The Archaeology of Present(ness)
“That which is no longer useful can still have some use for us,” writes Jean Baudrillard in his book The System of Objects about the poetic quality of lost, abandoned objects. It is this we sense when beholding “the simple mechanism of a wristwatch and in any object whose original purpose we can’t quite recall, only seeing their enchanting charm and magic.” One could hardly find a more accurate description for Róbert Batykó’s object paintings, his successive painting series and “periods;” the deformed trademarks and logos against a cool gray, monochrome background – the ironically deformed (corrupted and deconstructed) representations of falsely glittering, beautifully packaged commercial items. Later, the suggestive, masklike, monumental “portraits” of audiotapes, the shocking cut-outs of instrument paintings resounding with the “sounds of silence,” the expressive faktura-plays counterbalancing the matte surfaces, and the cold metal objects depicted with virtuous brushstrokes. Even more concentrated than these: his paintings of household appliances, guns and construction machinery. The forms are stylized almost beyond recognition and still they retain their concrete object-like quality. The often phallically shaped objects conjure aggressive notions even in their abandoned state, almost taking on human characteristics. These common objects – fragments of our everyday reality – appear as uniquely interpreted archaeological findings, or props of a sort; traces left behind. They intimate strange stories, and perhaps they even have a thing or two to say about the social structure in which they came into being.
Róbert Batykó’s latest works depict street litter, junk, lost – now functionless – objects: cigarette butts, a rusty shopping cart submerged in water, a bra thrown on the ground. The enigmatic still lifes at times broaden into surrealistic landscapes. The homogeneous grey base of his earlier works has given way to richly differentiated surfaces that are loaded with concrete meaning, calling to mind the guano covered surface of sidewalks, and painted interior walls. While the result is concrete in an almost photo-like fashion, it nevertheless resembles the indulgent surface treatment of the abstract impressionists; in places, the glaze-like, finely trickled spots take on an almost cosmic air. The waste dumps sometimes seem like abandoned “word landscape” (Weltlandschaft), like an abstract battle scene after the Big Bang. The colours are layered onto the rich background, creating a peculiar montage – one minute they seem to be floating in the vacuum of a barely defined image space, the next minute they appear to be gravitating towards mesmerizingly material-like concrete surfaces (and in this, they conjure the childhood memories of the artist who grew up in the concrete jungles of Miskolc).
The familiar-yet-unfamiliar street fragments form unique, layered images whose reading requires intensive eye work. These palimpsests afford insight into the creative process: Batykó finds his subjects by serendipty on the sidewalk surfaces of empty streets, where the average passersby wouldn’t think to look. The intentionally random-awkward photos of these serve as the basis of the paintings, which are characterized by the endless dialectic of bodiless and bodily, of digital and analogue, or by the iconic difference between the richness of surface qualities and the illusory imagery of virtual photos. Being that the photographic illusion is overpowered by the sometimes emphatically charged autonomous painting surface. The matte image field, which opens to infinite depths, is counterpointed by the rough-surfaced, deformed, expressively smeared shapes it contains, thus creating distinctive micro-spaces in the seemingly endless depths, on which they occasionally also cast a shadow. The deep spaces of the image field are defined by often “sterile” – perhaps reminiscent of Gerhard Richter – cylindrical surfaces (or other geometric form-systems), thereby enhancing the complexity of spatial conditions. The opposition of the abstract image field and the distorted, painterly movement of the figure call to mind Francis Bacon’s expressive paintings of existential weight. Batykó’s stage, however, never features any human figures. His deserted urban landscapes, vacant room interiors and industrial-type object portraits carry the traces of alienated human presence. The objects sometimes almost seem to take on a personality, as if to allude to the past, to those who were there before.
It is as if the piles of litter, gadgets, and the broken objects that await recycling could also represent the mechanisms of the cultural industry and the phenomena of our post-industrial world. “The contradictory assumptions of conquering and bringing on fate are reflected in the economic order of production, which – while tirelessly continuing production – can only manufacture objects that are made fragile and partly dysfunctional, and thus meant for the earliest possible demise – therefore working equally on their production and destruction,” writes Baudrillard to whom Batykó also made a reference to in an ars poetical writing. The objects that are doomed to destruction are the traces of culture and existence. They are existential metaphors, which also seem to allude to the economic-social structures built on the dialectics of production and elimination. It would be dangerous, however, to attribute any ideological or political tendentiousness to these works.
