The Art of Ileana Florescu
Good artists have always been tricksters. Whatever kinds of image or object-makers -painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers -good artists are thieves and dramatists, illusionists stealing our certainties and unsettling us with beautiful confusions, provisional truths. Good artists teach us to cultivate an unsettled skepticism. Believing what we see requires first that we doubt it, that we earn our belief through the rigors of the eye. And so, teaching us to see means teaching our eyes to wander over endless possibilities of representation, ever-changing light and shadow.
But what happens after the curtain has been pulled back and we’ve learned how all the tricks are done? What happens when we’ve seen too much? When every image is naked and fleeting? When images multiply into infinity and disappear into the void? Where is the value in what’s not rare? Where is the importance and urgency in what is easy and obvious and free? Walter Benjamin famously worried about the easy flicker and flow of images. How could art matter in the age of mass production if its very aura could be digitized, dimmed to the ephemeral glow of the ever-present screens of our computers, our electronic book readers, our mobile phones?
These are large questions.
It is all the more satisfying, then, that Ileana Florescu addresses them with questions of her own. In the gorgeous, quiet intensity of her new exhibition, ‘Lunatiche,’ Florescu makes her first questioning gestures using the artist’s ancient, simple tools of pen and paper - and the artist’s unexplained, compulsive, essential need to draw.
Matisse said that “Drawing is putting a line around an idea.” Florescu puts lines through ideas and near them, and around them, too, but without closing the circle. For her, boundaries are open, certainties ungiven. Drawing, Florescu says, “is a process of divagations, moods, mental waves, thoughts as cobwebs, crossroads, paths, knots, seismographs. It is a means of resting one’s mind like the fisherman who mends his nets.”
In her many spontaneous freehand ink drawings, Florescu has created a thesaurus of shapes and lines, abstractions that find parallels everywhere: ripples of water, tempests in the shallows, ink blots, arteries, smoke rings, air bubbles, scratches on prison walls, wood grain, braided hair, mountain trails, knots, scribbles, lines of energy in the cosmos - “imploding, exploding,” as Florescu has written, “like our thoughts.”
It’s a truism that drawing something is a powerful way of discovering its nature, learning what it really is. And artists often say that some part of them becomes the thing they draw as they draw it. But we are never certain whether Florescu is drawing objects or attitudes about them, movement or frozen moments. The cardinal points are lost. We are lost at sea, or at least at its whispered, moonlit edges. We are lost in thought.
But Florescu is most known as a photographer. And, for the first time, in “Lunatiche,” she has brought this more public expression of her work into sophisticated conversation with the more private activity of her drawing. In some of the works, different photographic images are fused together, as if two are now seamlessly one. Different images are juxtaposed. Drawings are paired with photographs. Photographs of nature are paired with photographs of drawings. Some works are their original size, some have been greatly enlarged. Some are right-side up, some are inverted.
For the English speaker, “Lunatiche” can conjure the idea of craziness; lunatics were thought literally to be struck crazy by the moon’s brightness. But in Italian, the moon is less physically aggressive, more psychological. “Lunatico” means moody. Our emotions change with the phases of the moon; we see the world differently under the night sky’s trickery of changing light. In her drawings and photographs, Florescu meticulously explores how we see in the dark, how objects change, how our moods vary under different moons.
Which way is up or down? What’s first? What’s last? What’s what? Questions proliferate throughout the exhibition: whether something is a drawing or photograph, whether it is film or digital, whether it’s possible to tell which is the negative and which is the original image, whether what was black is now white, and white now black, whether an image is untouched or manipulated - and whether such questions could really mean anything.
Ansel Adams said that “photographs are not taken, they are made.” Here everything is touched and made, never simply taken; everything is changed - wave to particle, black to white, fiction to truth, copy to original. And these changes, these questions of shifting borders, shifting definitions, take literal foothold in Florescu’s locations: the uncertain edges between land and sea, in moonlight, from the sands of Florescu’s beloved Sardinia to the rocky beaches she frequents in Maine.
Florescu celebrates the natural trickery of coastal light, water, sand and wind, by employing the learned trickery of the obsessive, shifting pen, the focused trickery of photography, printing and subtle computer manipulation. She jumbles image-making techniques together, refusing to prioritize one technique or practice over another, refusing us the easy comfort of recognizing, choosing or valuing an “original” over a “reproduction.” In “Lunatiche,” there is no paint, there is no color. Here, everything is black and white - because, in the end, nothing is black and white.
Gunter Grass has written that “all art is accusation, expression, passion. It is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper.” Florescu is the eternal lover, not the fighter. “Lunatiche” is a celebration of techniques brought into harmony. Art’s trickery itself is transformed into a grace that seems emotionally closer to magic. Florescu rescues our sense of surprise and wonder, our need for meaningful uncertainties. And, finally, we break the fetish that for so long has ranked drifting sand over sharpened pencil, over photographic print, over computer code. Florescu gives us illusion restored.
The tricks, the training, the material and the making all blur while we focus on form and balance, shape and shade, serendipity. No art form or material takes privilege over any other. Even the artist can be forever surprised.