When exploring the human form, that most consistently tantalizing and engrossing subject, modern painters often seek approaches developed by twentieth-century portraitists like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. Akos Ezer shares their same interest with his own unique method, embracing the human figure in a highly relatable way, presenting our own clumsy, insecure entanglements with ourselves and others.
When we discovered the work of the Hungarian painter almost three years ago, we became instant fans of his pink-loving palette of vibrant colors, buoyed by a confident and unmediated painterly technique. Using thick layers of ardently applied oils, the Budapest-based artist builds complex, multi-figure scenes, as well as simple portraits of his protagonists as they negotiate life’s vagaries. Blending the compositions of comics frames, along with the atmosphere of “fail” videos, all wrapped in a traditional expressive painting format or sculpted in ceramic, he continues to document the degeneration of Homo Erectus towards what we might call Homo Inflexus.
Sasha Bogojev: At which point did the figure become a central point of your work, and do you remember how that happened?
Ákos Ezer: I started my studies at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts with a kind of an academic program. It included drawing courses at the anatomy department, and also descriptive geometry. Even in the painting class, we would start with the basics, like still life studies. In my first two years, I mainly made paintings using the everyday objects I saw around. In my third year, I started experimenting with different materials and topics. At that time, I made marker drawings from found photos made by customers of different technical stores, which I downloaded from the displayed tablets and smartphones, and redrew them. It was a very interesting project because I made a lot of fast drawings of various faces. I also photographed street views with the people on the street and made montage-like compositions with them. So I learned a lot of color blending and compositing artwork during this year. Soon after that, I made oils again but stopped using photographs as a guide because it had confusingly limited my possibilities during this process. Also, I was able to avoid these image references because I was more and more confident after each artwork.
Can you describe these “found photos made by customers of different technical stores?” How exactly did you discover them, and were the owners of those photos aware of how they were being used?
There were lots of tablets and phones displayed on the shelves, and everybody took selfies with them, just for fun, or to try the quality of the cameras. I think you can still find similar snapshots in the photo gallery of displayed devices nowadays. I downloaded these photos of unknown people with Bluetooth or an infrared port. It was quite easy, I just paired them to my device. These were fun photos, people staring into the front camera of these digital mirrors, lots of them with grimaces, or making duck faces.
That is awesome! So, once you dropped using photographs and started working from the head, were your characters bent and twisted from the start, or what led toward such development?
Not exactly that way, but yes, these bent and twisted characters appeared at an early stage. When I turned back to oil and canvas, I searched a lot in antique book shops for art books. I found a full book with closeups of Brueghel's painting titled Children’s Games, and it was very inspiring. It helped me head in this direction of a kind of grotesque, classical form. I really liked the atmosphere of these acts. It clearly showed his unusual depiction of human behavior, and it felt more real than lots of contemporary artists’ work for me. I was happy to use the flipped and twisted characters he created in my own work as well. My early figurative paintings were some kind of teenage backyard party scenes, more like landscape paintings with some figures, so I was able to make good use of this inspiration. Nowadays, this has changed a lot with more figures and less environment.
Why do you think that work resonated with you so much? How did you relate it with human behavior?
I found his perspective very interesting. He was above everything and examined what was happening as an outside observer. In addition, he put a very humanistic and people-centered theme on canvas.
So the winning formula for what we’re seeing today is a mix of found photos and Brueghel?
Yes, maybe that was it for me. In this pairing, one can recognize the contradictions that have always occupied me within art. Classic/current, banal/simple, interesting/complex, personal/impersonal. These are the principles that still define my work. I am interested in the tension inherent in such contradictions.
What was your motivation in depicting the protagonists falling over and struggling to stay on their feet, and how much did that change?
