Being-on-the-Beach by Prof. Vince Briffa
“...I live; I die; the sea comes over me; it's the blue that lasts.”
― Virginia Woolf, Melymbrosia
During my many visits to his studio, while wading through the dense layers of signification in the works that are included in this fifth solo exhibition by Gabriel Buttigieg, which coincidentally is also his first ouside of Malta’s shores, unknowingly, my mind often jogged back to Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1912, Melymbrosia, particularly mulling over the title which embodies the strange state of being when melancholy, that pensive sadness with no obvious cause, so important for artistic expression since Greek philosopher Plato, in his Dialoguesof the 4th century BC, related this condition with artistic temperament (Karp, 1984), is washed down with ambrosia, the food or drink of the Greek gods, often depicted as conferring longevity or immortality upon whoever consumed it(Wellner, 2014).
On its surface, Melymbrosia’snarrative, quite disturbingly for its time, unfolds the emotional and sexual awakening of a young Englishwoman traveling abroad, but in reality, the novel compellingly probes into what Edmund Burke defines when he speaks of the sublime; the destructive power imbued in beauty, which equally has the power to ravish and destroy; a sinister pleasure that seeps through our being and infiltrates our senses when experiencing intense emotion; the complex human experience of sensual gratification which enters at the most heightened point of extreme fear, such as that of the fear of our own death.
It is within such tensions as the ones that exist between what we often perceive as diametrically opposite sensations as those of relishment and revulsion, agony and exuberance and balance and discord, that we are propelled to traverse the divide in order to locate the “source of the sublime”, where such incongruency is ironically “… productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke, 1990, p. 36).
It follows that it is within Burke’s ruminations of the sublime where “... the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure” that one finds the pleasure-ground so fertile for Buttigieg’s expression, one which he repeatedly targets to locate, awatershed which drains him of such tension, to pacify his charged imaginative representation and bring it to terms with his vivid conceptual reasoning. Drawing on Garcia-Lorca, Gabriel relies on such duendeas dynamo to his artistic production, consciously ringfencing such extremes within the confines of his canvases in search of the gratifying sweet-spot that is inevitably triggered through such intense, many times melancholic anxiety.
Most of this body of work happens in a very peculiar place, one that is heterotopic as well as marginal, and is imbued with this particular identity of the ambiguous in-between. Similar to Virginia Woolf’s love for the sea, Gabriel’s conceptual phase starts at the seaside. Furthermore, he sites many of his canvases on a beach, precisely at the edge where the water meets the land. The liminal space of the beach provides the spectacle so important in the artist’s visual and psychological working process. Through its alternative set of societal rules, the beachis probably the only public place that permits the instinctive, quasi animalistic facets of the human species to manifest themselves without inhibition. It is also a place of liberation and release, often providing a safe sanctuary from the tensions of everyday life. The beach therefore,does not just act as the backdrop for the artist’s paintings in this exhibition, it is the haven which provides him with safe refuge from the torment of his own thought.
Recognising the voyeuristic pleasure that comes from looking at the parading of nearly naked bodies on local beaches, Buttigieg disrupts even further the viewer’s imagination by doing away with any clothing formality as a ploy to tap into the core of his narratives, fulfilling his perception and translating it into a personal theory of mind where, unmistakably, the nymph/female manipulates the fickleness of the yielding male persona. Through their disquietude, the bodies he paints extend the metaphor of the beach as an ever-active place that is somewhat detached from the constricts of the everyday through its promise of a lack of inhibition, offering an openness that observes a rather different set of societal rules, and which consciously defeats the constricts of social and cultural convention. Buttigieg’s beaches are predominantly matriarchal, a place where the female is in control of the submissive male who is often depicted as a fleeting, shadowy ghost that lurks around the groups of women as if painfully attempting to rupture the divide between the feminal corporeality and his own soulful spectre to establish his carnal presence. At times, the artist gifts the male body with the much longed for centre stage, but stops short of prizing him with a role, other than that of a slave of his own body in the hands of the women. Like Odysseus in the manipulative hands of Calypso, the male in the paintings pendulates between a wooden, ventrilloquisic immobility and the agitated, extatic quiver of the mating to death of the semelparous animal.
In Buttigieg’s work, the beach operates on various levels of containment. In most of this body of work, it is visually present as an arid place, hinted at and furtively referenced in quick strokes of paint, while in a small number of works which incidentally were the first to be painted, Gabriel expands its allure through making it a key element of his narrative, sprucing it to a luscious, almost Eden-like garden. Alternately, in the largest four paintings which bear direct reference to the sea and which have been painted towards the end of the series, the beachcan hardly be seen, as the naked bodies take precedence and render it a mere container designed by the artist to suspend his actors. In these latter works, the beach takes the form of a negative space of two dimensions, an embracing receptacle that oozes tightly around the figures.
