Emese Révész   IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE GARDEN    

Approaching Eszter Radák’s paintings  


How interesting! I have some shoes exactly like those...   It’s a rare feeling for the spectator to be seized immediately by the desire to own, by the irresistible passion to possess. These are enjoyable, almost desirable paintings, soothing to the eye, their subjects a balsam to the soul. With them the warmth of home, the tranquillity of safety, move into the room. There is nothing unsettling or shocking, they don’t want to startle or awaken us to our own animal nature or mortality. Confusingly, they lack the avant-garde’s prophetical vocation, its moral superiority and consciousness of a mission. At first glance, they appear to be so easy “to read” that the spectator almost begins to suspect that what they are looking at entered the sublime realm of art by some accident of chance. But those suspicions fade with time. The exquisiteness of execution, the subtle web of references and quotations, slowly become apparent before them. We can relax. This is a crafty simplicity, like Madame Pompadour in a housewife’s pinny. But we shouldn’t move away from the challenge! The primary role played by the captivating visual experience is itself a part of her delightful programme, one of the main ingredients of Eszter’s witch’s cauldron. The invitingly pleasing surface is just the first movement at the beginning of a dialogue. For Eszter Radák the recapturing of the viewer for the abandoned empire of painting is a basic challenge. We all dream of crowds entering the exhibition hall and of impassioned protestors clashing in disputes pro Van Gogh or contra Dali. But the key to the solution is buried deeper than the Philosopher’s Stone (Hail Caesar, Hail Potter!). Let’s admit the fact that it’s damned difficult to paint anything today that can hold the attention of spectators raised in the visual world of adverts, video clips, and action films. Yet Eszter Radák has been working on this problem for a decade with the patience of an angel. She got it into her head to speak the same language as the spectator, to address them and seduce them. You stay there because you don’t understand why the shoes aren’t that pretty in the shops either, you also feel that ironing is deadly frustrating, and you can’t find that damned bag, just when you really do have to be going... The story could finish here: we’ve finally found the Bridget Jones of new Hungarian painting, and within days Eszter Radák’s face will be smiling from the cover of Sztár magazine and they might even invite her onto the Szulák TV talk show. And all this would be just the first step, like a revealing little blouse or, if you prefer, a tune sounding suspiciously like a hit. But her works are intentionally “spectator-friendly”. They are serious and well thought-through. They can be seen as thoroughbred programmatic paintings, the tools for demanding publicity for the proclamations of the new painting, each a manifesto for the creation of a fresher and more modern form of painting. Filled with the vocational calling and reforming creed of the avant-garde. These are deeply democratic works, seeped in the conviction that the enjoyment of contemporary painting is not a privilege and that a good painting should not seek to deny itself to, but rather welcome, wider accessibility. As an artist, she stubbornly resists all forms of cloudy aestheticizing and trendy philosophizing, taking responsibility for her failings and mortality with a little bit of teasing and irony. This is a reassuring intimacy, which shrouds the viewer in the welcome security of being one of the anointed and an insider.   Bridget Jones’ adventures with Malevich Eszter Radák completed her studies as a student of Dóra Maurer at the University of Fine Art in Budapest. Now she teaches at her former school. Both of these biographical facts provide important data to the critic. The Maurer students gained through their master an insight into the world of autonomous picture construction and an autochthonous array of colours, materials and forms. Their point of departure almost predetermined their future in the direction of neat abstraction and refined conceptualism. Nothing could be less compatible with all of this than the frivolity of spectacle painting, the fabrications of reality-near art shrouded in licentious reflexes and deceptive valeurs. So it meant Eszter Radák committed an act of betrayal when she gave in to temptation and painted her tea maker. But surprise, surprise, she wasn’t damned for eternity. What’s more, she lost herself more and more in an experiment offering little hope and which ambitiously aimed at the reconciliation of figurative and abstract art. Her starting point has always been the real image, the rucksack squatting under the chair, the old armchair, the forest at the end of the village or her garden in Püspökszilágy. The objective world is such a strict factor that it becomes a constraint. The painting of a cup is a task requiring a high level of self-discipline, concentration and humility. When thinking of Cézanne’s Sisyphusian struggle with apples we can say it’s a challenge too. The finite reduction of the motif – as at the beginning of modernism – serves in this way too the essence-seeking artistic experiment. The aesthetical avoidance of narrative or allegorical circumlocution results in exact and tight-lipped composition. Similar self-constraint leads to the avoidance of appealing methods associated with spectacle painting such as shading. This means that the plastic, depth-creating transitions of light and shadow