Published to Exhibitions on Dec 09, 2016

Painting a Dystopian Future

Apparently contradictory yet surprisingly coherent, Sándor Szász’s paintings present apocalyptic scenarios that, if on the one hand are vaguely reminiscing of the brand of Surrealism made notorious by Francis Picabia, on the other hand, they seem to refer to the imagery of sci-fi cinema. His characters, invariably faceless, live in bleak landscapes enriched by the presence of mysterious relics. It is not clear if these rusty, semi-abandoned, stranded machines or ships constitute an exotic discovery or are instead the cause of these figures’ predicament. What doesn’t change is their collective engagement in some kind of labour that, coupled with the dramatic colours of his palette, render a twisted update of the Eastern-European tradition of realism as a way of chronicling, and often glorifying, the mundane and the universal. The first big difference to notice is that – stunning technique notwithstanding – there is nothing conventionally glorious in what Szász’s represents in his work, if not for a melancholic sense of failure. Unlike the standard propaganda paintings that defined much of the 20th Century, where workers were depicted united in the common goal of erecting a better future, in Szász’s paintings the future is patently dystopian. The atmosphere in works like Kurszk (2011), where a group of men can be seen standing in line in front of a fog-concealed tank waiting either for evacuation or recruitment, or the chillingly titled Symphony of the Orphans (2014), where another group of men in uniform is busy rescuing a casualty while walking in a pond of water in a freshly-destroyed landscape, is unmistakably dark. Even on these rare occasions where the human figure is absent, like for example the geometric pattern created by the corroded bars of what looks like an electric post in Phantom (2012), the idea of natural and industrial elements surviving a tragic event never goes away.

To search for the ultimate reasons for this approach means taking into account a combination of historical and personal circumstances that have defined in different moments the life of the artist. In 1988, for example, with only a few months left before his dramatic fall from power, Romania’s president Nicolae Ceausescu decided to start implementing his policy of destroying 8,000 villages in the countryside to force the population towards larger urban settings by triggering the inhabitants of the community of Bezidu Nou into the idea of building a dam to create an artificial lake. The people of Bezidu Nou initially embraced the project with enthusiasm and even volunteered their help; when they realized what was going on, it was too late. Soldiers were called to finish the job, and the village was subsequently submerged, forcing the few survivors to relocate somewhere else and renounce to their identity. A visit to contemporary Bezidu Nou, almost thirty years after the fact, can be as deceitful and confusing as Ceausescu’s mad tactics. Apparently calm and bucolic, the place still shows occasional architectural features like some picturesque bell towers or the occasional rooftop. It’s only at a closer sight, when the incongruence of a desolated church or house with its foundation underwater hits over the head, that something doesn’t add up. Bezidu Nou no longer exists, and the few construction parts still standing are now there with the sole motivation to be a silent and sinister monument to the absurdity of Ceausescu’s master plan.

Just like the area where Bezidu Nou once was feels haunted by the former residents and what’s left of their buildings, the story of the village has haunted Szász for over twenty years, to the point of gradually finding its way in his work in what he himself has described as a therapeutic exercise. Implausible and yet defined by an uncanny realism, Szász’s paintings express all the contradictions of a world its residents erroneously believes to be able to administer and to mould at their will, and the unexpected consequences that come with these actions. This is further reflected by the loss of individuality of his characters, reduced to a subtle but detectable position of vulnerability and inferiority by the very same entity they assume they can control.

The strange co-existence between control and chaos visible on Szász’s canvases is, interestingly, also an integral part of his approach to painting. His subconscious evidently plays a large part in the conception of his work, but the way in which details are immaculately executed suggests that his organizational side never permits instinct to totally dominate. The genuine affection Szász displays for the gestural aspects of his practice can be probably tracked down to the early stages of his education – he studied music for many years and for some time entertained the idea of working as a mechanic. When he studied fine arts in Romania, and later enrolled to the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, a fascination for the technique made him gravitate towards painting, a passion that was later reinforced after his first meetings with the work of Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning. This was happening in the 1990s, when a major overhaul was about to shake the core of European painting. The change in the political panorama in the Eastern part of the continent had in fact pushed the directness and assertiveness of abstraction, up until then the greatest act of rebellion, to the wrong side of the debate. Suddenly realism was hip again, and the arrival on the scene of artists like Edi Hila, Neo Rauch, Wilhelm Sasnal, and the painters that would go to form the ‘Cluj scene’, contributed to the idea that the intensity of such social and political changes demanded adequate instruments to be justly depicted. Still, with perhaps the exception of Rauch, who was busy reinventing his own version of realism by digging in the past and putting forward a double-take of the same aesthetical value abstraction has been rejecting, contradiction, and even more so complexity, were not in sight. The flame, however, was now ignited. Caught relatively unguarded by this new/old phenomenon coming a next door that despite its geographical proximity had remained safely closed for almost forty years until then, the Western Emisphere responded by ditching the endless, self-indulgent, and trite debate over the presumed death of painting that at regular intervals plagues the art world by going even further. Following its obliteration after the market crash of the 1980s and the new conceptual vogue of the early 1990s, painting was back in business again. Exhibitions looking into this new climate proliferated, like ‘Examining Pictures’ (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1999), ‘Europe: Different Perspectives on Painting’ (Museo Michetti, Francavilla, 2000), ‘Painting at the Edge of the World’ (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001), ‘Painting on the Move’ (Kunstmuseum Basel, 2002), and ‘Dear Painter, Paint Me’ (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2003), genre cross-overs were allowed again, small brushes were fished out from the case, and a group of artists, from Nigel Cooke to Hernan Bas, emerged with an adventurous sense of colour and an imaginative use of details destined to challenge the viewer with the most incredible narratives.