I started to search for my own way of painting and started to figure out how I could evolve my practice and style, so I spent a lot of time on Tumblr where there was a big network of contemporary artists, and also link collections. At the same time, I also watched lots of meme sites where there was an endless amount of prank videos or fail compilations. I never used them directly or copied an image, but they were an inexhaustible fountain of ideas to shape my next characters in those party scenarios. The human figure was my tool to make everything possible in these stories and realize more and more interesting and dynamic compositions.
“The human figure was my tool to make everything possible in these stories and realize more and more interesting and dynamic compositions.”
So, the original concept was more about fun and less about the critique or commentary on more profound emotions or experiences?
Partly yes, but perhaps subconsciously, I have always been interested in philosophical thoughts about the purpose of our actions; what we call success or failure. Maybe I didn’t approach these party scenes from a moral point of view, but rather as a kind of questioning, even to myself. I could have been 21, 22 at the time, and many times I felt like I wasn’t doing what I wanted, or I just didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing. It seemed to come from an environment where members of my generation were drifting unconsciously, and these videos showed that it similarly exists globally.
And how did their thick necks and the use of rainbow and color gradients come into the picture?
I made gradients in the early stages in the background on the first oil painting. Sometimes the sky was created with multi-colored gradient horizontal stripes, or I illustrated some objects like billboards or columns in the foreground with these hues. These elements moved to the necks on the portrait compositions, or to the limbs and the full-body parts in my recent group compositions. I can use these effects to adjust my characters to the overall mood or colors of the scene. I know that's not an invention of my own, because Fernand Léger already did the same in the early 1900s, but I try to find my own color maps and tones for my characters.
What was the local response when you started painting this type of work?
I had good and bad responses, even during my university years and after. In Hungary, the art scene is very narrow—there is a small group of people—and it has a rather hierarchical system, although it is not very layered. By this, I mean that there is not really a difference in the quality of the galleries, or that some galleries only deal with emerging artists, and there are galleries that already represent established artists only; so there is no opportunity to grow. The works of the artists also focus more on local problems and the narrative is about the political and social surrounding. This may be due to the post-conceptualist thinking that characterized the post-communist regime change period. Those patterns change very slowly, but there are lots of new voices within the younger generation of artists who could connect to the dialog of the international art world. I’ve always been bothered by other artists forming opinions about my work because it can never be objective and unintentional. That’s why I’ve never tried to live up to expectations and opinions at home, never tried to fit in. I don’t even really go to openings, but look online or after the events that interest me. I have always looked abroad and concentrated much more on the scales of international contemporary art.
What do you think might have influenced your interest in the international scene, rather than staying within the local structure?
Everything seemed much bigger and more serious. I am not only thinking about artworks, but also the projects, exhibition spaces, and events that captivated me. I watched a lot of James Kalm's videos on YouTube. He rode his bike to New York galleries and broadcast current events. Fortunately, the internet has allowed me to be part of the global art scene to some degree, as early as around 2010, even if only in digital form.
Was the response different globally, and what are some of the differences you have noticed?
I didn’t have much personal experience to illustrate this, but it was an interesting story for me: When my works were on display at a booth with my former gallery at the art fair, Vienna Contemporary, I had an exhibition in Budapest at the same time. I received feedback from the gallery staff that the audience and the local artists were much more interested and open to my works at the art fair than the Hungarian audience in the exhibition in Hungary. I saw this as a good sign, that was the feedback I wanted to hear.
How does it feel to be having such global recognition, and how do your colleagues at home look at that? Do they find it intimidating or inspiring?
I am really happy about the international presence of my paintings. It is one of the greatest pleasures for an artist to be able to present objects made in his studio to such a wide audience. I think it's a controversial situation for me with my colleagues. They can be nice and supportive, but it can affect me badly too. Of course, some colleagues could be annoyed because of the small number of possibilities and interest for contemporary art in our home country. However, I hope there are more who will be inspired by my story because it shows that success can be achieved with work and persistence. Protection or good relationships are not necessary to get into the art world.
How do you think your work relates to the Hungarian painterly tradition, and how do you feel about that?
