A body tosses and turns in paint/colour, becomes the actual surface to be painted, the art work in itself, the means of expression, the object of intensified examination. There is nothing astonishingly new about that. Those rebel rousers in the Parisian art scene, who weren’t any latter-day „young rebel rousers“, did the very same thing back in the 1940’s.
Niki de Saint Phalle fired paint cartridges at assemblages. Yves Klein is another example. He painted girls in blue, used them as an imprint for a kind of body graphic in which the so coloured gyrated on the canvas, according to the instructions of the painter-cum-director.
They left behind a reduced imprint which produces an immaterial impression of the body, not unlike the Wall and Fire structure which Yves Klein has passed on down to art history. Erzsebet Nagy’s action painting is different. There is no director who dictates colour and form – that’s the task of the artist or action painter, depending on how you want to see it, all by herself. Self control.
The colour of women. Women are accustomed to painting themselves, thus promoting the economic growth of the multinational cosmetic industry. Women know all about the innate release mechanism which human ethnologists have discovered in their research on coral fish as well as humans. The blue of the eye-shadow, the black of the mascara, the red of the lipstick, the glitter of the makeup – those are not merely harmless beauty games and cosmetic obligations. They constitute the linking together of key stimuli with the corresponding behaviour which is already present in the organism. They are sexual invitations, but at the same time they are defense mechanisms and, in the final analysis, akin to war paint. Whenever skin is used as the surface for painting then it creates a different impression on the beholder than does the use of colour or paint on a “dead” surface. So what reactions do the body-colour-actions evoke among beholders? First of all, there is resistance. Colour means soiling the body in a way that is different from applying cosmetic paint or decorative colouring – things which are accepted by convention. Even when it is as extreme as the henna patterns of the Berber women or the masks worn by actors playing tragic roles. Colour is also an act of aggression against the beholder. Strictly speaking, it is war-paint. Humans have almost an obsession with cleanliness.Dirtiness is something people are only prepared to tolerate when it has to do to impoverishment, or else slums, war or catastrophes. Or else in the desperation of centuries ago when people dirtied their faces with ashes. Or else in action painting. When Nagy pours these clear colours – red, yellow and blue only – over her body and then mixes them all together, then this is an act to overcome the resistance against dirtiness; it is an act of will-power. The colourfulness of the painting action forces this resistance into a flight of emotion and sublimates the process in such a manner that the colours are perceived as decoration. However, this resistance cannot be neutralized, neither in the actionist herself nor in the beholder. It can only make the beholder indecisive and insecure.
Nagy’s action painting is also somewhat different from that of the action painting of the actionist painters whose artistic manifestations – whether with paint, with blood or secretions – contain unsublimated, aggressive and even fascistic atavisms.
Nagy’s body painting actions don’t turn anyone into an object of an aggressive use of colour. At the same time, they are not examples of self-inflicted damage as are tattoos. Her works only last and keep for a very short time and they only remain recorded in photo sequences. They don’t have any ritual character and are not signs of belonging to a particular tribe as is the case of the tattoos worn by street gangs. Nor do they ever represent decorations of a voyeuristic nature, as is the case with the airbrush body painting so popular among the party-going crowd. Her performances are furthermore very individual designing processes carried out by the artist on herself and determined by herself. Self-determination. An action painting precludes a voyeuristic interest on the part of viewer. Under the colour is nudity. Just discovering that fact is an erotic stimulus which can be found throughout the history of art. It’s the line of demarcation between “naked” and “nude”. And precisely that is presented and realized in an entirely exhibitionistic, that is self-exhibiting fashion. Beginning and ending, scope and duration, colour and gesture are all realized by the artist herself. Self-realization.
Nagy’s performances They are, like other works of art, intended for an audience, however not during the actual process of creation, but instead as the final product as it were – in this case through the medium of photography. In other words, the action painting itself is not open to the public and thus not really a performance, not acting something out for the pleasure of the public. Having an auditorium would, on the one hand, not hinder or bother the artist during the performance, accustomed as she is to an audience through her work as a former professional photo model. It is a form of painting with gestures which can be found in a closely-related form in the pictures of the artist. But even the direct result – the impression of the colours on the body which are transferred to the canvas, in other words the relic of the action – is the work itself. It has both an aesthetic quality and a colourful charm at the same time.