What lies behind
Thoughts on Ábel Szabó’s works
“With false imagining dost thou so dull
thyself, that thou perceivest not what else
thou wouldst perceive, if thou hadst thrown it off.”
(from Paradiso I of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy,
Translated by Courtney Langdon)
When we look out the window, what we see is only one slice of reality, a detail of the whole. In an urban setting, what we see is typically made up of permanent elements: a high-rise block, a stop with people waiting, a rail overpass, a corner shop, a plaza or a theatre. Although the people, the cars and other vehicles are constantly changing, their presence is quasi permanent, like that of adverts destroying the urban landscape. The truth is, we cannot look behind the facade. We cannot see inside the houses, cannot look into the souls of people, and scenes that could reveal something of what is actually happening are few and far between. Even when they occur, they are merely fractions of events without offering the prospect of real explanations.
Eighteenth-century vedutas and the depiction of architectural elements in the art of Canaletto and Bernardo Belletto, for example, served as magnificent backgrounds for genre scenes in which people were coming and going, engaged in conversations and seeing to their affairs. When looking at these pictures with staffage figures, micro-stories, small mythological scenes or ‘contemporary’ stories are unfolding. Ábel Szabó’s city- and landscapes are different. People are missing from them altogether. As the artist himself explains, he does not want to distract people from really taking in what they see by including another figure; he does not want viewers to have to share what they see in front of them. On the other hand, each one of his recent works displayed at our exhibition creates the impression of an urban detail being caught sight of during travelling, as if from a moving vehicle. In the majority of Szabó’s paintings these details are office blocks, factories, abandoned ruins of industrial plants and markets. Nature is thriving around them, the sky is reflected in the puddles on the pavements, and we can witness peculiar cloud-drifts or the sight of the setting sun. Nature returns to the ruins, gradually overgrowing the remains of civilisation, and new life springs up on the crumbling stones. We feel that nature has no need for us anymore.
Szabó’s paintings allowing a view of dull towns through obscure, dirty, scratched and graffiti-covered windows further confirm the limitations of our vision. He does not paint historical buildings and ruins – fragments of the past – but modern building complexes that make industrial cities into what they are, drawing people from the countryside, whose green forests they exchange for the jungle of lamp posts and giant posters in the hope of a better life and jobs providing a livelihood.
As the pictures feature man-made spaces and buildings, the question arises if they depict places or non-places, to borrow the terms coined by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist who distinguishes places in human history that we have a cultural connection to from those that are transitional, alien, have no identity and do not belong to anybody, therefore, we cannot form an attachment to them. In this sense, factory ruins, an empty market and a deserted tram stop are non-places. And so are many of the spaces we see in Ábel Szabó’s pictures. In order to understand Szabó’s places, let me refer to Umwelt, a notion used by Jakob von Uexküll to denote environments that we subjectively experience and in which we can exist as individuals. When we look around in a contemporary city, we mainly encounter environments that are unpleasant: not cosy but frustrating. For today’s urban inhabitants these spaces (or non-places) actually function as Umwelts as people are being forced into a lifestyle – and this is a global phenomenon – that is far from being pleasant. Ábel Szabó’s paintings focus our attention on such environments. They do not depict familiar places – or rather places thought to be familiar when given a cursory glance – but something entirely different. What we see are neither mere houses, nor the architecture of urban living, and not virtuoso hyperrealist canvases either. The power of Szabó’s works lies in the fact that his masterly use of painting techniques is at the service of a profound thinking process. He guides us back to the images of our ordinary and unpleasant surroundings. We cannot break our gaze away from his pictures because our feeling of uneasiness is defeated by that of curiosity. The exquisitely modelled layers of paint evoke a peculiar atmosphere and ‘beautifully misplaced’ light effects, breathing life into the spaces on his canvases. The works thus put in action open us up, enabling us to look behind false facades and understand the artist’s intention: his invitation to observe what lies beyond.
Mária Kondor-Szilágyi, curator of the exhibition