Of course, I have favorites, like Vilmos Aba-Novák, but I don't really identify myself with the Hungarian painting tradition. I acknowledge the work of the old Hungarian masters, but I never limited my thinking or interest inside borders. I was able to relate much more easily to the representatives of German expressionism, like Emil Nolde or Max Beckmann, or to the painters of the British school, R.B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon, or David Hockney
Did the past decade of conservative government influence your work in some capacity?
I have always made sure that my work does not speak against or in favor of a current political set. I don’t want to intentionally populate the paintings with political content, but, of course, I see social events, and the polarization of thinking everywhere in the society, not just in the political environment. As a critically thinking person, that has pushed me away with concern. This critical approach naturally appears in the mood of my work.
In what ways do you reflect on those events and experiences?
These are not just local events or real physical experiences. With everyone from all over the world getting the news on their phone in seconds, it’s much harder to deal exclusively with national events. People’s social environments have changed and adapted differently, at least that’s what I noticed in myself. I am just painting my own reality, and I am not trying to illustrate current events, but merely illustrate their effects on the human psyche and behavior. It is an atmospheric presence—of course, all through my filter. Also, I consider myself a very life-affirming and positive person, so I do this with lots of humor and spiced with a bunch of colors.
At which stage did sculpture enter your practice, and how did it happen?
I worked as a freelance CGI artist until last year. I thought it would be useful to use my 3D modeling skills to make something that could supplement my artistic work. I made some sculpture sketches in modeling software to see how it could look. I was in a lucky situation. We have our ceramic kiln because my girlfriend Mira Makai works mainly with ceramics. So I started to sculpt those busts in her studio with ceramic clay, which I already made in 3D the same day.
The process slowed down a bit because I was not happy with them at first sight, so I made a lot of different versions until last summer, when we exhibited two of them at my solo show at Galerie Droste in Paris.
What are some of your favorite aspects of working in 3D?
I like to compose ceramic works in every single view. I also love it if they have different looks from various angles. Also, it's a great surprise if I see them directly after the glazing.
Do you think that jumping between sculpture and painting also reinvigorated your practice in some way?
Yes, it's a very refreshing thing for me to work with both. I can get a lot of ideas for one from the other. I also find it important in the sense that when I think about exhibitions, the difference between the two qualities in the exhibition space is unique as well. The presence of ceramic figures was important to my work because it expanded the universe that I had previously shaped solely with my paintings.
The current characters seem more rubbery and malleable. Was that influenced by the ceramic explorations?
Yes, I had started thinking about doing some sculptural work in the summer of 2019. This is one of the influences which ceramic and 3D modeling brought to my paintings. I tried to use the ceramic-like appearance a lot in my paintings, and bend the limbs in hard angles like on the painted version, but it was not possible for me and my process. I worked fast and spontaneously, so I let this material and the regularities of matter lead me. I used more rubber-like arms, legs, and even fingers than in my paintings, and I liked this new quality. I was happy to enrich my toolbox with those new forms, so I started to use them in my paintings as well.
They seem to be more profoundly rendered than previously. Is there a conceptual reason for that?
I think there are no conceptual reasons. My work changes naturally, and I don't want to go against that. I paint a lot of paintings year after year, and my abilities develop during this time. I remember, seven years ago, when I started to paint human figures; to give them a character or face was so hard for me. There was a painting where I overpainted the face several times, and nothing met my expectations. In the end, I gave up and painted a smiley-like thing instead of the face. Nowadays, finding the elements of characters goes much faster and is more defined than seven years before—fortunately! [laughs] I always worked fast and loose—and maybe the difference is that I have become more accurate over the years.
One of the things I loved about your pieces early on was the confidence in your brushwork. How did you manage to have it so strongly at such an early stage of your career?
