Machines Enclosed in Imagery
Róbert Batykó was born in Miskolc. His painting career started shortly before the millennium turn – as is the case with many of his contemporaries – with an involvement in the local graffiti scene. While drawing on the walls, he was struck by the thought processes inherent to the reduced forms and the artistic deployment of simple, meaningful motifs. However, the convex, rough, uneven and uncouth surface of the walls in the streets of Miskolc soon enough proved to be a dead-end for Batykó, who invested his energies in constant experimentation, delving deep into the labyrinth of details. Canvas surfaces thus replaced concrete walls.
However, these new images did not initially differ in matters of form from the previous murals. The first examples of thinking through the development of intricately constructed series appear in this period. The artworks titled Wall (2002), Underpass (2004) and Graff (2003-2005) still boast a sense of flow, of the cavalcade of rebellious youth, the contrast of bright colours and wide-ranging, expressive movements. These works, which were still entirely non-figurative – leaning towards gesture painting, depicting a vehement, drifting sense of life – shifted gradually towards a more static, more serene, more straightforward notion of the painterly. The previous atmosphere of confusion and passion slowly evaporated, letting simple signs, symbols and logos take over the paintings. The Lacoste crocodile, the Peugeot lion, the Puma figure, the face from Dr Oetker's products emerged: isolated motifs appearing on their own, without any background or perspective, removed from their surroundings, as attention-binding, warning, strict icons.
Meanwhile, the artist reduced his colour palette, and the predominant colours became yellow, black, and grey. In each case, Batykó worked on the symbols he deployed. In some cases, he subtracted details from them. In other cases, he supplemented them with seemingly inappropriate elements. He flipped them upside down, spun them around, distorted them or multiplied them. A critique of the world of emotionless brands emerges in these brittle, confrontational, down-to-earth works. The deformation and anomalies of the "well-established" logos in the series Puma (2004-2006), Lac (2005), Peu (2005) and Air (2006) are clear-cut allusions to the distorted globalized world that the artist is trying to change and transform, deploying his own set of tools. In this new series, Batykó surpassed the technical level of his graffiti pieces, in addition to advancement in content and form. His oil paintings became supplemented with acrylic, and he embarked on a series of experiments with the more or less smooth and rough surfaces, with the thinly and thickly applied layers of paint, and at the same time, the strict separation of these layers. The raising of painterly problems thus complemented his theoretical undertakings.
For Batykó, the direction of social criticism proved to be too straightforward and direct. Soon, going beyond the bleak world of brands, he embarked on a new series, which one could refer to as the "music series." First, cassettes, video and audiotapes appeared on the canvases, followed by cymbals and turntables. He rediscovered ordinary objects, which he transformed into objects of painting. These images are milestone in Batykó’s artistic practice, demarking the shift towards the representation of objects, when the artist starts dealing with the vacuum between the mere object, its perception and its possible meaning(s). In the separately conceived series – Digital (2006-2007), Cymbal (2007), Turntable (2007) and Guitar Neck (2007) – Batykó's fascination with abstraction is already evident, which is complemented by a "turn" towards surrealism. The series dealing with music was followed by minor and large-scale series, such as Knife (2007) and Weapon(2007), in which abstraction became more vigorous, while – as a new pictorial issue – the notion of hard-edge painting also emerged. He reduced forms to their most basic elements. The continuous balancing on the verge of total abstraction and the barely recognizable – still characteristic of his art today – begins here.
With this reduced realm of colours and shapes, we arrive at his latest works: the series titled Concrete Chisel (2007-2008), Concrete Rammer (2008), Saw (2008) and Engine (2008). The artworks raise the question: Where does the power of these works representing the world of machines (?) stem from? To this question, there are three possible perspectives from which we might find relevant answers. First possible answer. In Batykó's latest paintings, we see engines, chisels, compactors and concrete rammers. However, is this what we really see? In his earlier paintings, the forms were easier to decode. The boundary between the realistic and the abstract was not blurred to this extent. Batykó deprives his objects of their original meaning, colour and form in his new works: he renders them abstracts. We interpret them as machines, yet as something else as well: a wasp, an ant, a (non)figurative formation? Starting from the minor elements, we first take a close look at a screw, a lever or a disc. As we distance ourselves from the details, receding from the painting, the general form becomes palpable – but as something quite different from what we expected. In Plato's dialogue titled Theaetetus, Socrates elaborated this issue in the following way: "It was a mistake for us to agree that it is impossible to think of a known thing as another known or unknown thing." According to Socrates's metaphor, the human soul is like a wax tablet, on which everything we see, hear and think is imprinted: these imprints are called knowledge. However, when we voice our opinions, we are not only guided by our knowledge, as sensory impressions also influence us. Thought consists of pieces of knowledge and sensations. The complex relationship between the two lets us formulate true or false opinions.
