Sociopolitical History and Art History as Feedback Loops

Serban Savu, "Artists" (2016), oil on board, 17 in x 13 in.

Șerban Savu
Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles
April 23 – May 28, 2016


Romanian artist Șerban Savu was born in 1978, but he’s clearly what one might call an old soul, demonstrating both a precocious confidence in his eccentrically mature vision and a taste for meta-narrative and boundary-blurring in both style and content in an intellectually rigorous mashup that reflects his generation’s brand of slacker surrealism and an embrace of hybridity for its own sake. Recombinance is a hallmark of today’s visual culture. Savu’s restraint and manifestly genuine affection for the refinement of 19th-century style, and furthermore a kind of empathy for artists of that era who struggled with adapting their training to more accurately face the incursions and subversions of industrial and political revolutions into academic hierarchies. If Savu were painting in the days of the Paris Salon’s, he’d have been a Refusé par excellence.

Not unlike a Courbet mindset, in which classical tropes are applied as a filter through which to view the encroaching, democratized present, Savu’s paintings physically look and feel very old and very new at the same time. It’s post-impressionist, it’s post-classical, it’s post-Soviet — but it’s not Post-Modern. It ignores the visual markers of linear time and repositions both sociopolitical history and art history as feedback loops, as weavings in which the threads can no longer be unraveled — as reflections of the current moment marked both by hope and despair, inseparable still from the past that defines and confines it.

Serban Savu, "Menage à Trois" (2015), oil on canvas, 76 in. x 65 in. 

Ostensibly mundane as can be, Savu’s subjects range from emotional, semi-private moments taking place in public places, to genre painting in which landscapes are configured in overt allegories, all permeated by a oddly ominous melancholy. Savu’s parallax view opens onto a continuum of wistfully pessimistic human activity from the ambitious to the mundane, the political and commonplace, with a theatrical rather than cinematic composition. Like stage blocking, the compositions move both the eye and the story. These scenes are not casual, not snapshots, they are staged and they feel that way because naturalism is not really the point. These paintings want to make sure you know they mean something. Often, their titles help express these meanings, providing clues to the artist’s intentions.

Serban Savu, "Cam Girl" (2015), oil on wood 49 in. x 62 in.

Menage a Trois evokes Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe, sort of. Someone is just getting a haircut though. Cam Girl is like Manet’s Olympia, sort of. The naked model is posing for the internet, not a client, in a bedroom decorated with a woman’s abduction by a Prince of Persia. A rather epic view of a vast construction dig in an abyss of brown earth is called Tower of Babel. You have permission to view it either as progress or folly. A scene of a young street-art muralist “restoring” a social realist wall work unfolds in a rather dingy industrial room in Reenactment. The unnaturally turquoise light of the windows signals that the scene — and therefore the mural — is not real. You are free to see the invocation of the old mural as outmoded propaganda, or emblematic of an aesthetic revolution with resonance for the role of art in today’s cultural paradigm shifts. Similarly, travelers asleep on benches in a train station in The Waiting Room may be waiting for a train, or waiting for the promise of the huge social justice themed mosaic on the wall above them to be fulfilled.

Serban Savu, "The Waiting Room" (2016), oil on canvas, 58 in. x 87 in.

Aside from the titles, formally speaking the most engaging, witty, and specific art historical convention he mines in the works above is the tradition of placing images within images, paintings within paintings as part of the setting, as encoded aspects of these larger narratives. Pulling it off requires a technical grasp of multiple styles, a mimicry that is maybe homage, maybe satire, — but always carries a message. Yet Savu’s pictorial spaces are unified by his overall style and by haze of foggy glaze, like remembering, so that the melange does not disturb the overall gestalt of his scenes. That’s the paradox at the heart of the work’s appeal; in a way it would make more logical sense, seem more realistic on some level, if the juxtapositions were more jarring. Instead, they have a comforting dream logic, in which that which should not be, nevertheless, is. WM


Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


Follow Whitehot on Instagram 


view all articles from this author