Attila Szűcs's Latest Works
I. The works that Attila Szűcs produced in the mid-90s are figurative paintings, although the objects and materials which provide his inspiration are clearly identifiable (trees, benches, people, buildings), what permeates all these works is an all-pervading sense of unreality. If we look back to the works the young artist was turning out at the beginning of the decade - where the objects depicted appear on a background of plaster or metal -, it becomes clear that representation and abstraction have always gone hand-in-hand in Szűcs's art. In those early works the image of an object springs out of the abstract medium, distinct from its background materially as well as representationally. The artist often uses photographs stuck onto plaster, for example, or onto oil-painting (Endlessly Accelerating, 1994). Later Szűcs abandons this juxtaposition of contrasting textures, along with the plastic arts and installations, and turns his attention towards oil and canvas, producing figurative works - though his '95 and '96 paintings still refrain from incorporating total coherence of image and coalescent portrayals of light, figures and space. Instead of obvious contrast he goes for subtle deviation; thus in his works the objects represented are barely distinguishable from their surroundings, differing in colour only by the subtlest shade. In these pictures we have the impression of a single colour dominating, though it is difficult to determine exactly what this colour is, for Szűcs's palette gives us a wide range of subtle tones. Primarily he favours greens, violets and blues, and, more characteristically, mixtures of these, resulting in shadowy, matt areas that differ from each other only very slightly. These areas - with a very few exceptions - are "transitional", that is they blend into each other softly, change colour subtly. Often the sky is allowed to blur with the land, and the horizon becomes difficult to distinguish. Judged from the point of view of homogenous art, it might appear that he puts in effects of light and shade without any justification, producing effects which can take the viewer aback. Certain things - usually identifiable images of objects - appear isolated in their plasticity. The works that Szűcs exhibited in '95 and '96, with their simultaneous use of several painting techniques, seem to metamorphose into one another. The stance of these works is uncertainty, ambiguity. They require intensive study on the part of the viewer, who is called on to question what he actually sees.
Although the above characteristics still hold true, the paintings exhibited here (especially the 1995 "Stereoscopic Hunters", or "Roses") are more restrained, purer exponents of this style, concentrating on fewer elements. The main components of a landscape - ground, horizon and sky - are clearly separate from each other; the layers of paint used for these areas show calmer brushstrokes, are less "action-packed", and they tend to retain one dominant colour. The picture in its entirety is made up of clearly defined patches of colour and shade. Images which in earlier works loomed vaguely out of the background are now more obviously detachable from their backgrounds, even come under the spotlight as it were, which makes them stand out and reduces the power of their surroundings. The emphasis is much more on the represented object, more specifically, on the object in relation to the empty, static space around it. Although there are landscapes, it is immediately obvious that these owe more to ideal constructs of the landscape painting tradition than to painting inspired by actual views. Szûcs's compositions are in many ways akin to the still life genre. His landscapes are simple in their anti-naturalness, there is always something missing from them, something which should or could be included. It is as if the omission of these elements is done deliberately to draw attention to the single object, which is singled out for close scrutiny on its own. In this way - slightly simplified - two mutually interrelated "events" rub shoulders in Attila Szűcs's paintings: the visible landscape or scene and the painting methodology. The former constitutes the narrative, and the latter comes in as a sort of "spanner in the works", allowing as it were for the expression of doubts or scruples. This material world is totally static. And since these fragmented elements of landscape exist in an unidentifiable medium, they become transposed onto a metaphysical plane, characterised by associations of infinity, silence, tragedy and an everlasting present. A good verbalisation of the effect these pictures produce can be found in the poetry of János Pilinszky :
You are nowhere. How empty the world is.
A garden chair, a deckchair left out on the lawn.
Szűcs's earlier scenes are the empty (ie: people-less) playground, park, room, bed. Now he has moved on to the beach, bathing place, garden, and one or two human figures. Metaphysical preoccupations are discernible in Szűcs's earlier works, inferrable not simply from the titles he gives them (Long Road, 1991; Man's Dual Nature, 1993), but also from the system of connotation, sometimes dramatic, sometimes sentimental, but always pointing in a decisively metaphysical direction (Christmas tree lights, altars, candles etc). In his paintings of '95 and '96 he renounces some of the directness of these associations induced by objects, and turns more towards a meditative examination of things (Playground at Night, 1995; Stereoscopic Lake, 1995). Most characteristic of these paintings are the feelings of contemplativeness and melancholy.
II. In analysing Attila Szűcs's work we must look back at the stage art was at in the mid-90s, and within this context at the recognised areas governed by painting, as well as the relationship that these bore to the painting of the 80s . In examining these several questions, it will be expedient to take a close look at the precepts of post-conceptual painting, since Szűcs's work can in many respects be likened to that of Gerhard Richter . The following three assertions are all more or less concurrent: 1) Contemporary art is characterised by plurality; there is no one dominant style or genre; 2) The self-imposed winding-up of 60s and early 70s radically abstract, minimalist and conceptualist art is responsible for this; 3) The atmosphere consequent to this made the "return" to painting possible, especially to figurative and expressive painting.
