Published to Exhibitions on Oct 09, 2015


ROMAN TOLICI is an artist of a complexity the SIMVLACRVM exhibition at Mobius Gallery makes no attempt to fathom.

I first saw his works in 2008 at Bucharest’s Muzeul Naţional de Artă Contemporană: a vast, Ceaușescian space where paintings can easily lose themselves. Tolici’s paintings (dominated by his Park series) occupied it and my mind.

Their understated poetry, photographic realism and pursuit of mundane subjects made me think of the great Russian Non-Conformist Semyon Faibisovich. But, underpinned by a strong horizontal emphasis, Tolici panned out from Faibisovich close-up to reveal the bigger picture – eschewing Faibisovich’s attempts to coat mundanity in poetic blur.

It came as no surprise to learn that Tolici had graduated in Graphic Art. His technique is razor-sharp.

In 2010 I curated an East European Art section at the Budapest Art Fair. It included works consigned by three Romanian dealers: Maramureș passionara Anca Poterasu; Diana Dochia (represented by Tara von Neudorf); and Liliana Popescu – then late of H’art Gallery, now of Haarlem – who selected Roman Tolici’s Crown.

This particular Tolici showed a drunken ‘monarch’ lurching on a staircase, his bombast in the gutter and his crown about to come tumbling after: a king, as Genesis put it, ‘dancing in the rain.’ The mood was part Alice In Wonderland, part Ecclesiastes.

Vanity of Vanities, sayeth the Preacher. All is vanity. A simulacrum.


Many artists, after achieving success, stick to the style that has brought them it. Not Tolici. Although his brushwork retains its Ingresque precision, now with an even defter touch, his vision has morphed from photo-realist to surrealist. It is impossible to explain the eleven paintings in SIMVLACRVM in rational fashion.

They come in different sizes and formats – some large, some small; some vertical, some horizontal; one can even hang at a diagonal. There is humour, irony, hope, hopelessness, magnificent painting and neo-Vorticist spatial awareness. Some canvases are busy, others almost empty. The underlying message? You tell me. Each work creates a world of its own. These paintings exist to be absorbed.


A rearing green steed with outsize head is set against a deep red ground that conjures up eleven overlapping whirlpools of blood, their ripples ebbing away. Is this the Pale Horse beheld in the Book of Revelation, whose name is Death? Or is it a jade carving from Ancient China?


These fluffy, Socialist Realist flowers could happily have been draped around Kim Il-Sung, or a podium topped by Stalin embracing an unlucky infant. But there is no Stalin, no sentimentality, and no hero – only a spiralling into the void. A split-frame video relating the ‘making of’ this work, entitled There Is No Black, shows how Tolici progressively filled a blackened canvas with colourful blooms… while retaining, at their heart, a black dot. We are being led up the garden path into oblivion.


A head and torso in rosy pink, viewed from the front and back, emerge from a white background. Is it one and the same figure? Is it a man and a woman? Husband and wife? The two figures have the un-sexiness of Lucian Freud. The heart of the canvas is left blank. Dappled paintwork, like snow, reeks of bleak mid-winter.


The most abstemious painting in the series depicts a single hoop. Yet this hoop embraces all the colours of the rainbow. Like an Olympic ring mired in the mirk of confusion, it casts a grey shadow that pales and darkens, thickens and thins. We see one hoop but two shadows, joined in a sideways 8… the first appearance in Tolici’s cycle of the symbol of Infinity.


The first of the show’s five large-format works is the most startling painting of the 21st century. In an ironic nod to the boundless ingenuity of modern architects of fate, the top of a glass skyscraper twists in on itself, collapsing under its own pretensions. The circular walls demurely reflect a Magritte sky…until we reach their upper floors, where Tolici – displaying breathtaking mastery of shadow, detail and perspective – removes roof and ceilings to evoke a crush of humanity in impersonal compartments, all sucked towards a central stairwell…or plug-hole. The World Trade Center inescapably comes to mind, but Tolici’s doomsday tower needs no suicide pilots.


The second large-format work portrays two black-haired nudes entangled in knots of swirling, Leonardesque intricacy formed by plaits of hair as thick as anacondas. Hair engulfs the whole painting – repeated, apparently ad infinitum, in labyrinthine shadow. These girls’ bodies are screamingly sexy, but their facial beauty is left to our desire: their hair cloaks even their eyes.


The third large-format work – the only one with a dark ground – features hundreds of meticulously painted flags and banners, flying backwards at full tilt as if attacked by a cosmic whirlwind. All humanity is on the march. Except there is no humanity. Only banners and flags, poles and wind.


The series’ most blatant use of the Infinity symbol is also the most unlikely – formed by a swirling, tangled mass of greenery: a giant hedge trimmed with surrealist shears, shot through by branches that writhe like snakes, surrounded by fluttering birds. Are they fleeing their peculiar Garden of Eden, or coming home to nest in it?


Skull upon skull, but no macabre ossuary: Tolici somehow renders a plethora of skulls – far more numerous than those forming Vereschagin’s famous pyramid – as enticing as the Milky Way, imbued with a sort of serene Voodooism. But, at the same time, we are summoned towards two daunting tunnels – one announcing a Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, the other leading to the Heart Of Darkness.


The fourth large-format work portrays a giant, tilted hour-glass with the sands of time falling from dawn into a night sky. A fire is burning on a sea-shore. We have the four elements, almost: sand has replaced earth. There are sands in the sky and sands at sea-level. Time is slipping through our fingers, irrelevantly: the form of the hour-glass again evokes the infinity symbol.


The fifth and mightiest large-format work takes the form of a triptych with a giant psychedelic skull surrounded by hundreds of butterflies. Tolici ends his cycle by returning to the Vanity theme with a vengeance… and with a nod to – if not an oblique attack upon – the vanity art of Damien Hirst, apostle of simulacrum par excellence.

Tolici’s bewildering painting also brings to my mind tins of Tate & Lyle syrup (dolloped into my morning porridge as a child in England and, I imagine, into Hirst’s), with their distinctive gold and green Art Nouveau design, fronted by an image of bees swarming around the body of a dead lion, in which they have just produced a comb of honey. ‘Out of the Strong came forth Sweetness’ proclaims the accompanying biblical riddle, pronounced by the mighty Samson in the Book of Judges.

Out of Tolici’s final riddle in his SIMVLACRVM series – out of Death and Finality – comes forth Beauty: fluttering and ephemeral.

The repetitive titles of the works in SIMVLACRVM – all beginning with There Is No and all, apart from the last, ending in a single syllable – build a repetitive, incantatory Thou Shalt Not rhythm evocative of the biblical Ten Commandments. Yet there is nothing religious (as far as I know) about Tolici’s paintings. They are, however, contemplative, spiritual and mystical in mood, with something of the altarpiece about them.


Mobius Gallery, and its intrepid founders Mira Burke and Roxana Gamart, are aiming high with this début show. Opening a new art gallery is an optimistic event anywhere, at any time – doubly exciting when the gallery space is revolutionary.

Mobius Gallery has not four but twelve walls – arrayed in jagged, asymmetrical angles and diagonals. The traditional ‘white cube’ approach to displaying contemporary art has been kissed goodbye.

Welcome to the era of the White Dodecagon: a challenge to the curator, a stimulus to the viewer, and perfectly suited to the multifaceted art of Roman Tolici.


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