When I saw Willem de Kooning’s paintings at the Centre Pompidou for the first time, I formulated something for myself—there it is something that only the painting can do, to freeze all the dynamic and force of the movement of the artist. It's an object out of the time, with all its layers and textures, and that was an elevating recognition for me. I started to look at the paintings like music pieces, and I didn't expect anything else from them. I realized I don't need hard-written concepts and world-saving thoughts. I can compress all my actual feelings, moods, and thoughts, and it could formulate itself. That was my first step to this freefall-like process. This knowledge helped me start loving my gestures, respecting my decisions, or overpainting everything easily. Until then, I made only decorations or illustrations of my ideas.
What about the hyper-vibrant color palette? Was that from De Kooning too, or what informed the use of such punchy colors from early on?
He is using colors in another way, I always thought. He uses shades of gray or black between pure colors in paintings to achieve a kind of graphic effect.
It was an important thing to keep my paintings clean from the early years. It could be an abstract painterly side of me. Also, I saw lots of paintings at the university which were nearly all gray and seemed dusty, so looking old from the start. I decided to go against that, and use clear tones and vibrant colors, to keep everything fresh and alive. Lots of painters try to reach some vintage look because of the classical paintings you could see in the museums, but those were also bright and bold-colored canvases once, the brown and the yellowish look a result of age and decay. There are lots of restoration videos where you can see what is under the oxidized layer of varnish and oil.
Color and form in your work feel like crucial elements, as it seems that they’re the main ingredient through which you’re able to produce wonders. At which stage does the idea or narrative come into the picture?
Sometimes I start a painting with an idea, but sometimes I change the story or the narrative of the painting in the middle of the process. It happened more than once, that I just started to build up the composition, also detailing the characters and the whole environment, and I came up with the action or activity and what the painting is about only in the last two hours.
It seems that you enjoy this unplanned process. Why do you think this is your preferred method?
I don't really like to plan ahead. I think there is a material quality that I want to achieve and I tend to stick to it. This can be caused differently in paintings and ceramics. Many times I make decisions based on my intuition. I can enjoy both of them, but differently. The best part is that I can choose which one I like to work with that day.
The mood of a painting or sculpture can be influenced by my mood, what the weather is like that day, or what movie or music I was listening to or watching the night before. There’s a lot of inspiration, and I like to push into my work, but I’m always careful not to do it in an obvious way. It is not good for artwork to reveal itself immediately.
What about the facial expressions of your characters? They’re either numb or very expressive, whistling or smoke-blowing. What do you like about those?
It also can be originated from the influence of the Flemish paintings. They show the passage of time and give dynamism to the action with the open mouth or the gestures of yelling or laughing, as in Adriaen Brouwer's drunken paintings. I am using these faces similar to those. Also, it could be a mask-like grimace, like the two faces of the Greek theaters, or the face paint of the clowns, or even the early movies. Smoke is also a great painterly effect. Also, you can enlighten the atmosphere with lots of white oil color or separate parts of the painting. It's about nothing or the deficit, the pause between two tracks, or could symbolize the flow of the thoughts.
Are the characters meant to be exclusively male, and how do you approach that aspect?
I don't use references to the paintings, so I think I am the only reference for myself during the painting process. I often check my hands or legs when I build up a composition. So, maybe all of those guys are a little bit like me, or my alter egos. This tumbling burlesque-like humorous situation also fits better with these characters. I am a self-ironic type. All of their struggles and failures are also mine.
Have you ever thought about moving away from the figures? If you had to drop them, what would your work look like?
I do not consider it necessary to change. I do not feel the urge to leave the field of figurative painting yet. I’ve noticed that abstract artists also personify their work, and very often viewers try to see something into it. I think the other way, in trying to subordinate my scenes to my gestures and painterly tools, which are more abstract, like classical techniques and working methods. Also, I do not try to correspond with the conditions of reality, so these figures can take many forms until they disappear. These things give me enough freedom not to feel restricted on any level.
Gallery images from Galerie Droste