In the art world, contemplation comes with the territory. And while we often consider the message, we’re less forthcoming when art doesn’t really say much at all. It can lack in originality. The statement can be lost in translation. Still, we know it has been created as a form of “self-expression,” so we accept – and ultimately, appreciate it.
Only the brave will challenge this system, and Miklos Legrady is one of them. From his paintings to his perspective on the indeterminate realm we know as art, Miklos doesn’t censor his authenticity. Thoughtful in his approach with inimitable style, our discussions of artistry and honesty make Miklos unforgettable.
The Miklos Legrady Interview
Hey, Miklos! Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Budapest, Hungary and grew up French in Montreal. I’ve mostly lived in Toronto. I was back in Hungary for one year (removed 20 years), teaching web design at the Fine Art Academy. I started as a photographer and was a little art star, with 60 works in the National Gallery of Canada collection, and eventually fell in love with painting, which is my main skeeze now.
Painting on cardboard and considering its impermanence, how are you able to balance the dedication of creating such powerful art without becoming attached to the works?
On the contrary, I am deeply attached to the work on cardboard as much as on canvas, but really, the work is in you. The painting is just the footprint you leave behind as you go on.
On your journey as an artist, was it always obvious to you that art was being approached the predictable or “right” way? If not, when did you come to realize this?
When I was in my teens, I was curious of the difference between a culture that was rational and logical while I could see that I had an inspiration, an inner vision, that felt almost like a stranger within myself. Inspiration, of course, is from an inner spirit. So this inspiration has a structure, inner rules, that to one’s self feels like the right way. You know that adage about doing things “your way?” That means we have a standard within us, a little bit different for everyone, I guess.
Have you ever attempted to create art the “right way?” Do you find that less emotion is there during this type of creation process?
The emotional part is interesting. Here’s my “right way” of painting; I start without premeditation. Usually, I work with a subject or series so I know I’ll be within those parameters, but I never know what I’ll paint. I begin with a line or circle which then gives rise to ideas of doing this or that next and I follow my intuition. But my own intelligence and awareness are much more limited than the complexity of what happens as I work. I assume that applies to all individuals.
What we can conceive is always simpler than the reality we’re faced with. Any creator will take their ideas and augment them by reaching out and grabbing whatever bits of information or ideas that are busy floating around at the time. Keith Richards was asked how he got the ideas for all those songs and he replied that you just put up your antennas and ideas are all around you. It does seem that whenever you focus on a subject, you will find relevant info in the life we’re going through at the time.
Your work “Plastic is killing our wildlife” deeply resonated with me. Based on the man seen at the beach, was this piece meant to show how humans are directly to blame for environmental degradation?
The picture comes from a famous photograph of the artist Ai Weiwei in which he mimicked the dead Serbian baby, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as a refugee. I have two actual paintings of Aylan in this series. I also worked from a photo of decomposed birds on the seashore with plastic filling their stomach as a result of the pollution of the seas. The two levels I meant was that Ai Weiwei (by mimicking the baby) was being unreal, or “plastic,” and that contemporary art is becoming unreal as there’s a genuine self-defeating or in denial movement that has gone on in the art world for the last 30 years.
If art is the canary in the cultural mine, that movement is now seen in Trump supporters, who bet that lying and dishonesty make no difference in one’s life. The art world in the 1960’s fell in love with the idea that you didn’t have to do anything. You could just have an idea and let hired hands make it for you. The quality of art has been sinking ever since.
I agree that our personal selves define our political reality. Do you think politics sometimes matters too much as we define where we stand on environmental and social issues?
Well, politics are actually our combined opinions, yours and mine. So an oil producer will agitate to deny global warming because that cuts into their profits. That’s politics too, as is the desire by the rich to grab everything and the rest of us to seek a democracy where we are all heard. Politics is the voice of the rabble in the marketplace, the mothers with their babies, the lovers who want a good life, and the insane who want to destroy us all. Politics is the cacophony of their voices blending.
I’d love to know your definition here: What is art?
This one is easy if we consider the art of conversation or the art of cuisine. Art is the best that we can do. Art is not an idea that someone else can do because it is in the doing that the artist puts effort into the work to reach excellence. When the idea enters the physical world it is transformed by the limitations of the material just as matter is transformed by the idea; that reality check then forces the artist to bring out the best that is in them, to bring out and realize their inner vision. Otherwise, the work is not art.
