Repainted Icons 02 May 2012 Curator

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Károly Kelemen Repainted Icons

02 May 2012 - 02 May 2012

Curator: Gábor Gulyás

It was over three decades ago that the jury of the Musée du Château Festival in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, chaired by art historian Pierre Restany, awarded the “1ere PALETTE D’OR” prize to a young Hungarian artist, Károly Kelemen.
Already well-known in the Hungarian scene for his photographic works and “eraser paintings,” Kelemen distinguished himself in the international field not as a follower of one of the in-vogue trends, but as someone who reflected on the key tendencies of modern visual art in an autonomous and original manner.
Károly Kelemen has been a vital figure of contemporary Hungarian art, whose works can be seen in prestigious public collections. Invariably, cultural memory, particularly the art historical canon, serves as the starting point for his works. Kelemen makes well-known chapters of art history his own subject, constantly hijacking the coursebook version of the stories as he critically appropriates and recreates the stylistic elements and compositional topoi of this or that artist. Offering delightful intellectual adventures for those who are ready to engage in reflection, his artificial world is always temporary, never finalized: Kelemen’s works are sensitive manifestations of a constantly changing past, an ungraspable present, and an unpredictable future. They are par excellence free works – and this has nothing to do with how the age in which they were created curtailed personal freedoms. This is an oeuvre art history is hard put to classify: though Kelemen’s work has undeniable affinities with the ambitions of appropriation art, the Hungarian artist does not simply remodel or evoke the emblematic works of modern art, as, say, the American masters of Pop Art do, but makes them completely his own. His best-known, now iconic, figure is a bear, which is often difficult to identify as a symbolic alter ego of the artist himself. In alchemy, the bear is a symbol of the first state of matter, both fearful and kind, an animal that man could always only domesticate virtually, in fantasies and imagination. According to tradition, during its long hibernation it has direct contact with the other world, and life shoots up again when it wakes up in the spring and brings the message of transcendence to this world. The virtual and the playful appear with such spontaneity in Kelemen’s works – often reinterpreting classic pieces – as the teddy bear in the unselfconscious world of childhood. In Károly Kelemen’s works, nothing is as we would expect things to be: bears iron, obelisks shrink, the dead look around cheerfully, and well-known stories take surprising turns.
This is a free world – for free spirits.

see page 62.

Wall texts:
Historical Icons
The still measurable pathos of „everyday heroes” who wish to do away with the past for good is one of the central topics of the art of Károly Kelemen. His works that perform ironic remakes of the patterns of forced industrialization raise the questions of memory and remembering with a sort of self-evident naturalness. These works urge us to re-evaluate the part of history that appears in our lives time after time as a bitter point of reference. Let us reconsider the apparently ineradicable images of schematism! There are seven rubber-images displayed in the hall (and let us note that the genre itself, the systematic erasing of graphite drawings on canvas is one of Kelemen’s significant stylistic innovations), and all seven evoke black and white archival photographs. However, it seems that the documentary attitude has literary faded, it has become uncertain. The referentiality of these images is no longer produced by a kind of collective will, but rather by personal memory.

Related topics:

  • the history of kommunism in Hungary

  • forced industralisation

  • 56 revolution and the story of the Stalin sculpture

Personal Icons
Károly Kelemen only creates unusual portraits. In many cases, he does not even represent the face, insisting on the eyes only. However, when the face does appear, he deliberately gets the well-known features “wrong,” diverts and dissects them, or stiffens them into masks – mostly through digital alteration. He does not simply redraw or re-colour the photos, but deliberately corrupts their quality in order to produce grainy surfaces that are able to bear the personal signature of the artist – understood as a counter-technicization vehicle – even in the age of mechanical reproduction. Kelemen magnifies the resulting digital images, prints them on canvas, and also paints on them. Thus, the portraits may evoke a person, and together with that a certain historical time and its familiar style, but eventually they rather foreground the subject who becomes an interpreter through the process of reworking – demonstrating the classic dictum of Cosimo de Medici that every painter paints himself.

Kelemen’s Dissected Abstract Paintings (Preparált absztrakt festmények), which go through the various styles of abstract painting, represent the absurdity of artistic abstraction through the figurative gesture of applying glass eyes. In his work there is no surface that could not have a face. It is this ethical insight that is given an authentic artistic form with the dissected paintings.

