I went into the garden to spread my soul

28. March 2024. – 26. April
MegnyitóOpening: March 27, 2024, 6:00 pm
KurátorCurator: Üveges Krisztina

I have chosen the Zen Buddhist saying quoted above as the title of this text because it captures, in an unsurpassable way, the otherwise difficult-to-describe experience of being touched by nature. Kata Koleszár’s paintings and drawings speak of this experience, of the relationship between plants and humanity across ages and cultures, in the language of contemporary painting.

Kata Koleszár graduated from the painting department of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in 2014. Her attention turned to the themes of the garden and vegetation. Her first point of departure was the Garden of Eden motif and the symbolism of plants, found in many cultures and religions. Then, she extended these themes to contemporary issues such as climate change and loneliness from the perspective of feminist ecology.

When Koleszár started working on the subject, she was primarily interested in the symbolism of plants. The literature she collected included books on the hidden meanings of plants in the Bible, volumes on the symbolism of Persian gardens, and other similar publications, setting her exploration in a broad historical context.

Another source of Kata’s interest was fruit gardens and herbs, two subjects that led her towards the feminine quality. Nourishing and healing have been female tasks since ancient times, which our ancestors related to the archetype of the Goddess – the Mother Goddess. Throughout the ages, goddesses who preceded the reign of male gods and embodied fertility, the inexhaustible power of nature to give new life, have been called Innana, Istar, Astarte, Aphrodite, Flora, or Demeter. In our time, this line of thought can be put in parallel with current issues of feminism and ecofeminism.

For thousands of years, women have been identified with nature and emotions, while men have been identified with civilization and reason, and this identification has become a means of oppressing women and then a target of feminist critique. Other contemporary thinkers draw a parallel between nature and the exploitation of women. Although these issues are fundamentally related to the situation of women, they are in many ways linked to issues of the environment and sustainability, as the problems of climate change cut across an extremely broad spectrum, spanning ecology, society, and the economy.

The current exhibition presents a selection of both past and recent works by the artist. In oil paintings and felt-tip pen drawings, the lush floral depictions draw on Koleszár’s other source of inspiration – the ornamentation and animal imagery of Middle Eastern rugs, originally intended to evoke the garden. The earliest carpets we know of were made in arid climates where gardens were valued as places of life, rest, and tranquility. The central motifs of the carpets are depictions of roses, pomegranates, or almond leaves and trees, and one type of carpet is known as a garden bed.

Another classical element is the palmette, which some researchers identify with the poppy seed, the raw material for opium, referring to transcendence and meditative religious contemplation. Tree imagery has also been interpreted as the tree of life, which in many religions and beliefs linked the earthly world to the afterlife, but was also a symbol of the garden of paradise. The tree can also represent man, standing on the earth but striving towards heaven. A separate group of animals, tigers, horses, birds, which also symbolized Paradise, but the dog and the rooster, for example, were symbols of protection. It is also worth mentioning that for the nomadic peoples who lived in tents and made the first carpets, the carpet was also a symbol of home.

Garden or landscape design emerged as an art form in both Eastern and Western cultures. The gardens of Egyptian and other ancient peoples are the first known gardens to be captured in fine art and literature. After the gardens of the Roman provinces, the first consciously designed gardens were established in Europe alongside medieval monasteries and castles. The medieval garden was divided into two parts, one (hortus sanitatis) for the cultivation of food and the other, the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), a place of contemplative prayer. Still, the enclosed garden was used in numerous Christian depictions as a symbol of the Virgin Mary in labor. In later periods, successive stylistic periods have had different approaches to the composition of gardens around buildings or in public spaces. In the Eastern tradition, mention should also be made of the Zen Buddhist tradition of garden design, in which nature and man are not separated according to European concepts.

