Simon Cantemir Hausì, Lion MGM, 2009–11, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 39 3/8".

Simon Cantemir Hausì, Lion MGM, 2009–11, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 39 3/8".

Simon Cantemir Hausì

Simon Cantemir Hausì, Lion MGM, 2009–11, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 39 3/8".

It is not unusual for contemporary painters to find points of contact with nineteenth-century realism or the old masters. Such affinities are no longer seen as inherently suspect or retrograde; fortunately, those days are over. The critical question is how these connections are made and what results they bring. The work of the Romanian painter Simon Cantemir Hausì seems to have sprouted from a nineteenth-century visual world, or from the early twentieth century, when modern color burst into painting. But Hausì uses tradition as a springboard to evoke a contemporary cultural landscape. His exhibition “Waiting for the Perfect Days” included eighteen paintings, thirteen small drawings, and three sculptures. Most impressive were the paintings, in which the artist’s distinctive style instills the visible world with menace, mystery, and invisible presence. Accused Free Man 1, 2011, for instance, shows a man standing erect as a barely visible face looms over him like a ghost. In a way, this painting’s title seems applicable to the exhibition as a whole. On the one hand, we find a “true” painter at work, one who can give free rein to paint and an abundance of color. On the other, there is hesitation and a stifled atmosphere, a gray veil over his works that somehow holds everything prisoner. This is the conditional freedom of a suspended sentence.

Perhaps this closed-in atmosphere reflects the years of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, which formed the landscape of Hausì’s childhood. He grew up in an artistic milieu (his father was a poet), and memories of interrogation and intimidation by the state police feed into his work, furnishing a historical background for the malevolent and tormented aspects of his paintings. Yet magic and enchantment also form part of Hausì’s world. And painting itself is his theme, as much as or more so than any recollected oppression. The works are finished in a carefree, almost slapdash manner, sometimes with dust in the paint or a slight tear in the canvas sewn shut. This casual facture pulls them into the present. They are refined, however, in their use of multiple layers of color—some no more than a thin film—to yield great subtlety. Another strength is the variety of technique and its close fit with each painting’s content. In Vulcano, 2008, for instance, the artist painted thickly, using putty knives and scraping to achieve the outcome he desired, whereas in Garden, 2011, the paint is applied thinly. A drab garden of trees is illuminated by a rare color accent. Scratches in the paint heighten the menace of the scene.

One critical note might be that a few pieces, such as From the Past, 2011, lean too heavily on the nineteenth century without transcending it. But what is consistently pleasing about these paintings is their credibility. While not all are equally urgent, they are all true to themselves—a serious accomplishment. Things become most interesting when there is friction, when the free and the condemned exist side by side, when the mood is both joyful and vexed, the coloring both exuberant and stifled, as in Lion MGM, 2009–11. All in all, Hausì’s impressive German debut unites an old-fashioned interest in painting with an original mind and imagination.

Jurriaan Benschop

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.