Related topics:

  • Kandinsky, Wittgenstein, Mondrian, Petőfi

  • szondi Test:

Dissected Icons
The portrait is the classical visual representation of the individual. It evokes a person, among other means, by preserving and re-creating one’s gaze. Kelemen places glass eyes on his abstract paintings that lack any characteristic trait of a personality and also on the literally lifeless basalt stones, thus giving them faces. This is the personifying gesture of a child, transformed into art: the act of dissection also stands for the reanimation and reinterpretation of a dead world. Through personification, new meanings are attributed to the instruments of the dead world: in this context, the teddy-bear-eyed basalt cobbles also become the touchstones of personality.
Uncontrollable Icons
When the human being is overcome by desire – be that sexual, or that of artistic fulfilment or the desire of socio-cultural redemption – rationality is necessarily overshadowed and gives way to transcendence. The works exhibited here represent this topos – consistently put in a new perspective. Kelemen does not idealize this sphere: he approaches it, like all his subject-matters, with irony. The icons of bodily desires, the naked female bodies seen through male eyes, appear simultaneously as the base objects of sexual desire and as symbols of idealized femininity, elevated to a divine sphere. Similarly to the icons of redemption by the spirit, history or art (Che Guevara, Heidegger, Beuys), who never appear as mere sublimated representatives of a certain philosophy, these icons are also permeated by their corporeality and desires, as well as by the ecstasy of opening up to transcendence. Behind these sacred icons one can always glimpse at profane meanings – from the regions of the uncontrollable.

Related topics:

  • Joseph Beuys, Che Guevara, Heidegger, Manzoni

  • Vladimir Tatlin’s early nudes

  • Picasso – Les demoiselles d'avignon

Lost Icons
According to the well-known romantic convention, art is the lonely struggle of man against the whole world. The feeling of loneliness and that of being lost often appear in the tradition of painting as the metaphor of landscape empty of any human form, painted in cold or dark colours. Kelemen reflects on his tradition by re-creating the traditional landscape composition as a formal-stylistic problem. The common starting point of these works created with different techniques is the demonstration of the possibility of image manipulation within these indeterminate compositions that either bracket sharp contours and forms, or are completely devoid of them. In these works no value is associated with the feeling of loneliness, the narratives are not set in any identifiable, concrete landscape, one may not know whether one is awake or dreaming. What we face is the deconstruction of the idea of cosmic, all-pervading loneliness – without sentimentality.
Related topics:

  • Yves Klein

Deconstructed Icons

Destroy, so that you can build!” – said Lajos Kassák in one of his famous admonitions, and Károly Kelemen seems to take it seriously: his typical artistic attitude involves the appropriation of canonical artists and their iconic works, the demolition and rebuilding of their motifs. The pictures in this hall evoke some of the most influential figures of art history, names connected with artistic paradigm-shifts. However, nobody is evoked directly. According to the interpretation of Sándor Bortnyik – an activist and friend of Lajos Kassák – Marchel Duchamp appears in Kelemen’s works as Rrose Selavy, hidden behind a female mask that consciously questions gender identity, whereas Warhol appears under cover, in the sentences of his classic silent film, Blow Job. These elements become tangled because of the jungle of cross-references and their figurativity, which lead to constructions of an entirely new spirit: these elements become the contemporary starting points of the genesis of a world that is always reborn as something different.

Related topics:

  • Lajos Kassák

  • Marcel Duchamp – photo series of Man Ray 1921 as Rrose Sélavy

  • Andy Warhol

The Icon Found

Kelemen’s most well-known, iconic figure is a lovely teddy bear, a motif that is difficult not to regard as the symbolic alter-ego of the artist. In alchemy, the bear represents the first state of material: it is simultaneously frightening and kind, an animal that humans could only domesticate virtually, in one’s desires and toy-fantasies. According to some traditions, during its long winter sleep, the bear is in direct contact with the other world, and life sprouts again when it wakes up in spring in order to bring people the message of transcendence. In Kelemen’s works, virtuality and playfulness appear so naturally as the teddy bear in the spontaneous self-abandon of childhood. Sometimes this nice teddy bear only pops into the works of Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso or Tatlin, but usually it also walks into the world of these paintings so as to replace the exhausted main characters. This is how Picasso’s famous Ironing Woman can be reborn as Ironing Bear, or how Cézanne’s painting about Mount Sainte-Victoire may have a new version including a bear. Kelemen’s teddy bear lives in modern Western art – here in Budapest.

Related topics:

  • Teddy Bear history

  • Puccini – Madamme Butterfly

  • Prométheusz myths

  • Cezanne, Gauguin, Tatlin, Mahlevich, Picasso

  • Henry Moore

Sándor Radnóti: The Antecedent Image

More than once I have had the honor of speaking at openings of exhibitions of Károly Kelemen’s work. I have previously taken the occasion to talk of his works and periods. Now I would like to try a cursory outline of the intellectual outlines and background of his painting. There used to be much debate whether an artist should imitate nature, or rather other artists – respected artists, generally old masters. Winckelmann, for example, mentions in a debate that Bernini “boasted of having thrown off a partiality he had first felt toward the charm of the Medici Venus – a charm which he also, after exhaustive study, discovered in nature.” This is all very well (responds the father of art history), but then “it was this Venus that taught him to discover the beauty in nature, beauty that he had previously thought only to be found in the Venus; without the Venus, he would never have sought it in nature.” This penetrating riposte contains a discovery that would only become obvious over the course of centuries of debate: that works of art (and other images produced by civilization) present cultural schemas that have great influence on the images of nature that we see. Landscape painters seek out “picturesque” views – and what they consider painterly is deeply rooted in the history of painting, just as the portrayal of the female body has been determined by the vision of it as a manifestation of nature.