As a student, Szász’s desire to conjugate the tradition of painting with contemporary life led him to discover the work of Francis Bacon; at the same time, the years spent studying music would provide a sidelight to parallel creative ventures that fortunately prevented him to focus exclusively on his media of election. Artists like Tony Oursler and Bill Viola, masters at painting ‘moving images’ while exploring the most real/surreal contexts, would become an influence too, as well as the cinema of Jim Jarmush and David Lynch, and the music of Béla Bartók. Such variety of references had of course the effect of instigating in Szász the wish to investigate other creative outlets, but with the exception of collage and photography, which to these days respectively constitute a compositional outlet and a source, painting, and the rich heritage attached to it, prevailed. Szász has also stated on many occasions how he adheres to the old romantic notion of the artist as a medium negotiating radically different realities. Again in line with Bacon, the studio becomes the holy place where the artist can isolate himself from the outside world and develop his own reality, and this probably explains why, during various residencies scattered around the world, Szász considered the recreation of an inviolable studio space, no matter how small, a primary necessity.

Szász’s latest works signal another important characteristic of his practice – architecture. The Hive (2015) and The Rise of the New Dawn (2016), two of the few paintings to sport an immediately recognizable construction in the form of the Atomium in Brussels, the modernist extravaganza built by André and Jean Polak on the occasion of Expo 1958, are a stark reminder of how, in the words of Robert Hughes, dreams of the future reveal more about the mind of the dreamer than the future itself. If viewed purely from a visual perspective, the particles of the Atomium resonate exceptionally well with the black dots that permeate many of Szász’s paintings, but whereas in The Hive, remains of the Atomium command the scene by hovering over the head of three minute figures situated at the centre of the painting, in The Rise of the New Dawn, the futuristic building almost plays a cameo role, fading in the background behind a pyramid of gas cans while three men are busy with the impossible mission of give a shade of normality to what otherwise looks like a heavily compromised situation. Here is where lays one of Szász’s most peculiar contradictions – the co-existence of very ordinary men and very extraordinary landscapes. Their lack of individuality and business-as-usual attitude is perplexing, and although it helps diverting the tension, it does little to normalize the environment. If anything else, they function as an entry point for the viewer, who can easily identify with their generic look and share with them the burden of their impossible task next to such imposing scenario.  

Paradoxically, Szász’s small canvases are where tones become more nightmarish. Harvester (2010) depicts a man coming towards the viewer holding an identified tool. Beheaded by the darkness behind him, he epitomizes the figure of the reaper coming to take his victims. Even the two men portrayed picking up unexploded explosive devices in Chambers of Secrets (2015-16), or the hooded men in Apostles (2015), while not so explicitly threatening, offer little reassurances. The zombie-like appearances of the figures in Chambers of Secrets in particular, supported by the gloomy sky and the decrepit rollercoaster behind them to reaffirm the never-fading concept of the game arcade as a scary place, is clearly open to interpretation, but it doesn’t seem to accompany to anywhere reassuring.

One final issue that needs to be discussed and that seems to regularly affect artists like Szász is how their technical ability, instead of enhancing their possibilities, sometimes ends up working against them. Regardless of content or legibility, an image, when it’s well done, implicates a degree of complacency from the artist that moves the meter from painting to illustration, titillating the appetite for destruction that all those who measure art by manual talent have for anything remotely not up to par. Szász’s lack of indecision with his brushstrokes frequently results in extremely elaborated if complex images (see for instance the rich multitude of references in Shadowhunters, 2016), but the recurrent presence of various elements, being pipes, balloons, lakes, clouds, working tools, industrial debris or even people, indicates the existence of a visual vocabulary in his mind that requires very specific requirements in order to be activated. The repetition, apart from implying that his work should be seen as an oeuvre, confirms that his characters are all different components belonging to the same dimension – a dimension simultaneously indebted with the highest history of art and the most accessible science fiction. And in line with the best science fiction, Szász’s deployment of elements from the past in a future setting, successfully serves the purpose of painting a picture that addresses a not so hypothetical present. 

- Michele Robecchi, ​curator

Sándor Szász was born in 1976 in Târgu Mureș, Romania, an important historical and intellectual center of the Transylvanian region. He attended the High School of Fine Art and Craft in his hometown. Szász continued his academic training at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary, where he specialized in painting, between 1995 and 2001. In 2004 he was the recipient of the Strabag painting price, a Viennese international art award, which also entails his work being incorporated into the prestigious collection of the firm. Since then, a steady development can be examined in his career, which lists numerous art awards, solo and group exhibitions in the domestic and international domain alike.

Michele Robecchi is a writer and curator based in London. Former Managing Editor of Flash Art (2001-2004) and Senior Editor of Contemporary Magazine (2005-2007), he is currently an editor for contemporary art at Phaidon Press, a Visiting Lecturer at Christie’s Education, and London Editor of use Magazine. He has curated “TIP: Treands Ideas Priojects” (Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, 2004), “Beauty So Difficult” (Fondazione Stellin, Milan, 2005), and was one of the curators for the 1st and 2nd Tirana Biennale (2001 - 2003).

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