack colour and, implicitly, so do the planes generated by them. In such context, the colour is relevant in establishing the transparency of the planes; the chromatics stays in a neutral area dominated by the structure and the element created by it. The points, lines and planes become a collective entity with its own identity which would fall out of balance in the absence of a single point, line or plane belonging to it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and the relations among them.
My goal is to frame these references into a given context by searching for the link between perfection and unbalance created by such context. I am also preoccupied with approaching the researches and changes at the perception level and attempting to bring forth manners of understanding and representation via a certain system of values.
The square is the shape at the base and in the centre of the geometrical iconography of Toma’s current project. The artist views it as the perfect form – easy to manipulate and deconstruct; it is the pure, proportionate form. Often asked why she does not use the circle or the curve, Toma justifies her lack of interest therein because of the unpredictable character of the curve and the impossibility of controling the circle. Two circles next to each other generate empty spaces which cannot be used and managed, which is not the case of the square.
I am not fond of round shapes. Inside the square I operate with abstract notions – i.e. the point, which also comes from mathematics. The point generates the line, several lines generate the plane and all these together co-exist and the relations amongst them form according to very simple and precise rules. What is important for me is that the result be predictable, clean, precise – not subject to interpretations and not carrying the emotional load of the artist. It is nothing more than an accurate drawing.
Equally important as the work itself is the research and choice of a form as close as possible to perfection, balancedly proportionate, which should not convey any meaning, and at the same time, should not disturb the viewer; which should be simply accepted for what it is; its presence should not cause any visual perturbation.
Even though her works may induce a contemplative state, the artist reiterates that there is no such intention – there is no emotional involvement from her part. In this context, “emotional” defines as the curiosity and enthusiasm to discover solutions, variants, possibilities; these emotions are relevant in the searching part and do not refer to the intention or desire to translate them in the project itself. The effect on the viewer should be the feeling of certainty and predictibility. Order causes clarity and comprehension.
In an epoch governed by the figurative, Toma perseveres with her researches for the abstract with imposed rules. There were some previous slightly figurative works, yet she relinquished them and reformulated the concept and idea. Certain artists and curators have suggested that she should put a splash of colour here and there – to insert more vibrancy and dynamism into the works -, but she believes that such interventions would mean a deviation from her original plans and would also bring along emotional touches whose existence has no justification in her artistic endeavour. She never swerves from the plans despite possible aesthetic or emotional expectations from the outside.
The studio as an incubator for creation is the place that sees the final result happen. She may prepare the concept, do research and analysis outside it, but it is in the studio that she transposes the sketches and plans into the works. In the studio, the work is a process of production of conclusions and decisions – a quiet, mechanical and rigurous work. A rhythm to which she gets accustomed and which she perceives as natural as the act of walking, for instance. Due to this repetitive mode, time seems to be halting.
You draw point after point after point, then, at one instance, a fraction of a second starts to seem like it is lasting forever. Everything appears to be in slow motion.
Toma’s techniques are diverse and include acrylic on canvas, ink drawings, decal drawing, etc. She employs materials that are optimal for transcribing the logic and intention of construction. Currently she is working with wood while exploring the volume. She experiments a lot with the possibilities of representation of certain relations established amongst points of references located on the edges of the square, what happens inside them, how the generated element is part of a whole, how a plane of points and lines builds an image, a symmetrical, proportionate and rigurous drawing. She is at the stage where she deconstructs all these elements, separates them and then uses them to reconstruct other shapes.
The surface of a square is made of elements which can be re-arranged in a new form; this form is no longer in the shape of a square, yet the surface belongs to the same initial square. It really sounds more complicated than it is. It is actually more difficult to get your mind used to function at that pace and in such an abstract way; to train yourself to think rigurously, mathematically. Now I am re-arranging these forms, thus generating new ones which I will build in volume. I am still at the stage of searching for the best solutions of representation.
Her works are generally untitled, as they do not represent anything palpable, rather being the outcome of abstract searches. They are insubstantial notions. She does not want to influence the viewer into seeing something. The works can create optical illusions, the planes vibrate, the grays can appear darker or lighter depending on how they are put next to each other. Still, nothing is intended as such. Everything is a mere consequence.
The palette is dominated by grays. They are non-colours. Colour has its own personality. The artist’s current project includes one single canvas in warm colours, because she needed to render the light – also an abstract, intangible notion. Colour has its coordinates and it can exercise influence. The point has no colour, same with the line, which is a multitude of points. The plane has no colour, either. Various tones of grays form as a result of planes overlapping. In the center, where all planes coincide – common plane of several planes – there occurs an oversaturation which annuls everything into nothing.
It is some sort of a contradiction. Full, but at the same time void.
All these sound extremely theoretical, but Toma affirms that it all becomes very simple once the manner in which they function incidentally is understood. The main elements and rules generally belong to the decorative arts and are used to generate rhythm and balanced proportions. Repetition, symmetry and alternance. If observed à la carte, everything falls in place in a simple and orderly manner. At first, not representing the square and the two diagonals as they are, but deconstructions of them in several possibilities and variants; things may appear difficult.
No artists have influenced her necessarily. She started from some very simple principles on which she would build, while refusing to document other artists’ practices, so that she would avoid any influence.
Later I discovered all sorts of artworks that were strikingly similar. It is interesting to see how there are people out there who have the same mode of thinking, the same vision.
On a more mundane note, if she could have dinner with any three artists of all times, her choices would be:
1. William Kentridge: endowed with multiple talents, Kentridge does set-design, decors, experimental films, etc. and excels in everything.
2. Sol LeWitt: for his programmed and assumed creative process.
3. Agnes Martin: for the hope to get answers concerning the premises of her artworks.
An artistic practice where nothing lacks equilibrium – nothing is aleatory, fortuitous -, and works are not subject to interpretation.
Virginia Toma (b. 1983) is a visual artist who lives and works in Bucharest, Romania. She has had exhibitions at H’Art Appendix Gallery Bucharest, Artyourself Gallery Bucharest, MORA Gallery Bucharest, IN Gallery Vienna, etc. She has also been part of creative events such as art workshops in Tescani, International Camp of Archeolpogical Experiments in Serri (IT), Free Form Art Trust | developing artistic concepts for decoration of public spaces, London (UK), etc. She is represented by H’Art Gallery, Bucharest.
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Text 🖋 ADINA SHOLLENBARGER
Photos © Vlad Brăteanu (for the photos from the exhibition Intersections at H’Art Appendix Gallery) & Radu Boeru (for the studio photos)