The flower still lifes of European painting had an allegorical content, a tradition that disappeared in the 19th century. The emphasis on still lifes shifted to craftsmanship and pleasure. The narrower interpretative framework of Kata Koleszár’s paintings is contemporary art, from which the theme of the garden is not far removed. The ecological thinking that emerged in the 1960s (re)introduced nature into the field of fine art, such as the work of Joseph Beuys and Lois Weinberger, who also thought about nature on a theoretical level and introduced plant elements into the genre of action and installation. We could also mention the work of Yoko Ono, who organized events in Japanese Zen temples in the 1960s.

One wonderful example is Ono’s event in the garden of Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto, which lasted from evening until dawn: participants were instructed by Ono to “look at the sky and touch it” in the beautiful moonlit night. There are many examples of artistic reflection on the natural environment in today’s visual arts, as the issue has never been more topical: the natural sciences now agree that global warming will rewrite our lifestyles and habits to survive. Another prominent reference point for Koleszár’s work is the work of the American artist group Pattern & Decoration, for whom “kitchens, carpet shops, wallpaper catalogs, wardrobes, Chinatown gift shops, textile wholesalers, and grandma’s bedrooms have provided a fresh source of inspiration,” wrote critic and curator Michael Duncan. Through their work, they have created thought arcs linking ancient cultures and continents through a conceptual approach to decorative arts and ornamentation.

Looking back at the historical background, the garden was seen as a place of relaxation, where body and soul were both refreshed, and the life of plants was closely linked to the life of people. In traditional depictions, the garden is often framed by walls, with lush vegetation within the walls as a result of human labor, an image of cultivated nature. Today’s meaning of the walled garden may be loneliness, the lonely person in society, a social phenomenon of the twentieth century, and one that has been given new depth by the Covid epidemic we have all experienced.

In Koleszár’s interpretation, the garden and vegetation, in addition to solitude, also signify turning inwards and slowing down. The plants in her work depart from the earlier mentioned symbolism; she paints houseplants found in today’s homes. A small piece of nature in our homes can generally represent the languor of the city dweller, or it can represent aesthetic value, but it can also be a symbol of care and relaxation. It is important to emphasize that Koleszár’s works are not idealized or romanticized visions of ‘primordial nature,’ nor manifestations of a longing for a ‘lost paradise.’ Her illustrated plants are significant imprints of the post-industrial era, of the emerging posthuman world that critiques the anthropocene conception of nature. After the oil paintings and felt-tip pen drawings, the most recent group of works is the wall rugs, with which Koleszár returns to the world of carpets, the origin of her paintings. Although they are made by traditional hand crochet, their appearance is reminiscent of the pixel resolution of a screen, perhaps evoking the image of digitized nature, of biodomes.

The works are not negative and post-apocalyptic because the basic aim of Kata’s art is to point out the nourishing and healing value of nature. Paintings and felt-tip pen drawings in green comprise a myriad of shades of green. Green is an intense, positive energy, and it is no coincidence that in many cultures, it is associated with nature, with new beginnings. However, alongside green, a whole range of other colors unfolds, with blues, yellows, reds, and pinks taking their gaze into a forest of colors.

In this tumult of colors and shapes, it is difficult to separate foreground and background, so that her works create a planar effect, harking back to the compositional world of carpets. This is reinforced by the deliberate mixing of perspectives, with several works showing potted plants from the side or above. The animals hiding among the plants, deer, lions, birds, provide a moving and playful experience, evoking the peaceful states of paradise, but also the sweet world of porcelain figurines. Their appearance is also symbolic; for example, the gatekeeper bear roars angrily at the evil that dares to approach him.

So let us enter the world of these works, let the colors and shapes penetrate the deeper levels of our consciousness. Let us look and contemplate among the paradisiacal images. Beneath the foliage, in the jungle of plants, we will find the path that has always been there, waiting to be trodden, which will lead us to a newfound unity through the inner journey. Perhaps this is the most important purpose of our human existence: to evolve, to transcend ourselves, to merge in the profound harmony of man and nature.

Krisztina Üveges