The Leaps of Aesop
On ViewHauser & Wirth
February 17 – May 20, 2018
Romania’s presentation of Geta Brātescu last year at the Venice Biennale felt like a retrospective in miniature. A trove brimming with variety, from small abstractions, lyrical figuration, to taped performances, and their associated sculptural sets, Brātescu’s protean energies were a welcome surprise. In her first solo showing in Los Angeles, The Leaps of Aesop affords Brātescu the luxury of blue chip space, but loses sight of some of her quixotic impact in the process. Confirming the potential energy felt in Venice, Hauser and Wirth scooped up Brātescu just before the vernissage, a logical addition to their established stable of quirky elder stateswomen (it is surely no accident that Brātescu appeared in LA beside a show of ponderous drawings by Louise Bourgeois).
Calling Brātescu a “Romanian Conceptualist,” the show itself foregrounds her abstract collages and fanciful figurative drawings, two styles that do not suggest conceptualism so much as the historic modernist avant-gardes. Cubist, postcard-scale collages, Vedere catre Sud (View to the South) (1986) and Vedere catre Nord (View to the North) (1986) evoke the scuffed and tattered strata of Kurt Schwitters. Framed to evidence the repetition and variation of a series, their titles help us read them as pocket landscapes, studies of the same vista, like cliffs beset by surf, rain, and mist. Likewise, her immense Jocul Formelor (Game of Forms) series (2010 – 2015), looks like a storm of Kandinsky and Constructivism inflected shapes, and recall Matisse’s cut-outs in their playful inhabitation of collage. Her numerous ink and pen figurations, beginning with the Esop (Aesop) Drawings Book (1967), recall Picasso’s ease at conjuring personae and melodrama on a humble page.
But look to these drawings’ partner and the exhibition’s namesake, Plimbarea Lui Esop (Aesop’s Walk), an animated cartoon and associated acetate cels from 1967, to see Brātescu’s difference from these precedents. This earliest work animates and connects all of Brātescu’s later work by implication, from the still Game of Forms (2016) to her fantastic taped studio performances like Atelierul (The Studio) (1978) reading them all as animations, lively, protean, living things. In Les Mains. Pentru ochi, mâna trupului meu îme reconstitute portretul (The Hands. For the eye, the hand of my body reconstitutes my portrait) (1977), Brātescu’s hands play melodramatically with string, camping for the camera and establishing an analogy between the activation of this line, between performance and the act of drawing, as well as the lines in her palms, the strings of a necklace, and the rim of a glass. Recordings like The Studio and The Hands make it clear that no one medium or form gets elevated in Brātescu’s practice. Nothing is final, settled, or exalted. Her drawings are as endless as the gestures we see her making, as Brātescu documents her creating body in the context of the studio as the connective tissue between disparate media and practices.
After her undergraduate studies in fine art were interrupted by the rise of an oppressive Communist regime, Brātescu worked as an illustrator and graphic designer, only completing her education in 1971. Recalling this biographic and political context shifts the stakes of Brātescu’s return to modernist tropes alongside a more postmodern performance practice in the 1970s and after. Laid down on printer paper and never solidified into painting, Brātescu’s re-modernism comes with no pretension and plenty of ironic slapstick, from the clownish side-eye of Fard (Make-up), 1988 to the Thigh Master that appears in Alteritate (Alterity) (2002 – 2011). Was this return to modernism an act of aesthetic protestation and defiance? Maybe, but it is hard to find this story here. Brātescu’s small works on paper and home videos are evidence of a practice forged in secret and without much support, conditioned by the obscure privacy and scale of the home. So, it’s misleading to see Brātescu as tidily as The Leaps of Aesop does, as a mythic genius in a timeless mold fit for Joseph Campbell, as if auditioning her work for MoMA’s equally white cubes. In The Leaps of Aesop, Brātescu slips implicitly instead into a de-politicized, ahistoric modernism, and we’ve already had enough of that.