Akos Birkas
The Shadow of the Other
Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig
January 10 – March 7, 2015

The paintings by the Hungarian artist Akos Birkas are devoted to the portrayal of human beings, and based on this the social circumstances to which people are exposed on a daily basis. The fourteen medium-format works in the exhibition The Shadow of the Other feature young and old, often naked individuals, isolated or in intimate situations. The backgrounds contain art-historical references or evidence of everyday culture of the past, including cut-outs à la Matisse or psychedelic wallpaper from the seventies. The head motif, a familiar theme in Birkas's painting, also recurs, namely in the form of rows of physiognomies against a dark background. Visibly stemming from various cultural contexts, the faces here, however, take on the sculptural shape of a South American offertory box.

One important motif in the exhibition The Shadow of the Other is the self-portrait of the artist sleeping. Birkas began taking photographs of himself while asleep as early as the 1970s. This motif of the sleeping artists was symbolic for the situation at the time in eastern Europe. A conservative jolt recently struck Hungary that can also be felt as a pan-European phenomenon. Birkas's recent paintings tell of the conflict with social restrictions, with homophobia and xenophobia. They raise the question of what happens with a society that builds on these fears, and what it sacrifices to them. The spatial situations initially create the impression of them being safe areas, equipped with pretty patterns and colors. Yet the people being portrayed speak a different language—the safe area has served its purpose; the shadow of the other concerns everyone.

The Shadow of the Other describes a new phase in Birkas's creative work, whereby fundamental approaches, the human depiction as the starting point, are continued. The abstract head motifs from the 1990s consisting of endless oval loops are ultimately followed in the mid 2000s by figurative paintings based on press photographs. In 2010, the artist extends his examination of these short-term political elements by means of titles with art-historical references to the history of painting. Birkás most recently combined his portrayals with excerpts from texts on contemporary philosophy, whereby image and text can never be taken in simultaneously.

The attempt to make complex social relationships representable in a new, specially created network of meaning permeates Birkas's entire oeuvre. Accordingly, the focus is not merely the desire for representation, but the possibility of making a specific context representable in the first place. In doing so, the edges of the canvases, left free of any paint, are blatant evidence of the medium suited for this process: painting. This use of painting to make things representable is then also characteristic of Birkas's concept of himself as an artist. For in the traditional role of the creative artist, a work is never completely understandable.

Akos Birkas (*1941) studied at the Academy of Visual Arts in Budapest; as one of the main representatives of Hungarian painting, he has influenced it since the 1990s. The artist's most recent group exhibitions were at the CCCB in Barcelona, the Museum Johanneum in Graz, the Hypo-Kunsthalle in Munich, as well as at the Haus der Kunst in Vienna. His works have been presented in solo exhibitions in Berlin, Budapest, New York, Zurich, and Amsterdam, among other places. The Ludwig Museum in Budapest dedicated a retrospective to Akos Birkas in 2006.

Text by Fiona Geuß