I’m not a great follow-upper. If I’m out, at some do or other, and if we get into conversation and I agree to send you information, I will. I’m the product of a convent-school education. The nuns are still hovering in the outer reaches of my consciousness. I’ve always done my homework. I still do it. But if there’s nothing tangible said, no specific action needed, then I’ll rarely, if ever, follow up.
At a gig in March, I ran into Budapest-based artist Michael Pettet. The name didn’t mean anything but when we got to talking, I had some vague recollection of being invited to an exhibition of his that I couldn’t make. And, as I’ve recently come into possession of some blank walls that will eventually need adornment, once they’ve been plastered and painted, I handed over my card and said I’d like to see his work.
He followed up.
Pettet’s life to date was made for serialisation. It’s got all the ingredients of a good TV drama. He was born and raised in the plummy SouthEast of England where leaving school to pursue a degree in Fine Art didn’t raise an eyebrow. He lived next door to portrait artist Simon Goldring, a graduate of St Martin’s in London who is now making a name for himself in Madrid. Pettet, himself a graduate of Kingston University, has seen his work hang in galleries around the world, including Knights Park Gallery in London, Centro Colombo Americano in Santa Fe de Bogota, Colombia; and Museo del Ex-Convento, Tepoztlan, Mexico.
From living in a squat and painting on an Enterprise Allowance of £40 a week, selling mainly to friends and friends of friends, he went on to be a part-time art technician in a sixth-form college in Esher under the benevolent brush of Joe Turner. Rather than waste Pettet’s talent on cleaning paintbrushes and palettes, Turner gave him a small studio so he could paint. He wanted his students to be around a working artist. It was as close as Pettet would come to be an artist in residence.
Everything we’ve done till a particular moment in time has brought us to that moment … for a reason. I firmly believe that. In 1993, Pettet met Joanna, who had joined the school as an English teacher. They’ve been together since. Their story is a pleasant change from the usual, where Mrs follows Mr as he’s posted around the world. It is Joanna who is offered the jobs abroad, the first a 10-month maternity cover in Milan (they travelled there from the UK by motorbike). A choice between Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, and Bogota saw them up easels and move to Colombia. And later to Mexico City where they’d spend 14 years before moving to Budapest.
Around this time, computers were making headway. Graphic art was taking on new dimensions. Digital art had come into play. And rather than cling to the traditional oils and watercolours, Pettet embraced it. He wanted, he says, to give it soul. Recognising that the digital age, although still in its infancy, would soon become an intricate part of our daily lives, he experimented with binary numbers and started painting.
The morning I went to see his work, I wondered what I’d find. A few years ago, I visited a working studio belonging to Goya von Gerendássy Ács György, known and loved by many as simply Gyuri. There I saw the easels, the canvases, the pigments, the paints – everything I expected to see. Pettet’s canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop (which he uses rather than one of the many dedicated painting programs that try too hard, he says, to simulate traditional techniques and therefore produce images that look fake and overly synthetic).
We sat and had a coffee as I leafed through some of his catalogues. I was blown away. It was clear that his environment influences his work. His body of work from his earlier time in South America consists mainly of landscapes – I particularly liked one of Colca Canyon in Peru and another of Hierve el Agua, a set of natural rock formations in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
But these weren’t challenging enough, intellectually. Although the medium is radically different, the approach Pettet takes to his digital art is much the same.
I approach the paintings in exactly the same way that I did using traditional materials […] the intellectual process which is at the core of what I do. The images form themselves through the working process and my dialogue with the way they are taking shape. The resulting piece is therefore something that was not imagined at the outset. To this end there is no difference in my mind between techniques whether oil on canvas or digital.
During his last six years in Mexico City, he hearkened back to his childhood holidays in Scapa Flow. It’s mesmerising, the Lament, in particular, and Sandstorm with its animalistic forms that are at the basis of all human emotion. A series of portraits completed in Budapest based on photos of friends is particularly striking. As I listened, my walls were taking shape in my head, with rooms being redesigned around them.
I asked the usual question – Why Budapest? It was another choice for Joanna – Budapest or Rome, and they plumbed for Budapest. The contemporary art world here is not quite as suspicious of digital art. Places like the Art Factory are fielding some talented artists being recognised abroad (Márta Kucsora currently has a solo exhibition in London). But the distrust is still there driven by the underlying doubt as to how much of the art produced is the artist and how much is the computer. And while the latent texture and sensitivity that many associates with traditional art are more difficult to master digitally, the blend of the virtual world and the real world is something we need to get a handle on.
Think of it. Our interaction on social media is limited to the construction of sentences and ideas in Tweets, Facebook updates, Skype newslines. We write, we share, but it takes a sympathetic reader to reconstruct the feeling, the emotion, the latent meaning behind it. Emoticons don’t capture all the nuances. So, too, with digital art. Its beauty is in its interpretation. Its soul is in how it reflects what we think we see.
Each piece is limited to a signed, numbered run of 50. No more. And he doesn’t do commissions (the portrait series is stunning – I had to ask). Life, he says, is too short to reproduce someone else’s ideas.
As my walls are nowhere near ready for anything other than paint and plaster, I’d planned on taking my time to populate them. But I’ve already picked my Pettet piece, from the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), in southwest Bolivia. I just hope that 50 other people haven’t had the same thought. Check him out.