Jul/Aug 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Costel Iarca: Transcending the Expressionists

Interview by Julia Ann Charpentier

Romanian painter Costel Iarca found his imaginative roots in Abstract Expressionism, a flamboyant movement that swept the globe from Berlin to New York, but his signature work is a reflection of no predecessor. His patented application technique makes the canvas textured and three-dimensional. In this mixed media process he layers latex caulk and acrylic paint to create depth and intensity.

Expressionist writers who achieved fame alongside these Abstract Expressionist forerunners paid little attention to established structure and time sequence. They wrote with abandon and freedom, going against whatever had been classified as the norm. Reality had no consistent definition, for it was an individual, even psychic experience. Notable European authors and playwrights include August Strindberg, Ernst Toller, and Franz Kafka. Among novelists who achieved notoriety during this movement, James Joyce, the illustrious Irishman, is perhaps most recognized, while Americans Eugene O'Neill and Elmer Rice developed their own innovative dramatic techniques. Yet it is the German names in literature that had the greatest influence. Carl Einstein, Georg Heym, Frank Wedekind, August Stramm, and Georg Kaiser may be considered founders of the movement. The gifts of these talented writers are felt into the twenty-first century, influencing all divisions of fine arts, especially the effervescent paintings of artists like Costel Iarca.

Born in the quiet, rural village of Valea in October 1963, Iarca spent his early years learning from the European masters and polished his talent at the School of Popular Art in Tirgoviste, where he received his B.A. in 1982. He later studied at the University of Theology in Transylvania, but he applied his knowledge of religion and philosophy to an artistic career rather than entering the ministry. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1994.

Focused on the vibrant depiction of emotion, Iarca relies on a combination of soulful intuition and technical skill in tactile, conceptual designs against an intricate, surreal backdrop. His flashy, multicolored work is eye candy, a standout enticement that invites the spectator to come closer. Spiritual and poetic, he considers painting an act of discovery. Symbols and signs enhance his mystical style on the raised, dreamlike surface of the canvas.

Inspired by nature, he finds the confines of his studio limiting and goes outdoors for stimulation. The clean country living and rustic beauty of Valea invigorate his senses. On this mountain terrain Iarca still seeks solace and communion with his spirit.

In the last decade Iarca has operated several of his own galleries throughout Chicago, including the River North Gallery District and Michigan Avenue. His work has been showcased at the Agora Gallery in New York, along with recent exhibitions at the MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa, and the Andrews Art Museum in North Carolina. During the winter he can be found painting at popular hotspots for tourists—Palm Desert, California, or Naples, Florida. In a rich Romanian accent, Iarca spoke of learning from the Expressionists and taking his art in new directions during a recent interview.


JC     The New York School of Abstract Expressionism (1929-1960s) separated from the European styles that preceded it. Does your work have more in common with the New York group or with the Expressionism (1900-1920s) that originated in Berlin?

CI     The abstract from Europe moved to the United States before the Germans came into power. Lots of people from Russia, from Germany, from Holland, had moved to Paris. They started this movement of abstract against Cubism (1907-1921). It's the first face abstract pushed against. In New York abstract started with Jackson Pollock, with Willem de Kooning. The artists from the New York School have a lot to learn from the European School, so it's a balance. Some put Pollock in abstract. Some put Pollock in Action. I have almost everything in my paintings—abstract expressionism, gestural, action.

JC     Do you favor action or emotion?

CI     I think in all painters there is emotion, even in Pollock. Some say there is more action. You cannot control. You cannot do anything without emotion. There was a period of Constructivism (1919-1940s). The artist was like a technician. I agree with the artists who say art is based on emotion. It's not based on the tools or the geometrical forms. For me, art has to have the emotion, has to involve your soul, your culture, your idea—to take something and transform. In art you compose with color, shape, form. Abstract is a language.

JC     The Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s was more emotional and personal than the Color Field painting in the 1960s, which was intellectual and impersonal.

CI     That moment—I cannot control at that moment. Sometimes I have that moment more in the action, but I think the action is controlled by emotion. You feel, based on emotion, to move fast, to throw the paint, to stain the paint, to do big brushstrokes. Then you look down on the paintings, and you see some form, and you take that form, and you try to give a bit of figurative art.

JC     Lyrical Abstraction was popular during the 1960s and 1970s in America, and experts say that the artist's hand is more visible in this form than in the abstract art that preceded it.

