Local Specificity and Performativity in Gusztáv Ütő’s Works
“any human grasp on the world
occurs through the body;
it must be embodied”
The uttered word, just like the written one, is an act. The activity of painting, just like the
painting itself, is and act. It has weight and stake, it creates effect and subverts with its
Gusztáv Ütő’s 1 exhibition of paintings opened in the Transylvanian Art Center from Sfântu
Gheorghe on 19 February. Between 1978 and 1982 the artist studied painting at the Ion
Andreescu Institute of Fine Arts from Cluj-Napoca as Béla Abodi Nagy’s student, still, the large
public knows his artistic activity especially through his performances.
A great part of the material of the present work is organically related to those act works 2 which
the artist has performed in distinct parts of the world over time. He condenses the essence, the
dramatic moments of these performances, in this way the paintings have a performative
character, just like the action works inspiring them.
Specialist literature originates artistic performance from the theatre and rituals. In this sense, the
performance artist assumes the roles of making sacrifice and community building. In his works,
beyond visual representation, the establishment of connection acquires a prominent role. He
assumes the mediation of a life feeling that transgresses the private sphere and penetrates into the
life of the community: he does public service.
The performance artist displays his own body. The body leaves a trace and thus presents, reveals
itself. The body becomes a medium as the expression of experienced presence. In Gusztáv Ütő’s
paintings we can discover the carrying on of the corporeality of his performances, with a
personal tone: he mostly paints self-portraits or portraits of family members and of those who
spiritually, socially stand closest to him. Thus his works become the results of a profoundly
subjective, honest and direct attitude.
Similarly to the beginning of performance art, when artists were urged to transgress the borders
of distinct branches of art, to change their perspectives, now we can witness a reverse
transgression of boundaries. The event-likeness of artistic achievement that declared the static
artwork as an artefact, is already consumed. However, the postmodern has proved that the
painting is not merely an artefact, the painting can also be an event, a performative act, just like
action art. All this entails the change of interpretive structures. It urges both the artist and the
spectator to medium-specific change. Taking advantage of the freedom of this possibility, the
artist “must create by taking the changes into consideration. Not only for himself or for the
studio, but always depending on the situation – Gusztáv Ütő says. Searching for ourselves must
continuously attest authenticity. I am authentic if I find the real stake of the experienced
moment.” 3 In the case of the present works we can witness the self-accomplishing act of the
Besides all this, according to him, it is the artist’s duty to serve the community which he lives in
and originates from. In this sense, we can say that his paintings are local-specific and have a
narrative character. They are figurative works, reaching their monumental effect by grasping the
dramatism of the moment. Although the use of colours reveals a veritable painter, pronounced
graphic elements can also be found in the paintings, such as the yellow line in “Bending” (2011)
or the mirror-like element in “Eclipse” (2011).
His motifs carry symbolic meanings, he explores the energies of the universe which move us
beyond the tiny problems of everyday life and open new horizons towards another dimension.
The spiritual purport of the paintings carries further the determining characteristic of action
works; they are thematically organically linked to each other; the search for identity, the local
elements, the idea of Transylvanism organically survives in these artworks as well. This is why
the universe of their motifs, the use of elements characteristic of Szekler folk culture or
Transylvanian culture are in agreement. The Sun, the Moon, stars, light, fire are elements that
revitalize the life-giving energies. Beside all these, the Old Hungarian script is also a recurrent
motif, to such an extent that Gusztáv Ütő even created his signature from its elements. He
transforms its signs into visual signs, so they appear as pictorial elements, also endowing the
paintings with an interpretive orientation.
To my question what urged him to take photos and painting the series “Celestial phenomena”,
Gusztáv Ütő gave a direct answer: “the claim of looking upwards, the search for transcendental
dimensions, the distancing from daily life”. The blue colour, predominant in the series, reminds
me of Yves Klein and his emblematic photo “Leap into the Void”. What do these pictures
suggest? The freedom of elevating upwards or that of the leap into the existential void? The title
of the series gives the clue, reversing the direction and thus engaging in a dialogue with Yves
Klein’s attitude. His works do not assume a leap, but rather soaring. Celestial meaning,
somebody indicates something for somebody, a dialogue is thus created, in which the blue plane
of the sky explores the possibility, what is more, the claim of dialogue, of establishing a personal
contact rather than the anxiety of solitude. His paintings entitled “Further Bird Feathers” (2016)
and “Local vs Global” (2016) well illustrate this endeavour of his. The element appearing in the
former, the bird feather, is the recurrent motif of Gusztáv Ütő’s works, connecting the sky and
the earth with its lightness and ethereality.
The artist lays great emphasis on vertical lines, on the motif of the connection between the above
and below. For instance, the yellow line cutting his painting entitled “Bending” (2011) into two,
the gesture of bending are pronounced elements of the artwork’s composition.
If we understand painting as a performative act, the invisible energy through which the artwork
exercises an impact on the viewer becomes perceivable in the works. It exercises its effect
through its performativity not only as an act, but also at the level of the object and the sign. The
aim of paintings is not only to offer a visual experience, but they also condense the tension of the
moment that the artist experienced in the course of painting. This is why they are of personal
character, honest, concise and address the spectator directly. The process of creation is highly
emphatic in these artworks, what is more, the artist rethinks and repaints them several times,
introduces new elements and feels that the work is never complete. He primarily yields to the
expectations of the painting, he adventurously joins the dialogue in which the painter, the
painting and the spectator mutually shape each other.
Another characteristic of the works is local specificity. The title of his painting entitled “Local vs
Global” (2016) speaks for itself, as the possibility of thematization within these terms is endless:
they can be equally understood in terms of wealth, politics, tradition, religion or secularization.
Hearing the syntagm local versus global we primarily think about the spatial organization of
global economy, about the blurring of boundaries, on the other hand, about how art and culture
define themselves in this context, whether they have boundaries, urban or ural character; in the
present context, how Transylvanian art relates to the national or international artistic scene. In
the postmodern world view it is no longer a novelty that the relationship between centre and
periphery has changed, the centre has lost its monopoly and periphery is situated at an equal
rank. In this case, it can even be interpreted literally: Szeklerland as a Hungarian periphery, the
issue of border. The symbolic bird feathers dominating the space of painting, the smoke raising
upwards evoke the moment of a religious ritual. In this way, the spatial (geographical) reference
of the notions local versus global turn into the means of expression of time and timelessness, the
profane and the sacred.
The painting entitled “Further Bird Feathers” (2016) thinks further the theme of “local vs
global”, connecting the world of dreams with everyday life. The Szekler embroidered pillow
filled with feathers draws attention to topical problems of Szekler national identity: is this
still/already a dream or reality? The frontal composition of the self-portrait suggests a strong
belief, determined attitude and also optimism, the artist’s life vision: “What does not yet exist but
will exist, it already exists”.