The “all-overness” of the scattered litter seems more to question the relationship between chaos and order, accidental and inevitable, calculated and random, digital and painted, high tech and low tech, visible and invisible. The never ending process of the birth and dissolution of meaning is repeated over and over, while we observe “a hiatus between the levels of thinking and perception” (Kinga Bódi) – an iconic denseness of painted surfaces – and ascertain the epistemological enquiry of Batykó’s art; he appears to also explore the image inflation of the medialized world as well as the changes in human perception and the relation to visuality. The perpetual circulation of objects and images, a torrent of visual and tactile stimulus in never before seen proportions, the blurring of the boundaries between virtual images and reality imply a myriad of questions, which in Batykó’s art, are inseparable from the painting traditions, the many centuries of landscape and still life painting, and the deep reserves of art history – which Batykó unconsciously evokes.
In this context, the juxtaposed shapes of the litter and objects that are disposed of and then used again appear to be a cultural metaphor for a world in which the practice of sampling and remixing corresponds to the principles of collage and montage. The new composition, as a recycling of “readymade” elements, refers back, as a de/recontextualization, to its own history, thereby uniquely recreating the tradition. It bears traces of the sometimes powerful, sometimes stylised forms of street art and graffiti (which, in his early career, Batykó connected with panel painting) as well as neo-realistic object painting, which dispassionately imitates industrial forms (Charles Sheeler and Konrad Klapheck, or Francis Picabia’s ironic object portraits). The latter leads towards the industrial-like, serial forms of pop art and the frivolous amplifications of object size, as well as the reality and hyper-reality of photorealist paintings, which explore the distortions of how realty is perceived (especially Gerhard Richter). Batykó’s painting is “photogenic painting” in the Foucaultian sense, which reflects on the most current questions of visual culture, while also retaining the retinal-sensual character of – a seemingly anachronistic – traditional art.
I feel that the power of the paintings is in precisely this: the confident application of techné. As Batykó is not only interested in the image of the object, but also in the image as a sensuously capturable object, which requires active physical presence: the struggle with the material, the (at times autonomous, at times controlled) shaping of the paint mass, the expressive potential of monotonous, motor movements, the randomness of trickling glossy surfaces (reminiscent of Pollock’s dripping). The latter counterpoints the calculatedness – the almost engineer-like aesthetics – of the forms which were designed (reconstructed and cut out) with the help of a vector graphics program. Batykó’s serendipity problematic is rendered present by the image surface on a distinctive meta-level as an event or image process. Being more than a mere anthology of found and painted readymade objects, it also refers to the sometimes ecstatic process of image making and the many surprises the artist encounters.
Batykó’s works, in this way, create a uniquely self-reflective painterly universe, into which unconsciously connotated, randomly appearing topoi from the history of culture and painting occasionally drift as recycled, recovered objects. In one of his most recent paintings (Orbit, 2012) we find four stone blocks, an abandoned worker’s glove, cigarette butts, pebbles, and scattered pieces of papers against the familiar grey background; a lost glove, like in Max Klinger’s famous etchings, a stone block resting in the dust, like in Alfred Meissonier’s barricade painting or in the – still relevant – cobbled stone depictions of the Hungarian avantgarde. The whole of the picture is reminiscent of a peculiar archaeological excavation, a cultural deep bore into the layers of the past, while also being a demonstration of not only the present-becoming-the-past, but also the filthy and faded reality of the street wrapped in sparkling images, and our general mood – “here and now.” Natura morta – in the strictest sense of the word. The archaeology of perpetually changing meaning and an alienated, fragile human presence, I comment to myself, when my eyes wander to the title of the work – Orbit. Entirely profane, insofar as it refers to a chewing gum brand, but as a concept of natural science, it opens towards the cosmic, unifying “micro” and “macro” once and for all.
Róbert Batykó’s paintings implicate an entire series of optical and conceptual changes of scale. They induce ecological, social, anthropological, epistemological and, especially, medium-theoretical interpretations, which, however, are in turn overwritten by the elemental experience of the painterly intensity and subtle decorativeness of the works.
Baudrillard warns us: objects can easily become substitutes for human relationships. Róbert Batykó’s object finds (ever suggesting unfinished stories), his remotely viewed, alienated and still almost personified pseudo-artefacts, seem to appear as traces of human relations, attractions and choices. Banal observations, spectacle fragments, ephemeral objects, mysterious mementos, our images and notions all solidify into painted imprints – layer structures in which complex time streams condense and which, in the process of beholding, causes seeing to curve back onto itself.
Published: Batykó Róbert / Catalogue_2011