There is always a pause, in the blink of an eye, between the end of one movement and the beginning of another. It is the pause between the first gesture dying away in the muscles and the brain sending the command for the next. This is an abrupt state without physics, without reflexes, measured in the fragment of a moment. At this point one can begin floating, stopping time and liberated from the compulsion to stir. Just then, though, before that happens, and only for a second, the artist throws the gravitation, like a ball, to another, new and odd point of the space. The languishing body, yielding to this force, moves in that direction, and remains painted in just this way. This split second gesture-pause is what makes it onto the canvas, committing it to eternity as a snatched fragment of an unfinished and continuous series of gestures.
Looking at a painting of Betuker István one becomes aware of how the artist turns ones head this way and that. After the head, the capacity to accept also strays into uncharted territory. One ceases to believe in one’s infallibility. Instead, one believes what one sees, and becomes aware of a new, mildly disturbing feeling generated by the models’ airy peace. Most of the models allow themselves, with closed eyes, to be swept off the canvas, but not before gently grasping the inconceivable. A few with open eyes let us peek at their moment of intimacy while breaking off from their activity, but their querying look oppresses us with our own sense of shame. A few others brush aside our searching look by ignoring us, accentuating our insufferable curiosity. Other models say, with their frighteningly distorted or utterly joyful expressions that there is no point in looking at them because it is impossible to peel any more layers of emotion off their masks.
István Betuker does not allow his subjects to be thoroughly scrutinized, depicting many of them only from eye level downward, only showing half of their limbs. He consigns the secrets of his own feelings to them in the same way as others write journals or share everyday dilemmas with close confidantes.
The Fragility of Painting(s). On the Works of István Betuker
1. Painting. Painting has long since returned to the fold of contemporary art, and it does not have to prove its legitimacy: its pictorial values, conceptual approaches and social content can freely be discussed. All of these can be found in the vast, noisy world of art, which is devoid of any hierarchy.
With the return of the painting something important has happened: the work of art has returned to power, which has in turn generated new problems for painting to address.
Let us recall how many defining moments of art can be linked to painting. The very identity of (European) art itself is rooted in painting, from Giotto onwards. Impressionism revolutionized painting. Duchamp pitted himself against painting until he ultimately renounced to it. I do not believe, however, that he had ever truly rejected painting – it is sufficient to recall that he actually painted when he retouched the reproductions of his works.
Painting brings in its train a particular tradition of seeing: perspective – the two dimensional illusion of space. It also summons up a corresponding form which is powerfully present in the history of art: the panel picture. The result of this is that painting is a subject which manifests itself in numerous different ways.
Reproductions multiply only a single surface of panel pictures. They fail to fully capture their materiality: their thickness, profile, the reverse side on its stretcher. Thanks to this spatial quality the painting stands out, whether it be in a gallery, museum or anywhere else. This unique material quality of a painting allows it to be exhibited, touched or indeed sold.
Thus a painting can be said to be a sculpture with one painted side. This painted side enthralls the viewer, and the object which supports it recedes into the background. On the other hand, the more we observe the painting’s “thickness”, its consistency, the more we push seeing into the background to emphasize the desire to possess. This threatens the autonomy of the picture. Painting is compelled to dwell between these extremities.
2. The picture. Betuker senses this fragility in painting. Moreover, he is preoccupied by the fragility of the period that precedes seeing the painting. His paintings are iridescent.
As is commonly recognized, a painting works properly when seen from a certain distance, at right angles and in certain lighting conditions. Pictures work differently in other conditions. This is because a picture is a sculpture, not a flat image, as Greenberg identified. A painting will never remain exactly the same as it was in the studio. If a painter wishes to “insure himself” he must follow the lead of Brâncusi, who photographed his own sculptures to define the ideal conditions for viewing his works.
Although Betuker understands the fragility of painting, he does not insure himself against this weakness, but instead emphasizes it. In his System Failure series he exposes how the system fails – from seeing an image, through putting it down on canvas up until viewing the finished painting. Before the image falls into the trap of becoming an object, as described above, Betuker traps the image with the tools of depiction. He paints in a classical way, but regards his own methods with suspicion. He paints from models, applies perspective, forming and contrasts. Despite these classical methods something unusual happens, with the result that his classical pictures – usually of single models or compositions with few figures – differ from traditional painting.
He describes his working method thus: I take a model, turn him upside down, and I take a photo of him. I paint the picture from the photograph. Finally I turn the painting the right way up again.
The model turned upside down returns to his – anatomically and gravitationally – normal position. The viewer has been cheated. He feels something strange and uneasy related to the picture. He knows that he sees a standing man, but something is not ordinary. The changed shadows, reflexes, the mild adaptation of the body to reversed gravitation make special what should be natural. Betuker’s method pokes fun at both depiction and our way of seeing. By upending his subject Betuker does not deny it, like Baselitz, but re-instates the central problem of painting: the relation between seeing and depiction.
The surface of the painting is subjected to pressure from two directions. From one perspective materiality acts to objectify the picture, while from another, the picture disintegrates materiality. Both pressures bear down upon the painted surface of the painting. The picture will enforce its own system even if it is “turned into its correct position”. This system does not, however, correspond to the system of the ‘picture-as-object.’ Two symbiotic systems exist side by side, while permanently denying each other. The paintings of István Betuker do not return to the renaissance paradigm of picture-window, but neither do they assume a Greenberg-like “flatness” either. They accept and emphasize the fragility of the image-painting.
On the subject of pictorial tools, István Betuker dwells between flat, almost monochrome surfaces and sensually colorful brushstrokes. In keeping with its joyful character, the painted surface does not permit aggressive, signature-like gestures. These would be contrary to its intent.
A few paintings allude to old photographs. It is not its atmosphere, nor the depicted image which are the source of this re- semblance, but the light of the painting, which seems to be above the picture. Like photos taken with silver gelatine, which have a silver iridescence on the surface, these paintings are also irides- cent, thus preventing us from being absorbed into the picture. They consciously hold us on the surface of the painting, reminding us of the dual nature of the image/painting.
Szekely Sebestyen Gyorgy
Galerie Popy Arvani, Paris
Casa Matei Gallery, Cluj Napoca
Bazis Contemporary Art Platform, Miercurea Ciuc