As you’d expect, the generous proportions of Eigen + Art’s Leipzig HQ are ideally suited to show large canvases by the gallery’s well-known stable of German painters (among them Martin Eder and Neo Rauch). If those artists are renowned for both their provocations and their technical ability, then, on the evidence of this, Ákos Birkás’s tenth show for the gallery, those talents are something the veteran Budapest-born painter shares. After a long period of calm abstractions – for example his ovoid Heads series of the 1990s (some of which resemble squashed Kenneth Noland targets) – Birkás’s most recent canvases are realistic and troubled. And they arrive at a crucial point in Hungary’s politics since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. His heads now have faces and stare out at us. Birkás is not interested in capturing moments of unawareness, of blissed-out states of absorption. Contra Michael Fried, the paintings of Birkás are all about theatricality: the theatre that is modern political struggle.
Birkás is fascinated by cultural conflict. He is more than aware of the troubles that immigrants to Hungary face in this time of resurgent rightwing revisionism inspired by the populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán. These tensions are reflected in the title of his show. We begin at the frontier, a border zone, Grenze (Frontier, all works but one 2014) – a grim, grey street scene with signs pointing to what might be a ‘ruin bar’ similar to those popularised by the EasyJet set in contemporary Budapest. Baldessari-style bright coloured dots hint at the delirious delights within, which aim to blur any discomfiting confrontation with historical truths.
Another strategy of avoidance in painful times is that of the ostrich, and Birkás depicts heads buried in the sand, sleeping with the sandman in several images here, as with Der Traum der Populistischen Odaliske (The Dream of the Populist Odalisque). Here there are two figures, the painter asleep, his head resting on a pillow with a simple blue leaf pattern, while above him his more successful alter ego lies naked save for a pair of George Smiley glasses, brown brogues and a pair of black socks. This avatar poses with legs bent, akin to Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Culottes (1921), while behind him are blocks of colour not a million miles away from the French master’s The Snail (1953). In Anderswo, Schnell (Elsewhere, Quick), the painter is again in the land of nod, desperate to be elsewhere, shoes untied at his side as he lies on cobalt-painted floorboards, zooming off to a vanishing point in some dream-bright future. Lastly Kleiner Traum von Revolution und Konterrevolution (Little Dream of Revolution and Counter-Revolution) features the artist huddled up under a pink duvet, dreaming of a ghostly well-intentioned face from the past that appears on his mattress. In a neat touch, smacking of humility, the titles of the paintings are scrawled in pencil on the wall beside each canvas.
Birkás, like Luc Tuymans or Marlene Dumas, uses photographs with political import as inspiration, though he is arguably more focused than they in his desire to awaken the viewer from distraction. In Lauschen (Listen), for example, two African immigrants dance in front of a gaudily painted psychedelic wall and confer worriedly, maybe about paranoid rants of Pegida or UKIP. These recent paintings are in step with an Arte-TV interview with Birkás from 2010 and are targeted at both Birkás’s homeland and its international visitors. Rather than directly depicting the dirt behind the daydream of Budapest, his visions confront the enveloping delusions that currently typify the neoliberal, nationalistic fantasy world of his capital. Birkás, with his snoozing figures, wants to shake the somnambulant mass and ask his people – in the words of that great old hippy dreamer Kevin Ayers – why are we sleeping?
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.