are formed only by the strokes of the paint. Besides the linear perspective originating from the sketch (or against it in this case), the various techniques for working over the texture of the paint through rubbing, smoothing, and roughening create an illusion of space and material. This leads to the start of a special competition between drawing and colour. The resigned conciseness and distancing objectivity of the line melts and annexes the sensitive throb of the colour fields. But this is a calculated throbbing, a forced “driven-ness” whose every pairing is masterfully thought through. In this way it can happen that Eszter Radák entices the unwary visitor looking at her flowering tree to scrutinise the bare surfaces of colour, forgetting him or herself in a calming monochrome colour field or a sparkling patterned surface. She gets a real kick out of this game as she flips over and turns things inside out, from landscape into colour, from colour into picture, picture into landscape. She doesn’t even cloak her virtuosos illusionism: in one series (not entirely free of pedagogical intent) she reveals her visual tricks herself. Concealed in this is a good dose of complicit winking at us, mixed with a pinch of her doubts: “c’est ne pas une pipe”. Her epistemological scepticism is reassuring for a person living in our times because it invites us to play. It’s not categorical, but good intentioned, permissive, and bravely deceitful.   The place of the observer Eszter Radák paints icons. She does so in many meanings of the word. She is a thorough symbolist, who is capable of wrenching a seemingly insignificant slice of our everyday objective world and transcribing it into the symbol of a generation. Or at least she could, if she wished to, but her credibility is safeguarded by her self-irony. Instinctive subjectivity protects her from appearing as the chosen guru of our collective unconscious. But at the same time, her puritan range of objects puts spirit into her ways of painting, which raises the fragments of the spectacle into a new quality. It’s as if the concentrated characteristics of a meditational picture take form in certain works, which through the view of the object stripped to its bare colour fields offers the spectator the possibility of looking behind direct material reality. From this point of view, the tiny flowers strewn across the meadow become as many mantras, the red floor carpet the profane reincarnation of the transcendental golden under layer of Orthodox icons. Her world unfolds from a strange compound of magical object mysticism and down-to-earth realism, lyrical subjectivism and strict rationalism. She never appears in her paintings, her position being always that of the outside observer. Her behaviour is characterized by concerned self-analysis and inspective observation, narcissism and taking stock, all at the same time. The personality of her ego-lyricism is made of wider interest by her distancing self-irony. The overdriven subjectivism of her objects is balanced by her high level of artistic discipline, Although the comparison with the diary appears at first glance to be striking, her paintings lack the diarist’s obsessive self-analysis. Her point of view is rather that of a documentary-maker, who hides their own personality in the chronicler’s robes. Her behaviour is known to us from the speech modes of mass culture, which use a similar strategy to build the illusion of intimacy around its gods.             The subject common to all her apparently motionless still lifes is herself, the lifeless phases fused into a unitary line by the lyrical self. The hidden narrative covers itself in a modern storyboard picture from these fragments, sketching a film scene in which the actionlessness of everyday life appears. The intentional avoidance of visual narrative is radically negated by the titles, which have been made up with artful simplicity. They tie what is seen to time and place and person, filling the neutral objective world with a high level of emotional charge. Their atmosphere is well known to us from the captivatingly sweet, rose-coloured world of women’s magazines. All of this sharpens to the extreme the contrast between the way of life image and the pulsating abstract framework beneath the surface.             These works are characters in a broader story as well. Not stemming from the essence of things by chance, they are rather very much intentional parts of art-historical discourse. Eszter Radák’s interior and landscape paintings anticipated and have already become part of in several cycles the discourse around “appropriation art” which once again gained ground in the 1990s. The starting points for her art-historical paraphrases shown in 1998 or the later computer-paintings were real works: a reproduction of a classical painting or the image on a computer monitor. The styles of earlier periods now influence her works only obliquely, but all the more intensively for that. The symbol creating tradition of the Baroque”„nature morte” lurks in her still lifes, the unquenchable passion for emotional material and the attraction to bizarre spatial cutouts. Biedermeier homeliness, the quiet peacefulness of bourgeois order moves through her interior paintings. In the same way, the romantic-heroic experience of nature and finite individualism can be recognised in her landscapes along with the magic garden of the Secession and Symbolism. That garden, which Anna Lesznai sang of in word and image with such similar love and empathy at the turn of the century:   Panting aromas rise Crowded sages cry out Flowers turn to fruit The summer balls waltz on...