Emily Carr described the creative experience of one genuinely inspired, an account to teach us all a lesson; “Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. Dumb notes have struck chords of wonderful tone. Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer. It is surging through my whole being, the wonder of it all, like a great river rushing on, dark and turbulent, and rushing and unresisting, carrying me away on its wild swirl like a helpless bundle of wreckage.”
The reality shown in your art makes it difficult to overlook important issues. I love that. Do you think some artists prefer incomprehensible pieces because it’s safer to leave topics open to interpretation?
Post-Dadaist art is difficult, conceptual, tough, unsparing… often strategically incomprehensible and purposefully irrelevant. When a cultural object is incomprehensible or irrelevant, we’re expected to be humble. As we might be wrong, this puts the work beyond criticism; it is art only because an artist said so. Since the work cannot be judged, the artist gathers praise for so cleverly finessing the system. What is rewarded is not a brilliant inspiration, execution, and artwork but an intellectual gift for cultural marketing. Do we mean to reward banality, the meaningless and facile? Voilà l’infâme qu’il faut écraser.
Before considering the Dada art movement, I titled you “an anti-hero of art.” Reading up on Dada art, it is also referred to as anti-art. What do you think of that description?
The heroes of art today are those who praise the status-quo. Since I rebel, I am an anti-hero who earns the opprobrium of curators and museum directors. A slowly emerging movement is best described as languid art. Four bricks bear the shame of a thin coat of paint. A large sheet of drawing paper is embarrassed by faint charcoal streaks that fail to leave much of a mark. Languid art. The work quacks like a duck, looks by the book, but doesn’t draw a discerning eye. The more one’s reputation rises in the arts, the less important the art becomes until… (I kid you not) you can cut pictures out of art books and be hailed as a genius. Canada’s best is busy cutting out paper dolls.
This being the art world, it’s his assistants cutting out the paper dolls for him. The optics are terrible; that’s why we can’t have nice things. This has been going on for 30 years and I want to change that. I want to change the way artists and curators and writers think about art – the course of art history, by switching to a pursuit of the exciting, the inspiring, the beautiful and fascinating, in an art world that believes itself trendy by chasing the banal, the boring, the effortless, anything to shock the world like the Dadaist did.
I’d love to discuss Duchamp with you. Do you have any favorite works by him?
Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and his hand carved chess pieces, I like a lot because they are some of the few pieces that he put a genuine effort into. But Duchamp is actually not a great artist, just a good one. He was a rich kid who tried to excuse doing as little as possible by saying art was conceptual. Instead of being a great artist, he’s a great marketing salesman who sold us on the idea that he was a great artist.
In a 1986 BBC interview with Joan Blackwell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see… that he made it intellectual. He also said his aim as a Dadaist was to destroy art. In a 1998 panel discussion titled “Vision and Visuality” sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that (except for Manet) Duchamp despised optical art and disliked artisanal work. We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, or that Stravinsky loathed musical notes. Optical art requires years of skill, artisanal work is done with concern; these are things to respect, not to despise.
Marcel Duchamp created his brand as a Dadaist by rejecting the Impressionists, aesthetic beauty, and artisanal technique. While he said that he wanted to destroy art, he truly destroyed his own ability to make art. The ready-made assumes that a factory-made or found object is as good as any work by the artist. If you say that art is not worth making and you say it often, you eventually lose interest in making art. He encouraged the mythology around that ‘stopping’, “but it was not like that… it was a broken leg”, he said, and retired to play chess.
Duchamp’s philosophy is dominant today. We’re awash in paper dolls. Picabia wrote: “Art is a pharmaceutical product for idiots.” Art replies; “speak for yourself”. We don’t have to gawk in awe at everything we’re told, and we do need to reassess the values we inherit from Dada. Cleverness and toilet humor get tiresome after a while… those who truly believe art is to piss in should now leave the field to those with higher values. Dada is past its shelf life. Breaking things is juvenile when there’s so much to discover and to create in a brand new world.
See more of Miklos Legrady’s art on his website where he features his inspired and powerful art series.