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'Among strangers' by Gabriel Stoian at Basis, Frankfurt am Main

As an emigrant, I oscillate between nostalgia – for my birth land – and a certain excitement – for the unknown that surrounds me. The permanent sensation of not belonging has made me question the notion of globalization. Somehow, coming from Romania is never easy... 

Emigrant – a person who leaves their own country in order to settle permanently in another. This mere definition is as cold and blunt as if we were speaking about birds, as they travel great distances to find food and warm shelter. It all seems so practical, so logical, right? However, I can firmly say that most of us suffer from a distinctive form of mistrust as you get when being among strangers. Leaving the place you come from lays a heavy burden on somebody’s shoulders on the way he or she perceives things. The pieces for this exhibition were created as a uniform body of work, an installation that reconstructs a migrant’s nightmare. 

Gabriel Stoian, artist note. 


The exhibition AMONG STRANGERS sees Gabriel Stoian reflect upon his experience as a person building a life in a different country to the one in which he was born. 

Entering the exhibition space we encounter a small crowd of masks, installed at different heights of approximate eye-level and held by metal poles. The masks are all rectangular in shape and each have a differently colored, monochromatic skin of wax-like, dripped oil paint as well as differently shaped cut- out eye sections – small circles, droplet shapes, triangles, and so on. The room is filled with smoke and the hissing sound of a smoke machine. Installed on the walls are three landscape format line drawings in black oil paint on primed canvas showing the face of a young woman as she lies in a reclined position with her eyes closed. 

There is a certain eerie sense to the installation that runs counter to the oftentimes blissful quality of Stoian’s works, which frequently involve poetic, light-filled scenarios: here, the dream has taken on a sense of unease. 

The artist generally works with concepts and themes that present themselves to him in his everyday life – rather than homing in on a single topic, he casts his net wide and catches jetsam in the currents of our shared unconscious. In doing so, his visceral and intuitive use of materials and imagery is underpinned by a highly differentiated questioning of our viewing habits. 

He works for the greatest part with simple, tried and tested tools, both in his paintings and installations – by his own admission, he only owns “a few brushes” and uses a jigsaw very similar to the one he had in primary school – and has a knack for describing and evoking complex emotions through highly reduced means: nostalgic longing mixed with a sense of wonder as evoked by a dusk landscape (in his “forest” of 2019, the moon and sun both seem to be sitting in the tree branches set against a purple sky), the bewilderment sometimes felt in social situations (his line drawings in the 2019 show “THINGS CHANGE” at bistro 21 in Leipzig, which included repeated, partially blocked out portraits or groups of people having an orgy), a poetic sense of space (his installations in the same show, as well as at New Now in 2018, which made use of bright pigment dusted onto the floor and precariously hung objects). 

His painting practice, which feeds into his work in other media, features two distinct bodies of work. One is more closely linked to his earlier practice as a print maker and gives prominence to graphic lines and flat color, while the other sees him revel in the possibilities of oil painting as he builds up viscous brush strokes on his chosen surfaces, which range from cotton duck and wood to discarded burlap bags. He works with speed and confidence, generally completing a painting in a single session. The openness of the resulting pieces has a sense of generosity, with Stoian’s loose brushwork allowing his viewers a great deal of space for their own reflections. 

His use of paint in the masks shown in AMONG STRANGERS however differs from both of these approaches, as he here doesn’t allow the brush to touch the canvas, choosing instead to drip his material onto the surface from above over the course of several days. This drawn-out method feels somewhat more pained than his usual way of handling paint. It is quite controlled – the drips all seem to have come from the same direction, like raindrops would in a lull – yet nevertheless the material spills over the sides of the wood supports and sometimes smudges can be seen on their bare backs too. The resulting surface is a thick skin of paint with small craters created by the impact of paint splashing onto the surface. 

The approach is somewhat reminiscent of the way we treat strangers – we keep just a bit more of a distance – while the flat, hard material used for the masks conjures up the term “to stonewall somebody”. A redeeming feature lies perhaps in the strong, sometimes bright colors used, and in the geometric eye shapes, which lend the objects a toy-like and alluring quality. In this way they seem to conflate the allure of the big city, with its promise of success, splendor, and above all consumption, and the sense of rejection often encountered by newcomers from long-time residents of their new home. The group of works appears to be at the same time reminiscent of billboards as of a somewhat unwelcoming crowd of people. The element of the fog meanwhile turns the viewers into parts of the scene, enveloping them as they enter the installation. This simple artistic device also elegantly turns the show into a single installation, rather than a collection of individual works. 

Meanwhile, the image of the dreaming woman, filmic both in its format and repetition, appears as a somewhat reconcilliatory gesture. While she may be troubled by her nightmares, the vulnerability of her sleeping state points to something we all have in common: as human beings we all sleep, we all dream. Even though we don’t know exactly why we require that time of rest, or why every night we surrender ourselves to the illogical images of our unconscious, which often run counter to the regimented structure of our daily lives. 

By sharing his “emigrant’s nightmare”, Gabriel Stoian once more manages to evoke a host of paradoxical emotions in his viewers. He does so by avoiding visual platitudes yet still managing to gift us with images that resonate strongly in their simplicity. 

— E. M. C. Collard

20.3.20 — 20.4.20

Curated by E.M.C. Collard

Photo by #thestudiosunshine


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