COMMON DIFFERENT - Art Exhibition @ The Island Bristol Gallery - 2nd May 2018

Ben Pritchett, PhD, Art Critic

 Tudor Titzoiu attracts comparison to those modernist artists who took the intended insult “even my child could do it” and turned it into a compliment; as Picasso is reputed to have said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Titzoiu, father to two young daughters, credits them for helping him learn to be childish again; he considers his canvas as his playground and his colours his toys. This can be seen in his choice of media: he frequently uses black markers and brightly coloured felt tips, and the support for his largest work in this exhibition is a thirty metre long roll of paper mounted on wooden stands designed for a playroom.  However, as he points out, this work can also be compared to Japanese scroll paintings (emakimono). So there is no contradiction in saying that his play impulse is focused and directed by a conscious understanding of artistic practice and composition, and of his relationship to art history. The works in this exhibition span a range of approaches.  At one extreme are black and white images, drawn in marker with very few lines, sometimes apparently only one, virtually a doodle.  They seem to depict landscapes, coastlines, or cloudscapes (e.g. 72, 73, 85), or the outlines of human figures (what Titzoiu calls "silhouettes") assembled in small groups (e.g. 160, 82, 145). The figures are elementary, with just enough detail to be recognised as people, only bodies and heads, without limbs, individualising features, marks of gender, gestures, or signs of social status.  They are human beings reduced to an inhuman core, almost vegetal, fungal or mineral (stalactites and stalagmites); at times they look crudely phallic. The areas of the surface delimited by these marker-drawn outlines may be filled in, coloured, or hatched.  From such basic elements, Titzoiu’s compositions become increasingly complex (e.g. 61… 43… 81… 54… 77… - the sequencing is my own, and might not reflect the actual order in which he created the works).  Figures populate landscapes; continuous lines serve to draw both figures and their settings together, as if they were growing out of them, pulling them along, or merging back into them. Titzoiu eschews contouring or chiaroscuro shading, and the flat way that he fills in his forms creates ambiguities as to what are people and what are parts of landscape, foreground and background shifting in an unstable relationship.  Gradually, apparently recognisable scenes appear - figures massed together on coastlines, perhaps preparing to cross (e.g. 84, 64, 40). Maybe in the more chaotic images, they have already embarked, moving from island to island of an archipelago (e.g. 3), or huddled on boats on turbulent waters (e.g. 53).  But these compositions are never organised into anything approaching classical perspective and depth, and the figures are set in all kinds of contradictory orientations (upside down or on their sides). The images thus offer impossible physical laws and geographies, perhaps mapping an irrational logic, like that of surrealist automatism. At another extreme are works where the black lines no longer outline shapes but are instead free-floating marks (e.g. 97, 157, 121, 6), or absent altogether (e.g. 168, 103, 192).  Here, methodical parallel hatching is replaced by scribbles (e.g. 159).  Colours are unmoored from outlines, no longer colouring in pre-drawn areas, instead taking priority, with patches and washes arranged according to principles of chromatic contrast and modulation. Although these compositions may suggest a certain depth, by analogy to aerial or atmospheric perspective (bright and contrasting colours jump forward, paler and duller ones recede) there is little reward in speculating if these images might be abstracted representations of real places, and they are more stimulating when conceived as games with colours and markings. 

 A third group of works - in my opinion, the most interesting and accomplished - combine these techniques in various ways (046; 023; 033; 169; 187; 038-P1270573; 029; 024; 135; 122; 100). Viewed alongside them, the above-mentioned pieces might be understood as studies or sketches, trials of techniques and motifs on their way to the more integrated works.  That said, even the “minor” works possess their own compositional unities, and it is never possible to identify a small work as a thumbnail sketch to be elaborated on a larger scale; every piece is unique. In the more complex works, clearly marked outlines and free-floating marks are juxtaposed; flat, ready-made felt-tip colours are supplemented with more subtly mixed painted hues; some fields of colour fill in delineated areas, while others drift free or fade into washes.  This creates the sense that areas of relatively clear composition are emerging and cohering out of a chaotic play of marks and colours, or dissolving and dispersing back into it. One might ask what all this is meant to represent, if anything?  Titzoiu gives the beginnings of an answer in an advertisement for the exhibition: his art “depicts and makes use of a democratic perspective of contemporary social and political situation, constituted in an abstract world of reflections through value, colour, form, line, shape, balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, unity and texture.” This statement is intriguing but dense with abstractions that require unpacking.   Titzoiu came to the UK from Romania in 2017, and for his solo debut here he has chosen Hamilton House; a political exhibition would suit the venue. The building itself is currently the subject of the Save Hamilton House campaign, and is sited in Stokes Croft, an area famous for its political street art: from Banksy’s "Mild Mild West", just next door, to the more recent image on the Carriage Works of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson kissing, painted to promote a remain vote in the EU referendum.  Indeed, the local Ashley council ward returned a vote of 85.6% in favour of remain. Romania was one of the most recent countries to join the EU, in 2007, with transitional controls on the migration of Romanian workers lifted as late as 2014. One might assume, therefore, that Brexit would weigh on Titzoiu’s mind, and if he wanted to use this exhibition as a soapbox, he would find a sympathetic audience in this cosmopolitan area. But anyone looking to the exhibition for explicit political slogans, symbolism, caricatures or cartoons will be struck by their absence.  And, in fairness, it would be unreasonable to demand that every immigrant artist should be a spokesperson for their national community of origin.  (Romanian modernists Tristan Tzara and Constantin Brâncuși are globally renowned, first and foremost, as founding figures in Dada and sculpture respectively, rather than for their émigré heritage.) As I have already indicated, Titzoiu’s pictures suggest migrating masses of bodies, but never clearly illustrate topical stories or events.  Titzoiu gives almost none of the pictures a title (with the exception of “Laura”, a portrait of sorts of his partner); he has provided no accompanying text or key to gloss their symbolism. Indeed, I would not want to imply that there is a secret code that would unlock the pictures’ meaning if he would only supply it; the symbols are no hieroglyphic alphabet. Although he often uses writing implements (pens) to produce his work, he never includes text beyond his signature and the year (written backwards).   As co-curator I had hoped that by interviewing Titzoiu I might gain an insight into the politics behind the works which I could share here, but he was reluctant to prejudice viewers’ experience by framing the images with words. He is so wary of biasing the interpretation of his pictures that he even shies away from specifying which way up to hang them. This then must be one interpretation of his chosen title for the exhibition, “Unspoken Lines” – the works should speak for themselves. 

