Personal | Fresh 2021 | One good turn deserves another | On the works of Károly Elekes

Entering the painter's studio, we become part of an extremely rich – often enigmatic – pictorial universe. Elekes transforms his environment through is works. He is an art historian, and a philosophical and technical polymath at the same time. He grew up in Transylvania and studied painting at the Academy of Arts in Kolozsvár (now: Cluj Napoca, Romania). He has been working in Hungary for decades and for him producing art means continuous self-education. Working with ‘found paintings’, he has also honed his skills in restoration. He ‘repairs’ damaged paintings he picks up from junk dealers and sublimates them into autonomous works that address the contemporary visual art scene.

He stopped making ‘fresh’ paintings a long time ago. In his gesture of reparation he applies a distinct irony, yet with his humility towards the art of painting he conveys the eternal and contemporary forms and contents of art. “For the sake of compositional harmony, I replace the fragmentary plane of the surface with my own inspiration,” he writes. His motivation is aided by the subjects of art history but it is up to the viewer to discover the antecedents. Applying an unmistakable geometric construction, he paints a ‘glass coffin’ on a poor copy of a landmark work of art history, Millet’s enigmatic Angelus, thus elevating the status of the object trouvet of dubious value (the original Angelus also inspired Salvador Dali). The master's tree is a biblical subject and Elekes takes (perspectival) construction again to apply it to conceptual content. The cracks in the aged and dried-up oil paintings steer the ‘new’ image towards geometric abstraction. For example, mosaic-like fragments, which developed over time, are turned by the artist into patches of colour. This is a somewhat similar gag to one by activists of a Hungarian joke party that rebels against every form of traditional politics, and has been doing so for some time by painting the eyelets of cracked asphalt sections in Budapest’s pavements.

Using attributes associated with the personalities and idols often featured by painters, several of Károly Elekes’ works displayed on the wall of portraits at our exhibition have virtually become memes. Bows, halos, angel wings, stars assuming new colours ‘talk through’ the altered paintings and their original time frame. In this way, the amateur and poor quality paintings – now regarded as junk – are reborn and given a new pictorial meaning through the language of contemporary visual communication. Contemporary ‘conceptualised’ works are created from professional kitsch. Just as Elekes regards his 2003 ‘tuning invention’ as his point of departure, a childhood experience from the 1960s comes to my mind. In literature class we were analysing the possible meanings of a ‘youth’ science fiction novel (Péter Földes: Ibolyaszínű fény [Violet Light], Móra Kiadó, 1962). In the book a young Icelandic scientist discovers and uses faster-than-light radiation to intercept images of events that once took place on Earth, and uses a mirror method to send back a faithful, if not perfect, image of them. As a result, the accepted version of history, constantly falsified by historians and politicians, is clarified. Back then, we discussed this utopia dressed up as a children’s book for weeks. My classmates, who were more acquainted with science, were picking holes in the physical impossibilities of the basic idea but for some of us the actual point of the story was the protagonist’s desire for justice. Now I see the invention in Földes’ novel as similar to Károly Elekes’ creative concept.

So far, I have only discussed the material spheres of the layers of Elekes’ works. However, I see his notorious social action in a different dimension: as a topical act of a broader social and ecological significance. A few years ago Károly Elekes was moved by the drama of marginalised people down on their luck forced to sell their treasured possessions, i.e. ‘sacred’ objects around Keleti railway station, advertising their collections with the label “All for Sale”. The paintings, mostly bought for a song from these destitute people, were recapitalised (restored and transformed into contemporary works) by Elekes, and then sold at an auction organised for his exhibition. He does not normally participate in the art market competition as a painter but this time he sold the paintings and objects that he had elevated into the commercial chain as a result of his own ‘market research’. He then redistributed the profits to the original sellers he found again in Verseny utca (literally: Competition Street – what an expressive name!) The title he gave to his action was One good turn deserves another.

Borrowed from folktales, the above title strongly suggests scepticism about the art world. To quote János Sturcz’s commentary, “Eighteen years ago, the richness of the Palazzo Pitti’s collections made [Elekes] aware of the unforeseeable material and spiritual dangers of artistic overproduction. At the same time, his impression was also confirmed by Stanisław Lem's Summa Technologiae (1964), in which he called the majority of artworks ‘intellectual rubbish’, which, in his view, are distinguished from real waste only by the fact that they are not recycled or destroyed but kept and accumulated in huge aristocratic warehouses called museums with the majority of them often never ever made accessible to the public.”

Since 2003 Elekes has been using the phrase tun(n)ing for the restoration of found objects. His work is a highly precise, complex process of imagination exploiting a variety of techniques. The artist applies some magical poetry similar to the great transformation of the alchemists. He consciously refuses to multiply the number of artworks – that have become spectacularly redundant since the rise of the internet – and instead decides to sublimate them like a discovered ‘philosopher's stone’ and finally seals them as his own work. Reinforcing the Kafkaesque overtone, he describes himself as a “restoration clerk” and signs his tun(n)ing using an official stamp. While the added value of his tuned works is significant, the authenticity of ‘authorship’ is a contentious art market issue; provided that the market is a place where morality is  discussed. An Avant-garde answer has already been produced for this dilemma, proposing that “Everyone is an artist”. Elekes legitimises his transformative method as a ‘rear-guard’ position. He lifts marked or unsigned paintings off the conveyor belt of destruction and in doing so he stands up for classical techniques, genres and traditional subjects. In his own terms he represents an ironic worldview opposing the Avant-garde concept established among art historians. For me, in an even broader sense, he represents what I also concluded a few years ago: true Avant-garde is experimentation with traditions to create something new.

In 2003 – a month after picking up a torn picture found in the street – Károly Elekes expressed an ars poetica that still works today. He expounded his decision, namely that he did not wish to add to the endless string of ‘excess artworks’, in several chapters. He provides analytical confirmation of his concept as art historical support, and formulated a verbal equation: “intellectual rubbish + material contribution + intellectual intervention = sensual intellectual value”, adding to this formula – which reflects a receptive approach – the following: “an uncertain statement”. This could justify the moral aspect of the ‘experimenting’ attitude in my statement above.

He added an Evaluation at the end of his manifesto, drafted 18 years ago for his own use (?): “...there are some precarious aspects that define the nature [of this approach]: work ethic, self-defence, therapy, occupation, a schizoid ritual acting on several planes...” The way I see it is that his analysis is a preventive world healing, a point of reference that most of his fellow artists have respected up to the present day. Because instead of resignation or defence Elekes chooses to quietly attack. The question back then was the same as it is today: does truth make us happy or will it rather cause suffering? His work, painted with a well-shaped content and the use of signs in an authentic way, addresses this fundamental question that can neither be deciphered at the speed of light nor under the UV-light.


György Szegő

curator of the exhibition

2021. December 15. - 2022. February 13.
2021. December 8. - 2022. February 20.
Previous exhibition

A Fantasy Come True | Exhibition of Líviusz Gyulai

2021. December 18. - 2022. February 13.
Next exhibition

COUNTDOWN – The Art of Márton Barabás