Romanian-born, Budapest-based artist Botond Keresztesi creates uncanny realities through his paintings, which transport the viewers into a twisted, airbrushed utopia influenced by avant-garde movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism. But what kind of dreamlike, fantasy world is this? Did he really just replace Henri Matisse’s La Danse with characters from the Teletubbies? And is he intertwining Henri Moore sculptures with Gillette razor blades? Is the Great Sphinx of Giza wearing the Oculus VR glasses? The answer is yes.
Keresztesi’s use of figures and subject matter is brilliant, and his attention to detail is even more so. His artistic practice spans oil on canvas, coal drawings, works on paper and even installations, although he’s been mainly focusing on painting these past years. After graduating from the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in 2012, the Budapest-based painter went on to make a name for himself – he was the recipient of the Derkovits Gyula Scholarship for three consecutive years. Since then, he’s landed exhibitions worldwide from Mexico to Berlin, to New York, Malmö (Sweden), Prague and Dresden, among others. In today’s interview, we discuss some of the pivotal moments in his career, his love for Surrealism and his artistic evolution.
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Under the skin, 2020
Most of your paintings have elements of machinery, hardware tools, and even commercial items like logos (for example, Amazon’s). Why is this a staple feature in your paintings?
Everything I use as a motive in my paintings is quite subjective. My inspiration stems from many different things, but maybe the most important is that I mostly use objects; even if I’m painting a human body, it usually comes from an existing image, not sketching from real life. Everything is a quote, let’s say. I’m barely inventing anything, it’s more like an upcycling method.
I’m obsessed with metallic surfaces because they’re constantly changing and reflecting the environment, but on a painting, that’s completely different; it’s more constant. You’re freezing a moment and you can add more light to the tiny details that you want to highlight for the viewers. I’ve liked logos since the beginning too – for example, the Amazon logo represents the archaic smile of Apollo or La Gioconda.
Can you break down your process when you are working on a painting?
Usually, I work 3-4 days or maybe a week on one painting – it depends on how complicated the motive is, of course, but I never work on several pieces at the same time. Sometimes it changes, but usually, the image I paint is the same as the digital plan I do before. Other times I play with the physical dimensions of the paintings. There is always a strange conversation between digital and analogue.
Airbrushing is a recurring technique in some of your pieces. What drew you to it?
I think the airbrushing technique is somewhat nostalgic for my generation. Maybe that’s why one of the most powerful artists of my age, Avery Singer, uses only this tool as well. It reminds me of the late ‘80s and ‘90s commercial visual culture, when digital image-making didn’t exist and there were only handmade graphics. I remember the covers of cheap science fiction books or metal vinyl covers – of course, you can get them on an antiques market or online. This post-Internet generation came from this time, when a gigantic public library started to develop on online platforms and our overdosed culture slowly turned into memes.
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The big silent nude 1, 2020
Your series of works such as Jurassic/Park/Genetics and Digital/Dreams/Recordings resemble the dream-like essences created by Surrealist artists René Magritte, André Breton and Max Ernst. What inspired you to start working in the style that we see today? Where you perhaps inspired by some of these artists?
Since I discovered art beyond the Renaissance, I’ve always been a huge fan of René Magritte. As teenagers, my friends and I were big fans of Dadaism and Surrealism. One year ago, I visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and wanted to see the tomb of Max Ernst. I realized he had the most average, simple grave that you can imagine – I liked it a lot. These guys were like normcore grandfathers in suits and ties, but their imagination was extreme. I always try to look at things in a similar way in order to see the most boring, ordinary objects as a bizarre mystery.
Take us a through your upbringing. What was your exposing to art growing up?
I come from a quite average family. My father is an engineer and my mother is a nurse, so art was never really an important topic unless my mother brought black-and-white albums about the Hermitage Museum or the paintings of Tretyakov gallery (reminiscent of the Soviet era). Later, as many others of my generation, I was touched by graffiti culture, but it wasn’t clear that I could become an artist. I always wanted to be a painter, but I didn’t really know what that meant.
In many of your compositions, there are smaller details within the larger image that seem to have a narrative of their own, and you regularly post ‘new detail’ shots on your Instagram account. Why is it important for you to emphasize these elements?
I really like details; sometimes they mean a new image entirely, more abstract than the whole. I usually play with this and create new meanings from details, but other times, it’s just a teaser. I guess it comes from my working method.
Normally, I take thousands of photos with my phone as sketches or just catch a nice reflection on a surface. Someone once told me that you’re not a painter only in your studio in front of a canvas but also on a tram or in every banal situation in your life. As I collect motives every day, sometimes I simply use my paintings as ready-made material.
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Pokemon hydra, 2019
If you think of your first exhibition and compare it to your latest, did any event change things for you and your career?
I think my first exhibition was the most important for me and my career. It was in Budapest, at Horizont Gallery, and the title was R.G.B. (Roman Gothic Baroque); the whole exhibition was a statement somehow. After that, I received international attention, even Vice wrote about it, which surprised me in a positive way! Being featured in other online platforms like Art Viewer and Tzvetnik also helped me in terms of visibility coming from a rather unknown place like Hungary’s art scene.
Then, another big step was when I started to work with Future gallery, which has spaces in Berlin and Mexico, and where I had my latest solo show – it opened right before the Covid-19 pandemic and, unfortunately, it remained closed.
How much strategy and thought goes into what you want to present for any given show?
To me, making a new show means developing a new topic or subject every time. Within your practice it could be a new thing or just another aspect of your work. For me, it’s usually just a main theme where I can use my artistic language, which has a base but in different forms. Sometimes I also work with objects or installation elements.
I noticed that you were quite a poet from your Instagram captions, are there other mediums of art that you see yourself exploring?
Literature and film are important to me. Also music, which I listen to almost full time while I’m working, but I think I’m not so good with words, I’d rather communicate with images. I’m glad if any of my interventions reminds you of poetry.
Lastly, what you do think a painter contributes to the world?
In the Middle Ages, when people didn’t know how to read, painters created images instead to help them understand the Bible. Nowadays, almost everyone can read texts within our culture, but the world is much more complex than before, and I think it’s almost impossible to understand it on an objective level. So I think art and painting could still help to understand this very complex system in an emotional way.
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Inside the curtain, 2020
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Me myself and I, 2019
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The legend of the true pearl, 2019
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Time drops, 2020
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The circle of water, 2020
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Silent nude 1, 2020
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Monster truck, 2019