CI     I don't see a distinct movement. The art critics can distinguish it because at that period there were some very good artists, but there were some political things in the social life of America, if you didn't have behind you a patron, like a Clement Greenberg or a Harold Rosenberg. Greenberg was in favor of Pollock. Greenberg took de Kooning. Mark Tobey was a departure. Barnett Newman was pushed away. He tried to promote himself, even wrote about art, and said, "I'm against the bourgeois class." If the bourgeois class would take your painting, that meant you were good. What happened at that time is present today in society. For me, all these movements, which they created in West Europe and America, show freedom. That's why people in a communist country cannot paint as these people.

JC     When Romania was communist, was the art restrained?

CI     It was very restrained and rebellious. You got a lot of promotion from the government, but you had to paint scenes in the life of the communist. You could paint as much as you wanted in Romania, but you had it in your home. You'd never be on exhibition in the gallery or the museum. There were lots of artists, but you had to paint villagers when they worked tractors—happy, with country people working hard or people working the factory. Some modern Western Europeans were influenced, and they show industrial factory work. You can see something like pipes, people next to the industrial machine. Francis Picabia, too, was influenced by technology.

JC     Many of your canvases are extremely large. Do all parts of your paintings play an equally vital role in the total work?

CI     Unity. You cannot work on some part of the canvas—transform part of the canvas—and leave the rest. It's like a jacket, crocheted. If you go very tight, and then very loose, and then again tight, that would look ugly and disturbing on canvas.

JC     Expressionism is known for improvisation and "accidental genius."

CI     Based on my philosophy, there is nothing by accident. Sometimes in the jar which I mix color appears a beautiful masterpiece. I don't know how it takes form. It is gorgeous. I think everything is under control of the painter. Even if it's an accident, better you leave it there with your consciousness, so it's with a purpose, not with an accident.

JC     Some Expressionists believe that imagination is opposed to common sense.

CI     There is imagination, but it involves your background, your education, culture. You take something and go in the imagination, like the abstract people. They represent a tree through color, form, but depart from reality, depart from perspective. They don't want to go in like a canonical, classical artist.

JC     Abstract Expressionism is typically unpremeditated and spontaneous. How much preliminary work goes into your paintings?

CI     Based on action at that time, I arrange the painting. I have in mind something, but when I go there I see maybe nothing will look the way I plan. You might say, "It's extraordinary. It's good." Then in two months, three months, you might change your mind. For me, a piece of art is not done as long as it stays in my studio.

JC     Most will say that a work of art is either planned or spontaneous, but it can't be both.

CI     Could be both.

JC     Is it possible to be organized and impulsive at the same time?

CI     You can go spontaneous, and then you organize what you did.

JC     You leave your work open to interpretation. Can an artist create an outstanding work without a specific purpose?

CI     I don't think without purpose that you can create something. Each painting has a purpose. Color, subject—everything has a purpose.

JC     Is art a private or a public experience for you?

CI     Art should be for people. Of course, I sell paintings, but in the end when you paint, even for a museum, your canvas becomes a spectacle. You become a public figure.

JC     Abstract Expressionism had a greater influence on you than any other school of art. What do you believe is its major flaw?

CI     I think all the movements are original and unique, and they have their own beauty. Minimalism (1960s-1970s) has its own beauty, Abstract—its own beauty. I don't want to criticize, even if somebody, a kid, is going to put a line over there. If in his soul he thinks it's a piece of art, it's a piece of art for that soul. Cubism has its own beauty. Total abstract, beautiful—you see pieces of color. It's sublime. Three or four blocks of color—that's gorgeous and outstanding. Go with the one stripe—the dimension of things.

JC     Critics often define an artist by what he refuses to do.

CI     Sometimes, you may be in the favor of an art critic, or you may not be, but that doesn't mean you are not a good artist. Think of Vincent Van Gogh. Everybody rejected him at that time. After he died the prices of his art skyrocketed.

JC     What are you able to present that an earlier Expressionist could not achieve?

CI     My surface is at least fifty percent three-dimensional. What makes my art unique—the cylindrical forms, thicker or thinner, on the surface of a canvas.

JC     That's specifically what is patented.

CI     It's the cylindrical form, like a wire. My wire and all the movements are like the brushstrokes of Van Gogh. Of course, the brushstrokes of Van Gogh have a tiny bit of two-dimension. Pollock has the dripping. My art next to Pollock is three-dimensional. His art is flat.

JC     What sets you apart from your competition today?

CI     When one squeezes the paint, it's something mechanical. My paintings through this technique—this combination of the three-dimensional and the layers—is an opportunity to create a different composition: figurative, abstract, emotional, and gestural.

JC     What do you intend to do differently in the future?

CI     I just want to master this process and take this technique to the top.