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Research and intuition guide the Hungarian artist as he creates expressive works animating form and colour. We visit his east London studio, where a visual wonderland of thoughts and ideas engulf the walls
A crisp winter light bathes the geometric front of what was once a Dudley Stationery factory in Hackney Wick, East London. Outside, alternating rows of windows and washed-out blue squares divide its flat facade, crowned by a wall of grey bricks. Inside, sun seeps through the panes of glass punctuating the ground floor, leaking into the shadowy staircase on one side.
Artist Marton Perlaki’s studio sits several floors up, at the end of a dark corridor behind a door coated in rough strokes of pink paint. One of 60 studios and workspaces spread over the building’s four floors, it’s a modest space: small and white. Light pours down from the slanted windows on one ceiling; a desk nestles in an alcove; books, art materials and archive boxes line the shelves. But the walls are alive – consumed by vivid photograms and found imagery. A vast photogram occupies one corner – a shifting blue background fragmented by sinuous lines, elegantly curving across the paper. Nearby, a photograph captures two earthy-toned butterflies feasting on the fiery flesh of citrus fruit.
“It’s like I focus my daydreaming,” says Perlaki, as we sit down amid the kaleidoscopic forms and colours. “I think about what excites me and what I want to do, and then I try not to think about it while creating. These days I consciously do not plan anything. I absorb information and ideas and then create things intuitively.” The walls reveal this. Perlaki’s mind spins an invisible web of intricate connections between the deceptively chaotic visual references overwhelming the room; a wonderland of thoughts and ideas in flux. “I discover islands of ideas, connections and conversations between the pictures,” continues Perlaki, gesturing to an image of a small seal with an “extremely cute” expression and then one picturing meiosis. “It’s all inspiration but also a way of making sense of how I think.”
Perlaki grew up in 1980s Budapest, Hungary, part of a family where classical music and theatre were central. “I knew I was too shy to have many talents as an actor, but I was fascinated by the stage, sets and lights. The visual experience of theatre,” Perlaki reflected in an interview with IGNANT. “I guess this subconsciously pushed me towards drawing at first, then photography, and film later.” Perlaki initially majored in photojournalism at the Bàlint György Journalist Academy, Budapest, followed by an MA in cinematography at the Budapest University of Theatre and Film Arts. It was photography, however, that ultimately compelled him. Perlaki developed a distinctive artistic style that also spans drawing, painting and collage – a practice that animates rich colours and abstract forms and in which figurative photographs exude a surreal playfulness.
Following university, Perlaki moved to New York City, remaining there for seven years before relocating to London, where he moved into his current studio. It’s a place in which he can work and think uninterrupted. “I like being alone, silently creating,” says the artist. “I use the space for things you need a space for. Things that require more solitude. The studio is important because it keeps me focused.”
Focus is crucial for an artist whose process involves extensive research and forethought. “I may develop a deeper interest in something,” he explains. “I gather information and my thoughts begin to spread out in various ways. I let them do this and eventually channel them into something.” Intuition governs Perlaki’s creative process, unconscious impulses guiding him in a manner reminiscent of the Surrealist technique of automatic writing. “I do think that’s the way to create. It means you inevitably have to let go of any expectations, which is the hardest thing to do.” In this way, Perlaki’s process subverts the idea of framing reality so readily associated with photography. “I’m not trying to illustrate anything. I dance around a theme… I keep my practice as open as possible.”
Incidentally, Perlaki ‘dances’ to create the photograms visible throughout the studio. “I work in complete darkness,” he says, describing the process as drawing with lights at a distance from light-sensitive paper in a pitch-black darkroom. “It’s like a funny dance.” As we talk, Perlaki stands, gesturing to a stack of books on a shelf: his sketchbooks. The pages erupt with intricate drawings, experiments in colour for his photograms, and notes in Hungarian. Despite the deceptively effortless appearance of the finished photograms, the process is laborious. Perlaki purchases most of the little lights he uses from pound shops and experiments repeatedly with them on a smaller scale, religiously recording the techniques he employs.
In this way, Perlaki’s practice is a symbiosis of chaos and precision – an approach that blends an insatiable curiosity and emotional rawness with meticulous technique. The result is something distinct – an oeuvre that challenges conventional conceptions of photography. “For me, the most important thing is not visual similarity, but emotional connection,” reflects Perlaki. “People expect photography to be akin to reality. But it doesn’t have to be incredibly specific to be relatable.” The photographer likens the medium to music: “They both involve a specific way of creating, but it’s not about that – it’s about the indescribable emotional effect, which may not be the same for me or you.” Indeed, gazing into the celestial blue photogram hanging on a studio wall, a web of feelings envelopes me: a sort of visual satisfaction, but also a deep tranquillity. To stand in Perlaki’s studio is to be immersed in a world of colour, form and experimentation. A fleeting opportunity to explore the magic of Perlaki’s mind itself.