As the domains of culture came gradually to expel the presence of nature, this came to be the place where we go – various languages have their own expressions – we “run” there, “fly” there or, in the peculiar Hungarian version, we are “yanked” there, on excursions. The great majority of images behind the paintings came less and less to be modeled on nature, and more on sights and symbols created by humans. The last great nature painters at the turn of the twentieth century produced the final culmination of a long period of painting with works that are not naïve reproductions of reality, but rather their own constructions.

The dramatic changes in the substance and themes of painting were accompanied by a renewed vision of painting’s task: the realistic or idealizing imitations of reality that once seemed so obvious came to be supplanted by an independent development of form per se, leading ultimately to abstraction, and perhaps (as an extreme example) to monochrome painting. The image preceding the painting – once the entire world itself – had shrunk to oblivion. No longer was there an image to serve as the basis for artistic creation. Just as fatal a blow to the representative function of art was an apparently contradictory current that turned objets trouvés into works of art. Here we might be inclined to think that reality itself is being transformed into art at one stroke, but in fact the elimination of surrounding reality is the sure sign of alteration. (Who would urinate into Duchamp’s Fontaine?) Somewhere in between these two directions – the treatment of form in itself, and objects in themselves – we encounter paintings that we may connect to preceding images, like the image of a pipe with an actual pipe. (As long as we ignore the philosopher-painter’s note Ceci nest pas une pipe.)

Art made absolute in itself, and the disappearance of “reality” might seem a kind of endpoint, and indeed have seemed such to many. But the image preceding the picture has made a reappearance in many guises, one of the most important being that the images of art history itself – existing works – have taken over the function of antecedent images. Something that has always held a secondary position in the history of painting, like a copy used for study, or to present a picture to a wider audience, or as a variation, or instructive solution or crystallization, or a quotation as homage, and so on – these have always been possibilities, the subject (and purpose) of art within so-called appropriation art. Such connections, previously considered just interesting curiosities, or just currents in the history of artistic influence (like the link between Giorgione’s Fête champêtre in the Louvre, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe , and Picasso’s works that make reference to these), have now become somehow part of the very essence of painting. Winckelmann’s demand that the artist imitate other artists and not nature has become surprisingly apposite after more than two hundred years.

Appropriation Art began as a branch of pop and concept art. Among its manifestations were a precise reproduction of a Picasso bearing the title Not Picasso. But as is generally the case with currents fertile in ideas, it came to draw more and more on tradition, and its possibilities expanded. This is where Károly Kelemen enters the picture more than two decades ago. Such an entry naturally gives rise to misunderstandings, or rather logical interpretations that, in retrospect, lead to dead ends or at least backwaters: eclecticism, secondariness, hommage and parody, and the search for correspondences in content or art-historical analogies through the appropriated works, and the like. Today it seems clear that Kelemen always worked with the eddying presence of the antecedent works involved, with the phenomenon of having precedents.

Still, there is no trace of historicism in Kelemen’s allusions. It is not the historical (or stylistic-historical) position that he takes up, but rather sights that he considers – and demonstrates – to be largely pre-composed. He shows that a painter’s eye cannot be innocent, even in a cultural-historical sense.

The antecedent images are, at the same time, exceptionally variegated, drawing on much more than just the world of art. To take examples from Kelemen’s inventory, the images may come from the media, from everyday life (toys, cards, chocolate eggs, painter’s implements, and the like), from photographs (of artistic enterprises, or documentary images, or portraits like those in the Szondy Test, and others), or from bad art (kitsch, or second-rate tendentious works, and the rest). The composition of the antecedent images comes to accept objects that have nothing to do with them, as well as the converse: motifs pop up outside of the compositions that originally bore them. We have the composition and pose of Picasso’s Ironing Woman of 1904 presented in that artist’s much later Cubist style, while in place of the abject frail figure we get a muscular teddy bear. While Kelemen spent a certain period constantly returning to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (in one picture he combines one figure from that work with the teddy bear and Cézanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire), he restored an art-historical continuity in doing so. To put it another way, he becomes one of Appropriation Art’s tradition-makers, given the well-known fact that a couple of those women bear the outlines of an African mask in Picasso’s possession. At the same time, it is clear that Károly Kelemen has no desire to create any kind of imaginary museum – these are merely quotations in these works. Obviously it is the painter’s express wish to quote the antecedent paintings involved, but at the same time he also sets out to dysfunctionalize them: take, for example an absolute staple of gesture-art, the “disfigurement” of works with an eraser. For Kelemen, these are not gestures of retraction, of doubt-casting – of erasing, in other words – but instead layer the picture like transparencies, creating out of impulses an abstract ornamentation over the apparently-inviolable painting.

A good general characterization would classify this painting as the kind that creates expectations out of previously-existing situations, and always serves up surprises – surprises that exhibit a continuity and consistency. The appropriation of the tremendous and heterogeneous store of antecedent pictures has given rise to an oeuvre in practically the traditional sense of the word: recognizable at every turn, and unmistakably indicative of the painter who created them.

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