Many are critical of this phenomenon - particularly in the case of abstract and expressive painting - because it seems regressive, and would appear to be reinstating the traditional conception of the objet d'art as something autonomous and intrinsically significant. Minimalism, conceptualist art and pop art all directed attention toward the ontology of the work of art, which is strictly bound up with those conditions and circumstances on which meaning depends. Conceptual art - and previous to this ready-made art - had seemed to sweep away the traditional aesthetic conceptions of the object, and built up a kind of radical orthodoxy instead. One of the chief characteristics of this was the denial of a role in the resultant work to the personality and creative imagination of the artist . According to others this "return" to painting - or more accurately the repeated failure to renounce painting - is a critique of the above-mentioned orthodoxy of modern art. Surrounding circumstances - cultural, political and social - provide the artist with the impulse to stick to the principles of expressivity and imagination. The "crisis of late modernism" is characterised by a loss of mastery and particularity, and "in this world of mists - our present life perhaps - one thing only is, paradoxically, certain: that the claim to certainty rings hollow. It is precisely the clash of moral rectitudes, their cognitive undecidability inseparable from their experiential poverty, that reinstates engagement with the aesthetic as a critical necessity." This new wave in painting does, however, bear an inescapable relationship to conceptual art, and this post-conceptual painting operates on two distinct levels. Aside from the fact that it deliberately employs any known or extant representational painting strategy, it also sees itself as one of the secondary artistic (as distinct from painting) strategies.
III. "The emphasis on the unique significance of artistic creation, the underlining of the personal and of sensory-concrete corporeality, the abstract conceptual model - or "thesis" - replaced by the visual vitality of the concrete sensory, material picture coming to the foreground" can all be said to be characteristic of the new direction painting has taken, which has led one theorist to compare this type of painting with photography: "Their aesthetic, which synthesises tactile with optical qualities, defines itself in conscious opposition to photography and all forms of mechanical reproduction which seek to deprive the art work of its unique 'aura'" . It is perhaps no coincidence that post-modernist artistic practice as well as theory have focused their attention on photography, which is recognised (once again) as one of the most conceptualist of all representational forms. It is not the analysis of photography's quality as a copying mechanism which was brought into the forefront of consideration in the 80s, but the idea that "what photography shows us are images of its originals; photography is always re-presentation; its pictures are always snatched, stolen, confiscated, purloined images". What is interesting about the way photography has been used in the 80s and 90s is not the image's loss of "aura" so much as the relationship that exists between "image" and "original": this can be quantified as an absence, an original, fundamental and permanent absence.
Let us now take a closer look at the process by which the role of photography has gradually - although its presence has nevertheless been continuous - filtered into the works of Attila Szűcs. In his 1994 work "Untitled", he sticks a photograph (in this case a postcard) onto a plaster surface. The photograph shows a human form in a landscape - a skiing figure in the mountains - and besides the fact that materially it is distinct from the background on which it is placed, it also constitutes a particular visual representational method - the conceptualism of photography - allied with a very different sensory-individual abstract surface. The 1995 pair of pictures "Stereoscopic Hunters" is a "pure" medium: oil on canvas. Nevertheless, this work has many links with photography. Firstly, the pictures operate by means of contrast: blurred and photorealistic smudges constitute the image, and as a contrast to each other call into question all the principles of "correct' versus "faulty' vision. In addition to this, the pair of pictures plays with genres, hinting at the illusionism of stereoscopic photography, although this can in fact only operate on a conceptual plane, since spatial illusion is an optical impossibility (we are looking at a mirror image). Szűcs's 1997 works, however, take photographs as their basis. The fundamental for each image in each case is a postcard. Szűcs doesn't simply reproduce them in paint, larger than life, however, but instead radically alters them. The essence of this alteration is selective omission, deletion, expunging of certain elements of the original. The effect of this process is not, however, tantamount to a throwing of certain motifs of the postcard into sharper relief, exploiting them and putting them into a new context. The omission part - what is left out - is of crucial importance. There is a great difference, after all, between leaving something out and enhancing something's importance. Szűcs remains faithful to the landscape depicted on the postcard. It is the "inessential" parts that get left out, the "superfluities". The result is the kind of illogical, non-landscape-type vacuum that has been mentioned above.
The postcard is not simply an available, reproducible, exploitable image-bank, useful to the painter as a practical accessory to the process of artistic creation. The postcard remains a photograph. In looking at the constituents of the image we are indeed seeing a pictorial composition, and thus the relationship between the constituents of the image and the circumstances of that image's coming into being are highly important. As a natural consequence of the documentative nature of the technology of the photographic genre, landscapes represented by photography exist in the past, as a record of the moment of meeting of camera and visible world . With his reorganisation and restructuring of the picture, Szűcs does not simply analyse the nature of the view, but also annihilates those above-mentioned characteristics of a picture which result from the mechanism of photography. His "corrections" are not criticisms, however. The "re-producing" of the image is not intended as an improvement; it is not his aim to bring back the "aura". The painting is a product of the artist's continuously developing relationship with the photograph, more accurately, a form arrived at by profound, analytic viewing, the visual expression and realisation of psychological shifts occasioned by prolonged scrutiny. When a living, moving scene is transformed into a still life-type composition, then the essence of Attila Szűcs's artistic method becomes apparent. He uses photography and painting simultaneously as two separate representational media, but made to relate to each other, right up to the point of absurdity when the photo is displayed as object, as the medium of creation. And if in the case of 80s painting "we cannot trace back from the sensory-concrete-individual scene-phenomenon to some abstract model built wholly on theoretical principles, we cannot resconstruct a logical process from it" , then, in the 90s, looking at Attila Szűcs's art, perhaps it is precisely that "tracing back" which marks the difference between this and the painting of a decade ago. And if we cannot locate a strict "theoretical model" as the basis for Szűcs's paintings, we can recognise in them the conceptual, conscious use of two juxtaposed representational systems. This is the phenomenon which the heterogeneity of Attila Szűcs's picture-building technique was already foreshadowing right at the beginning of this decade.