Giving it soul

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 being 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.

Colca Composition IX

Hierve el Agua I

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.

Scapa Flow – Lament III


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 associate 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.

Drowning 2016

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.

Uyuni VIII



Do you want to come up and see my etchings?

He didn’t actually ask me that. I can’t translate what he did say because I only got the gist of it and I’m certain there wasn’t an ulterior motive in sight. But it’s the phrase that sprung to mind when Goya von Gerendássy Ács György, known and loved by many as simply ‘Gyuri’,  invited me up to his studio to see his art work.  The phrase is a bastardisation of phrases in  Horatio Alger, Jr. The Erie Train Boy, a novel by Horatio Alger, first published in 1891. In it,  a woman writes to her boyfriend:

I have a new collection of etchings that I want to show you. Won’t you name an evening when you will call, as I want to be certain to be at home when you really do come.

The boyfriend then writes back:

I shall no doubt find pleasure in examining the etchings which you hold out as an inducement to call.

IMG_1266But back to Gyuri …  I run into him pretty regularly in Jack Doyle’s and as my Hungarian slowly improves, we have more to say to each other. I knew he painted. But I had no idea what. I was really just curious to see how a working artist lived. I am also the first to admit that my art lexicon is limited. I have a vague idea of surrealism, impressionism, and such but am generally clueless, preferring to find solace in what I actually like rather than what I should like.

IMG_1250 (800x600)Gyuri started his artistic life by winning some children’s drawing competitions. He took drawing classes at the Kálmán Könyves Grammar School in Újpest, under the auspices of Béla Gábor. From drawing, he moved to  silver and goldsmithing and then to graphic design. When the exhibitions kicked in, Gyuri started work at Képzőművészeti Kivitelező Vállalat (Fine Art Production Company)  as a sculptor producing small-scale decorative sculptures and reproductions of original museum art pieces. He worked on sculptures of  Zsigmond Kisfalusi Stróbl, Imre Varga, Pál Páczay and László Szabó. For a year at the end of the 1970s, he was a goldsmith at the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and discovered that the Mediterranean lifestyle suited him. If he had his way, Gyuri would introduce the siesta to Budapest during the summer, napping mid-afternoon and then staying up half the night (hmm… sounds familiar!).

Since 1997 he has been painting again – mainly commissioned work – and taking part in exhibitions organised by the Független Magyar Szalon (Independent Hungarian Saloon).

IMG_1263 (600x800)In an interview published on, his work is described as having some ‘impressionist and surrealist characteristics’. He says he makes decisions  by listening to his mind, which means that he listens also to his heart. His art searches for answers to questions like what road should we take in the world, why are we here? When a goldsmith in Florence, he found beauty everywhere; everyone was an artist, he says.  And Budapest could be that way , too.

It’s probably no surprise to learn then that this quiet, unassuming, and very talented man is a lineal descendant of the great Spanish painter, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. His dad studied art in Paris and was an art advisor and restorer at the Fine Art Museum in Budapest. His godfather was Kálmán Németh, the Kossuth-award-winning wood sculptor whose house can still be visited in his hometown of Fót.

IMG_1269 (600x800)While his art is bright and colourful, Gyuri doesn’t just want to influence people’s emotions, he also wants to make us think. One exhibition catalogue described him thus: ‘His pictures are the results of the eruptions of  emotional states that have been smoldering for a long time. They are the erupting volcanoes of thoughts that have been niggling for a long time. Finally, these could manifest themselves on canvas on one afternoon.’ But according to Gyuri, he’s as much a surrealist as an impressionist. In our rampant consumer society, when it seems as if everything is conspiring to do our thinking for us, he wants us, his viewers, to start thinking. In one picture, he painted the House of  Parliament (above) surrounded by tin houses on both sides of the river, drawing attention in his own quiet way to the social problems in the city.

IMG_1261 (800x600)

Gyuri lives and works in Budapest  and is very attached to the city because of its cultural and intellectual tradition. Széchenyi, Petőfi and Kossuth come to his mind when he walks the streets. Erzsébet tér used to be home to the Nemzeti Szalon – a 1920s exhibition space, where both amateur artists and art school graduates showcased their work. His wish for the area in which he lives? A place  where both artists and their fans could meet; an exhibition space, a coffee shop, a restaurant, somewhere that is open all night.

In the meantime, if you see him in Jack Doyle’s, say hello.