 As such, my task here is a paradoxical one, and the interpretation I offer is my own; readers will have to draw their own conclusions as to whether it is valid. Perhaps the closest thing to a clue to the politics of the exhibition that Titzoiu offers is its subtitle, a phrase taken from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Despite being published in 1624, it so uncannily speaks to the current political moment that the singer-songwriter PJ Harvey read it out at a concert in the Netherlands on the day that Britain’s vote to leave the EU was announced. The immediate context goes:   No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Although Donne is here using geography as a metaphor for interpersonal relations, today it might also be read as a criticism of the British myth of self-sufficient insularity as an island nation.  This metaphor resonates with those of Titzoiu’s pictures which depict figures and coastlines, and what he calls the “continuous line of life” that connects them all (but which can sometimes be broken).  Another important theme in this passage from Donne is that of scale and perspective – the smallest clod of earth is as significant as a manor.  Or in today’s situation, Europe’s loss of England, and vice versa, cannot be considered more or less significant than any one of the personal sunderings that it will cause. Titzoiu’s use of a quotation from the distant past points to another aspect of his work – abstraction, in the sense of taking away individualising features to reveal those underlying universal forms that persist across time and distance. By comparing the 17th century to the present day, we might identify patterns of human significance common to both.  Similarly, by drawing human beings in their most stripped down forms, Titzoiu points to a shared essence. His practice of abstraction goes further still, to the simplest fundamental elements of representation and perception, perhaps even of reality itself: colour and line. Abstraction in art offers a promise of transcending differences and finding a common language. One can understand the microcosmic world of a well-composed picture as offering an analogy to a well-organized social world, where the good life can be lived.  Looking at Titzoiu’s pictures one might speculate about certain ethical principles behind his aesthetics: a well-composed world has its own equilibrium and harmony, but can accommodate experimentation and happy accidents; contrasts and contradictions are not to be feared, but cultivated and enjoyed; the smallest part should be given the same care and attention as the whole; from certain perspectives, the world has centres, but in other senses, every place is as important as any other; we should recognise and make visible the lines of life that connect people with each other, and the planet they live on; the social world is a work in progress that is never definitively finished. Yet abstract art’s claims to universalism are vulnerable to scepticism and critique.  It is common sense to observe that every spectator will bring their own experiences and preconceptions to an image; there is no one universal meaning that everybody will infallibly draw from it. 

 Moreover, people’s ways of seeing and standards of beauty are conditioned by their identities and positions in power hierarchies: for example a white bourgeois man might overlook things seen and valued by a working class woman of colour.  With this in mind, I can’t help wondering if the somewhat childish aspect of Titzoiu’s technique may represent (among other things) a form of wilful naivety, a way to impart to his work the innocent universality of childhood, helping it to float on past troubling critiques. To return to the social ideals that I suggested may be discovered by analogy in Titzoiu’s work, they are certainly appealing, but it is impossible to infer from his art if he has any thoughts on how to realise them politically. In the intuitive leap from individual aesthetic experiences to universal values, social mediations are skipped over (mediations such as relationships with families, friendship circles, ethnic groups, classes, parties, nations, international organisations, etc.).   Sometimes looking at his works, I cannot help wishing for a few recognisable details that might ground his abstractions in life experiences and risk tentatively offering an orientation for a journey between the singular and the universal.  This could perhaps be achieved by modelling his silhouettes more directly on life studies of figures in expressive attitudes; through arranging them so that the purposes of their gatherings were clearer; through including the outlines of recognisable landscapes. He might find inspiration in photojournalism or history painting.  And titling the pictures would give them more purchase on social reality (pace Titzoiu, this need not delimit their meanings, so much as open them up to further dialogue).  It seems to me that given his clear sense of ambition, such questions cannot be deferred indefinitely; and in fact, there are already promising hints that his curiosity may lead him to address them.    Although not included in this exhibition, Titzoiu also produces moving image works, such as the video entitled “Gypsy Funeral”.  Around such films, questions of representation, national identity, ethnicity, migration, and the answerability of the artist to the individual human subjects that he represents, will all inevitably come into play.  It would be interesting to hear him articulate his thoughts and feelings on these questions, to see if such self-conscious reflection might feed back into the future development of his more abstract images.  That, I think, could retrospectively deepen the significance of the works in this promising debut, which would come to be seen as having marked the beginning of a new and significant phase of Titzoiu’s career, here in the UK.