Motivation and purpose define Costel Iarca, the magnetic personality behind the TMD Gallery, located across from The Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Ill. The glitz of the fine art scene overpowers the locale, exuding richness and sophistication, accessorized by students and tourists. With dark hair tumbling onto his rugged face, he emerges from a studio near the back into the immaculate, spacious gallery, wearing a solid black T-shirt and jeans, his palms stained to a mottled rainbow. Disheveled and distracted, he smiles. His professional associates know him as Iarca, not Costel. With a warm and casual greeting, he opens his arms for a hug then hesitates, remembering the fresh paint on his hands.

This is a working artist, not a glamorized icon from a museum exhibition. His private studio contains countless hours of inspiration in stacked canvases of various sizes against the walls, with pieces drying along the outer edge. A floor dappled with a haphazard, multihued collage shows an accumulation of paint that never reached its destination.

Though money and fame can be ends in themselves, this abstract expressionist relies on a deeper source of enlightenment, opening the gateway to his soul through a flamboyant array of color passionately applied to his canvas in a patented technique that makes the surface textured and three-dimensional. In a mixed media process, he layers latex caulk and acrylic paint to create a concentrated, tactile effect. His recent work incorporates fabric into his signature style, giving his pieces a rough, bulky appearance. The largest paintings, some an astounding five by six feet, weigh as much as 60 pounds.

This outgoing native of Romania was born in the rural Carpathian Mountain village of Valea in October 1963, where his parents still live on a farm. He grew up in a strict Orthodox home and learned from the European masters in his early years. Iarca suffered under communist suppression until 1989, and along with his younger brother Viorel, a romantic painter and ceramic craftsman, immigrated to the United States in 1994, where he received political asylum, and later, citizenship.

Embedded with mystical imagery and spiritual symbols, his paintings reflect his philosophical immersion at the University of Theology in Transylvania, where he studied under his dad’s encouragement, after he earned his B.A. at the School of Popular Art in Targoviste in 1982. Choosing not to enter the Greek Orthodox ministry, Iarca exercises innovative rationale and strives instead for the visionary in his artwork, manifesting a post-Cubist Picasso flair, every canvas an ethereal composition. His artistic statement is an unfathomable mixture of the softly sublime and the rigidly religious: “There is no bottom line in art. A painting is always incomplete, and that very incompleteness fascinates me, driving me to reflect on the perfection and imperfection of the world and of the human soul. God is the Perfection of everything, we are just the imitators.”

In a pronounced Romanian accent, he talked with fervor about his artistic ambitions and his newest gallery in the Windy City.

GALO: You’ve defined yourself as an abstract expressionist. Why do abstract artists often emerge after years of training in classical painting?

Costel Iarca: Sometimes, I’m considered an abstract expressionist. Sometimes I change, like Gerhard Richter. He changed like a nomad from one style to another. I don’t know how to define the most beautiful art for divinity. If you paint classical, there is nothing new there. So, you have to express yourself in your own language, to create something new, extraordinary, unique, to define yourself — to be you. You don’t just copy what God created. In abstract, you become a little god. So, you start to create, to create your own tree, your own still life.

GALO: Admirers ask what you create and how you create it, but the reason is unexplored. What motivates you to go into the studio?

CI: It burdened me to go in the studio. Sometimes, I spend seven, sometimes 17 hours. I used to sleep in the studio. It’s this hunger for experimenting, creating all the time something new, to create – your own language. It’s like being a theologian, sometimes the Holy Father of the desert. I met so many people in the gallery. They said, “I can do like Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock — it’s bullshit.” I said, “It’s not.” It looks so easy and so simple, after you see something, to do it, but it takes years and years. I think, for him, that was his revelation.

GALO: Practical people think that creation is a mystical process in the fine arts. How would you describe the creative urge?

CI: It’s a gift from God. Not everybody can paint. But, of course, if you don’t work hard to create, you achieve not too much.

GALO: Visual art can be a gateway to the soul. In what ways do you allow your art to express your personality?

CI: It’s not a small window to the soul. It’s the largest window to the soul. We’re animals. That makes the distinction between us, and we are the only ones on this earth who can create.

GALO: What appears on the canvas can be similar to the imagery in dreams. How much of your work reflects an inner vision?

CI: I don’t work too much with my dreams. I use imagination, because with no imagination, it’s impossible to realize. Sometimes the way you dream and the way you put [thought] on canvas, it doesn’t [mesh]. That’s why I change a painting 20 times, 30 times, and sometimes, it takes me, and I’m not joking, two years.

GALO: Artists build their careers on political and social statements. Do you think they have a greater or a lesser chance at distinction?

CI: All artists describe in paintings, like poets, a war, or are against a war or an event. You can paint events of a period of time, but not just political things. That’s why the art of the 21st century is so different than the art of the 14th century, 16th century — different subject, different time, different matter.

GALO: An overt message may be a smokescreen to hide something the artist may not want to reveal. When you paint are you revealing or concealing?

CI: Some I reveal, some I conceal. I encrypt different things in my paintings, like the fish. Of course, I like fishing, but it’s a symbol of Christianity. So, there are some encrypted codes. When you paint, your reflection, your education, your background, your philosophy, what you read, what you know — it’s there. Sometimes it’s very hard to explain. Some people ask me, “Can you describe this painting?” I say, “Briefly, yes. Two minutes.” But I cannot describe what took me two years, what I thought six months ago, and I changed now. It’s a long process.

(Article continued on next page)