Csaba Kis Róka is a young painter from Hungary - based mainly in Budapest, occasionally Amsterdam, and increasingly getting about all over Europe. You may know his striking and powerful work already, he’s been represented by Lemonade Gallery in the UK since 2014, been included in the Liverpool Biennial as well as numerous solo shows around Europe, his album (as Modertokyo) was released via Fireythings summer 2015, and we’ve even featured his work in Beat Magazine.
For over a decade now, Csaba has been producing lush and exquisite oil paintings that tackle head on the turbulent emotions of growing up in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, what it is to be male, and the darker side of our 21st century psyche.
As he works on a new body of paintings for shows in Switzerland and Vienna, plus a major solo show at Lemonade Gallery in October, we asked him about his painting, his music and what sort of animal he is.
Beat Magazine: Hi, how are you?
Csaba Kis Róka: Insanely 😃.
How was your summer?
I spent most of it painting, as I have exhibitions in Windsor and in Vienna in this Autumn. Both are solo shows, so I have to do more than my best.
What’s been your highlight of 2015 so far?
The publishing of my band’s (Moderntokyo) album.
You have a solo show at Lemonade Gallery this Autumn, how would you describe your current work?
I had an opportunity to spend half year just developing my paintings, with no exhibition timetables to worry about. I guess I’ve been unleashed now! The new works are more diverse… I have been building a new style with more abstract meaning.
I’m still committed to depicting the human form, but I have a need to re-imagine my method and system from time to time. I’m trying to make a hybrid between the motifs and the painting in itself. I mean total collaboration not like before. I guess it’s very abstract, as I work the human-like figure into the painting. I’ve been working on this idea for a long time.
Has it changed much from previous work?
Yes and no. As I mentioned I’m using more abstract meanings and elements in the paintings, which is new for me. On the other hand, I still use the traditional oil technique. I love it when a painted picture can transmit the history of painting somehow.
What would you say are the strong themes that run through all of your work?
I’ve painted the human figure from the very beginning, so I’m becoming ever more curious about its nature. European history and culture is also very important to me, especially with today’s viewpoint. We conquered the world, butchered each other.
There were many genocides in the 1990’s, in the Balkans, Rwanda, now the same is beginning in Ukraine. It’s strange because we could be the most peaceful mammals on the Earth. No other animal has our capacity to reason and empathise. On the other hand, we hide from the aggressive acts that fill our history. We don’t like to face it. We drink blood without acknowledging it. We’re a perverse race. Vampires are better.
A lot of your earlier work was pretty aggressive and shocking. Was this intentional?
Of course. The human race is very aggressive. That’s why I decided to depict it in this way, but sometimes I try to make it funny at the same time. Humour is important. It can show you more. I also really need to do something more than just a neat painting. I feel my new works are just as - perhaps more - blatant and aggressive, but in a different way.
You paint with oils. Why?
The material excites me, you know? When you use this old stuff you take part in its history. Oil surprises me every day as I work with it on the canvas. Sometimes I have to fight with it, sometimes the oil gives me the solution. It’s like a living organism… a creature you live with. There is a dialogue that flows back and forth. The oil and I create the picture together. Oil is the other half of the creative process.
Do you think painting - with paint, by hand - is more or less relevant in the “digital age”?
A painting is unique. During the process of painting the material is resistant you have to fight to reach the image you want to see. This way of creating is very natural and empiric. I think painting will always have a resonance because its handmade, every brushstroke has a story and a meaning. I think painting will enchant people in the future too. But I’m not an anti-digital-age man. I love it. You can make bridges, sculptures and an enormous number of things now, just from 3D scans. It’s like living in a sci-fi film.
Are you a fast painter or slow?
I’m fast, but the traditional technique I use is slow. I use many layers so I have to wait until each one is dry, but that’s always a brilliant opportunity to start a new one.
Your work asks a lot of questions of European history. Do you think this is important to your generation?
Life in Europe is getting more difficult. We have many questions and problems, financial problems and problems of culture and behaviour. East and West Europe are still very far from each other in this respect. For example, my country Hungary is a young democracy. The government was liberal in the beginning, but this has slowly turned to far right nationalism. Currently, the Government is building a fence on the Hungarian / Serbian border to keep immigrants out. This is a real worry for me. I guess the Hungarian people are finding it hard to lose the habits they learned under the Communist dictatorship. They still need someone to tell them what to do, and how to do it.
The new generation is a bit different, but for various reasons they are being tempted abroad. 600,000 people left Hungary in the last years! More than in 1956, after the revolution. Then there’s the situation in Greece, even the UK’s attitude and threats to leave the EU.
I think history is important, we should learn about it as we are living the consequences.
Which one of your paintings is most important to you?
Always the last one.
Which artists do you take inspiration from?
We have many gorgeous artists in the present and in the past. I’m influenced every artist I see. I cannot avoid it. But I take a lot of inspiration from the late Renaissance and Baroque, especially Rubens, Rembrandt, Tintoretto and El Greco. That was the period of developing how to paint with oil. They were great artists. I also love work from the 20th century and the present day. Movies and TV series inspire me as well. To be taken into an alternative reality in film, I find really exciting.
Do you listen to music when you paint?
Nowadays I tend to listen to scientific discourses about history, ethology, aesthetics and suchlike. When I get bored of this I guess I’ll go back to music. I like many kind of music - grindcore, jazz, classical. I think the genres are not important, just the quality.
Your music with Moderntokyo seems at first very different to your painting, but when you play it whilst looking at your work they seem to fit together. Do you think they are the same?
I’m not sure how to compare music with painting, if it’s possible at all. For me it’s two different worlds. Moderntokyo is the first band which transmits my ideas in a way that I’m happy with. The members play whatever they want, freely, but the result is music I have wanted to make forever.
How did you get together with the band?
Gergő (Mátis, drums) and I studied together at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. In 2006 we formed a disco band (Barcsay Jenő Emlékzenekar) so we’ve been playing together for 9 years. In 2013 - after I moved back from the Netherlands - we decided to make some different music and Gergő told me about a musician he had worked with - Gábor Pintér (trumpet). We invited him to a rehearsal, and it just worked.
What are your plans for the next year, for Csaba Kis Róka and for Moderntokyo?
For now I’m concentrating on the Windsor show (Lemonade Gallery) and the Vienna Contemporary. After that I’ll be starting some new explorations in painting. As far as Moderntokyo is concerned, we are working on new songs now, so I hope we can record a new album in the new year.
What’s on your mp3 player?
I’m lucky, I don’t really need an mp3 player. I entertain myself. When I do - Marc Ribot, Bach, Brujeria, and Miles Davis.
What’s on your Netflix Watchlist?
I have many. I’m love series like Penny Dreadful, Vikings, Black Sails, and The Knick. Deadwood was fantastic as well.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
Well my name Kis Róka means little fox …so I guess I’d be a fox.
Csaba Kis Róka is showing at Lemonade Gallery (Windsor) throughout October & November. Details here.