No sooner had Gabriella Nagy embarked on a career in art than she won a prestigious award, the Strabag Award for Painting (2001), juried by renowned art professionals including Katalin Néray, Lóránd Hegyi, Márta Kovalovszky and Sándor Pinczehelyi. One would assume this guaranteed a stable career with solo shows in Hungary, group exhibitions at home and abroad, and commercial interest in her works. One reason for why this did not happen is perhaps that in spite of the fact that I came to meet several artists irrespective of generation, her painting was little known to me. However, when I began studying the works she produced over almost two decades, I was instantly drawn in by the world on her canvases, with the highly unusual depiction of nature, flora and fauna.
A few years ago we were holidaying by Lake Tisza and under the starry sky over our head I had this experience of the Earth being truly round, with the experience of endlessness; and the distant horizon touched me more than the seas had previously. The smallness and fragility of man in this endless space was not frightening but rather magical and moving. It is these sentiments that are echoed in the landscapes of Gabriella Nagy, which are considerably more than mere landscape paintings. For example, her paintings dating from 2004 expressly lack any reference whatsoever to nature. The dimensionless abstract spaces consisting of coloured planes are only landscapes by name (Green storm, Cloudy dusk, Green water, White horizon).
I grew up in a town sprawling along a valley in the Northern Mountains, ten minutes from the woods. Each time I climbed a hill I had wonderful views, and while I could see a long way around, my experience of the horizon is very different from that of Gabriella Nagy, who, born in the Great Plain, saw the sun touch the earth in the Hortobágy puszta. This experience led to her skies taking up often 90 per cent of the picture plain. And her skies are now peaceful, now terrifically fleecy, but mostly resonant of the terrifying power of nature, with flashes of lightning across the space. Lightning is not only an element that forks out and vertically breaks the monochrome surface, but also works as a powerful flash of light, which the artist uses as a luminous contrast on the horizons. The natural forces, extreme atmospheric phenomena – the storm, the tornado alongside the lightning – have been recurrent elements on canvas since 19th-century Romanticism, not unlike the solitude, curiosity and agitation of tiny man tossed about in an unspoilt, majestic landscape. It is no accident that one of Gabriella Nagy’s favourite painters is Caspar David Friedrich. Inspired by the staffage figures in his landscapes, she placed in her own landscapes her contemplative figures, and her figures leaping up and floating, which bring the tranquil environment to life. These figures are at the same time her own alter egos. This brings to mind, in addition to Romanticism, the cyber world of our age, the matrix (including the film it inspired), which involves a strange doubling of space and time, as well as uncertainty, inappropriate and unexpected things in familiar places and situations. Examples include UFOs above the Zemplén landscape, an owl taking flight “in slow motion”, a man leaping up, and the motif of the flash of lightning on the diptych. The mystical, metaphysical landscapes evoke in the viewer mysterious fictitious places and film reminiscences (Matrix, Twilight) and blood-curdling woods (Aokigahara, the Japanese suicide forest), often quite unintentionally.
The act of painting is frequently preceded by time-consuming collecting work, when the artist looks out for, takes or makes, pictures and photographs, and after she has conceived the idea, decides to arrange them in series (Cold front, Attention, Into endlessness and beyond, Hairy heart, Elevated). The items in the series are not related to this or that closed period, but whenever a new idea comes up, it is added to a previous series, meaning that a series might include works dating from both 2001 and 2017. Painted in just two years, the most uniform series strike a delicate balance between likeable kitsch and art. Realistic and technically perfect as they are, they each feature a funny, sarcastic or dramatic element that alienates them from reality. The picture of the crying sheep comes from a specific experience, the reaction of an animal about to be slaughtered; however, the weeping fish is more amusing, yet an expression of sympathy for living creatures. The penetrating gaze of the owl is realistic, surrealistic and ironic at the same time. The picture features animals indigenous to this region, including hen, a goose, a marten, a stork, a stag, a fox, a sheep, an owl and the stray brown bear. This is a matter of conscious choice, because these animals are familiar to us, and endowed with human behaviour, they are placed in curious situations. Hit by an arrow at the head, the fox wears the pointed projectile like body jewellery, and stares out of the picture with indifference. Other animal portraits feature bipods and quadrupeds vomiting, which also elicits laughter. When the artist is not portraying them, she arranges many similar animals in curious compositions, with flocks of sheep in DNA-spiral-like formations. In addition to transforming the chemical formula, it resembles a kind of Ascension in an ironic rendering of Agnus Dei. It also brings to mind the first cloned animal, Dolly, who happened to be a sheep.
In her most recent paintings we see plant structures against a homogeneous background; branches in bloom or bare, twigs and trunks of trees also indigenous to Central Europe: cherry, beech, birch, apple... These elements often constitute intertwining fabrics, creating mathematical or chemical formulae (Plus minus one, Rising Beech). There is also a hashtag from thorny dog rose, well known in the social media. The symbolism and the form chime in with the doubling effect that can be found in many of the artist’s works, as well as with the parallel symmetry and blogging activity.
Following her exhibition last year at the MODEM, Into endlessness and beyond, this Műcsarnok show will convince laymen and professionals that the associative art of Gabriella Nagy has considerably more to her art than meets the eye.
Marianna Mayer, curator of the exhibition