Geta Bratescu: Camden Arts Centre.
CAMDEN ARTS CENTRE
In a 2014 diary entry, Geta Bratescu compares the artist to an acrobat, reasoning that the two face a shared obstacle, daunting enough to name in uppercase letters: "SPACE." The ninety-one-year-old Romanian artist has dedicated much of her seven-decade career to negotiating enclosures ranging from the confines of a blank page to the mutable gap between her thumb and her index finger. Her maneuvers frequently draw on the recurring motif of the studio--another concept that looms large for Bratescu.
"The Studio: A Tireless, Ongoing Space" explored a place of possibility, suspended in a constant state of redefinition. In its structure, the retrospective survey recalled one of Bratescu's handmade accordion books, folding in and out of itself from the central focal point of Atelierul (The Studio), a 1978 film, shot by her colleague and frequent collaborator Ion Grigorescu, in which Bratescu maps out her studio in relation to her body, in stages of sleep, waking, and play. Ultimately, the space this show navigated was not that of the physical atelier, but rather the distance Bratescu manages to slip between herself and her work, as a means of gaining perspective on the transformative power of art.
In probing this distance, Bratescu draws parallels between the studio and the athanor, the alchemist's forge. The artist had observed ovens firsthand while performing fieldwork in metallurgical plants, where the sight of a factory worker delivering raw materials to the round mouth of the forge had appealed to her as a ready metaphor for the artist at work. Bratescu appropriated the circular form of the oven for her 1985 series of works on paper, "Regula cercului, regulate oculi" (The Rule of the Circle, the Rule of the Game). The "rules" are straightforward. First, Bratescu inscribes a circle on top of a penciled grid; as with the athanor, any material that then enters the space of this circle undergoes a kind of sanctification. And yet, if these protocols offered Bratescu a way to sidestep what she called "the danger of the 'I,'" assigning the artist an ancillary role in the process, traces of the artist's hand still remain in the irregular perforations of the exquisitely patterned paper scraps collaged within each circle. While Bratescu would later experiment with more technical methods to displace her hand from the production, opting to "draw" with scissors or sewing machines, it was in filmmaking that she found the most expedient means of separating her hands from her body. For Les Mains. Pentru ochi, mana trupului meu imi reconstitute portretul (Hands: For the Eye, the Hand of My Body Reconstitutes My Portrait), 1977, Bratescu trains the lens on her fists, portraying her fingers as autonomous creatures, independent of her unseen body and mind. The artist revisits this conceit in 2x5, a four-minute video from 1993. In one shot, the back of Bratescu's curled fists roll against one another so that the knuckles interlock. The video then cuts to a close crop of a meat grinder, as wormy entrails of processed flesh spill out in an uncomfortable echo of the wrinkles in the artist's palm.
This elision of the manual and the mechanical continues in the Medeic Callisthenic Moves, 1980-81, a set of densely layered textile collages "colored" with a sewing machine. Bratescu first tested this technique in the quiet showstopper Vestiges, 1978-79, six sumptuous assemblages of old fabrics on paper. The game the artist plays here is similar to that of her circles. Within the space of the composition, the found materials--"an erstwhile shirt, a head scarf turned into a duster, an old house frock, a frayed coverlet"--are transformed through aesthetic alchemy, becoming "no longer a rag, but an apparition."
Caption: Geta Bratescu, Les Mains. Pentru oc hi, mana trupului meu imi reconstitute portretul (The Hands. For the Eye, the Hand of My Body Reconstitutes My Portrait), 1977, 8 mm film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, silent, 4 minutes and 55 seconds.