In Batykó's formations, we try to match the given sight with the associated imprint to compare it with our soul’s imprints. Screw, lever, metal plate and as a result, we expect a concrete rammer. However, the parts do not add up according to our preconceptions. There is a glitch in the procedure of cognition: this is the same loophole that Socrates pointed out: it is not impossible to think of a known thing as another known or unknown thing. Batykó aims at precisely this gap between the layers and levels of thinking and perception. Second possible answer: Batykó's visual world, which at first glance reveals machines, is both sensual and distant, personal and impersonal. His interest and sensitivity towards construction machinery can be traced back to his experiences of childhood and youth. The machines found at the Real Estate Authorities of Miskolc (also referred to in the title of the exhibition: M. I. K.), and later the rocket engines he saw at the Royal Air Force Museum in London became loaded with personal interest: they signify experiences, moods and memories beyond their mere existence. Seeing these images, we witness the rationalization of feelings, experiences and impressions that cannot be reduced and cannot be expressed verbally. Batykó's paintings are about the transition zone between the self and the non-self, the grasping of an ever-evolving identity. He defines himself in relation to objects, as Ludwig Feuerbach said: "Consciousness is to render something as an object. In the strictest sense, we can only speak of consciousness if a being can make his gender, essence, an object of itself."
Batykó's search for identity, his relation to his past and present can only be understood through the reduction of experiences, through the concentration leading towards substance. His hard-edge minded paintings are thus ruled by order and balance: he deploys basic geometric forms, strong, definite colours, and dispels notions of perspective as this is the only way to focus on real meaning. The "objects" on the canvas appear as the pillars of a post-war world, as the very foundations of existence. Third possible answer: The reference to musical layers was already present in Batykó's earlier works, only in a much more direct way. In his latest works, the transcription of high and low pitches, dissonant and consonant sounds into his visual system appears only as a subtle reference. It is a subject of eternal debate: what could correspond to musical sound in the language of painting? The most obvious answer is colour. However, Batykó approaches this problem from a completely different angle. For him, the visual equivalent of musical sounds, harmonies and layers are not presented in colours or their strength and proportion, but in the various thickness, distribution and juxtaposition of the paint layers. The different patterns, shapes, paint areas, and diverse surfaces denote and represent musical sounds and sequences. The procedure of thinking in different surface layers is an indication that the creation of a given work can only be imagined within the toolkit and formal domain of painting. Just as a perfect piece of music only acquires its absolute meaning within the realm of its unique reality. There seems to be a fourth aspect to the three concepts we have discussed so far: the issue of the "sculpture or phenomenon as machine", which (perhaps) suggests the beginning of a new direction in Batykó's work.
The two exhibited paintings titled Worker's Throne and Worker's Throne 2 – referring to the 1979 memorial of the same title, erected in the main square of Miskolc, standing there to this day – indicate a possible new direction in the artist's work. However, Batykó does not wish to join the fashionable cult of the retro. His interest remains in the world of mechanic structures. Expanding the notion of the "machine", Batykó asserts that a phenomenon, such as a (public) sculpture, can also be interpreted as the mechanical trace or the mechanism of a given era or system. When he decides to "update" the fragments of the past, he does not do this out of interest towards the object culture of socialism: instead, he approaches these works rather as everyday memorabilia that we walk past day by day. Batykó creates series of works, closes them off, and then launches new sequences. They are all imprints of a continuously evolving identity. Getting to know and understand them, the viewer is driven to inscribe them on the surface of their own wax tablet.
Published: Balkon, 2009 / 1