Roman Tolici is a talent threatened by sentimentality, writes Michael Bird
This is the one,” says a 12 year-old girl, pointing to a canvass. “I like this the most!” Three kids chase around the exhibition in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, alighting at another image that captures their attention for a moment, before making a split-second evaluation, and then returning to the previous picture. “No, it’s this one that’s best!”
Here, using four successive images, Romanian-based artist Roman Tolici has painted a girl, her face unseen, saying goodbye to an out-of-shot traveller in a train leaving Bucharest’s Gara de Nord station. From Anna Karenin to Brief Encounter and Harry Potter, the departing locomotive is a standard romantic trope and Tolici pulls off what could be a cliché with a stunning narrative artwork inspiring emotional intensity, but leaving an open meaning.
But then he dilutes the sublime with slush. Nearby hang four images of a young girl eating a cake, while opposite is a canvass of children pulling faces in what seem to be family portraits. Even the kids in the gallery ignore these. To be fair, this series is a work in progress, but it reveals that Tolici is a talent in need of tough editing.
In the bulk of this exhibition, Tolici’s paintings from photographs depict Romanian life with titles co-opted from other country’s national days. The theme is celebratory – people at leisure from mostly Romania, such as children in Parcul Ioanid watching a wedding or ice skaters in Piata Unirii, which Tolici argues is a nod to Flemish painter Brueghel for the Dutch National Day. More compelling are images with vaguer connotations, such as ‘Park [1 October – China]’, which shows an empty multicoloured playground fronting three 16-storey tower blocks.
But representing a country in a single image is reductive and can lead to stereotyping. For Germany’s National Day, Tolici has painted racehorses. The artist has said: “in Germany, nature is subordinated to a sense of discipline and the horses invite interpretation on the theory of racial superiority”. To sum up the German consciousness as that of ‘hard work’ and ‘Aryan profiling’ borders on the racist.
Meanwhile for ‘4 July USA’ there is a picture taken at a vertical height from Tolici’s fifth floor window, of his neighbours - some of whom are fat - sitting in a car park in front of a block in their pants and sandals surrounded by expectorated seed shells and Marlboro cigarettes.
Tolici’s doctored realities are at best a vivid and stylised depiction of Romania today, but with his schmaltzy framing of children, he risks becoming the Spielberg of Romanian art – minus the aliens, Jews and dinosaurs.
Roman Tolici ‘It could happen
National Museum of Contemporary Arts (MNAC)
Palatul Parlamentului, Wing E4
Entrance: Calea 13 Septembrie