Gabriel’s bodies consciously occupy centre-stage. He seems to be pushing to the extreme William James’s (1976, p. 86) notion of the body as the “storm centre”, as “...the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in [our] experience-train. Everything circles round it, and is felt from its point of view.” The surrounding terrain in Buttigieg’s work further embodies James’s somatic philosophy that “the world experiencedcomes at all times with our body as its centre, centre of vision, centre of action, centre of interest.”It therefore comes as no surprise, that although the setting of each work locates the narrative and acts as its anchor, it is completely upstaged by the powerful presence of the bodies and their actions. Observing the world from the eyes of youth, each of Gabriel’s nudes also reflects contemporary culture’s definite fixation on the body as a central medium of self-expression and self-fulfilment, where it becomes “…the basic instrument of all human performance, our tool of tools, a necessity for all our perception, action, and even thought” (Shusterman, 2005). The outer shell of his figures seems to roughly follow a common aesthetic formula, one that resides in the artist’s memory, and which recognizes today’s body fever, although not as perfectly championed by contemporary supermodels or super athletes, but nevertheless, the sheer sight of visible fat, has no place on Gabriel’s allegorical shore.
Ultimately, in this exhibition, the beach is also a metaphor for the human body itself. In its restless, ever-changing state, it reflects the sexual charge with which the artist gifts his figures. The contingent nature of the beach in Gabriel’s work also metaphorises his play with life and death, to the extent that figures are occasionally, symbolically pushed into an inbetween space, a suspended ‘bardo’ state so to speak, confusing the viewer in identifying if the figure is indeed asleep or dead, having had sex or is about to, awaiting the reawakening of its own body or in a state of transcendent re-emergence into the world.
Although the beach is the proscenium where Gabriel’s narratives happen and a location for the equivocation of mortal pain and pleasure, the mundane effects of the bodies’ engagement with the elements that come part and parcel with the world, particularly with the seaside culture, such as the burning of the sun and the sultriness of the wind-parched salt on the bodies, are conspicuously absent from this scenario. The artist is not concerned with such earthly materiality but prefers to paint the body’s disposition as a result of a higher, more contemplative subjection to ‘being-in-the-world’.
Gabriel’s paintings confront us at the tense intersections of the body with the world, mystifying the social and the personal, tersely wedging between imagination and reason. The splayed bodies he parades in front of us look at us defiantly, their hollow eye sockets seem to be challenging us to decide their fateful rank as bodies, souls or outright skittish images. Ultimately, they confront us with Heidegger’s dictum of their own, and also our commiserate fate, that being human is ‘being-towards-death’.
Burke, E. (1990). A Philosophical Enquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Karp, D. (1984). Madness, Mania, Melancholy: The Artist as Observer. Philadelphia Art Bulletin.
James, W. (1976). The Experience of Activity. In Essays in Radical Empiricism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shusterman, R. (Sep 23, 2005). Mind-Body Problems. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, Vol. 52, Iss. 5.
Wellner, L. J. (2014, July 26). Melymbrosia by Virginia Woolf. Retrieved from https://upstategirl-laurajwryan.blogspot.com/2014/07/melymbrosia-by-virginia-woolf.html.
On ‘The Beach’ 2019
‘Release the Captive Primate!’ by Dr. John Paul Grech, Phd, Malta Ambassador to Poland
Dreary was and bitter cold, that February afternoon in 2016, when I stumbled into Gabriel Buttigieg’s first solo exhibition called ‘Paintings’. Tucked there, within those 16thcentury vaults of one of Valletta’s side-street orifices, which spill into the city brew, as they did when the Knights of the Order of St. John of Malta, ermine cloaked, prancing their chivalry and brimming with seduction, used to haunt them, in those dimly-lit, Baroque nights.
Those canvases were strewn with male and female figures, boldly exuding a vibrant sense of raw and naked humanity, one after another, each seeking to allegorize the passages of life, galvanized by a tremendous will to unchain them from the clutches of social custom. Unashamedly, they lay bare a primitive endeavour to reveal the very essence of human nature, its core factor, and glorify it. I was struck by his timidity when I approached him, his alluring demeanour, his craven glance. He embodied each one of those figures, although in sharp contrast, through his unassuming gestures and chameleon postures. He confessed, I recall, that he was the least fearful when he faced a bare canvas, felt vigorously serene when he wrestled with it, but most apprehensive when the act of ultimate fulfilment, subsided. There, he admitted, at that very point, instead of consummation, anxiety took over. Which drove him to wrestle again with a fresh canvas, serving, as it were, as an antidote against anguish which the void of indolence, afflicted him with. He was, in a way, addicted, plagued with insatiability.
A second, a third and a fourth exhibition ensued, in less than two years, each serving as an outburst of what was prematurely considered by some, as the output of a young artist with an earthy, animal hostility to reason and decorum, within an innate disposition to ride roughshod over anything which reflected a state of mind which ignorant people could not share. With his bold strokes and swift gestures, his deceptive, though manipulative voyeurism, he was almost decrying publicly what H.G. Wells considered as ‘those communities of obedience, communities of will’. In a way, through his open pastures of unrepentant flesh, he was craving for some form of carnal liberation from the strictures of convention, conveniently sheathed in hypocrisy, yet instinctively rotting away. He was committed to return to the primeval forest. Observing him as he plodded along this refreshing act of deliverance through each of these exhibitions, I was reminded of what Jenny Saville, that remarkable British artist, said once: ‘ I try to find bodies that manifest in their flesh something of our contemporary age’ adding that, ‘ the art I like concentrates on the body’. There is certainly a marked difference however in their respective interpretation of how the human form – central for each – should be artistically construed. In a way, Jenny Saville pools her energies into morphing the human flesh into a vehicle, representing the present age, reflecting contemporary anxieties, as a consequence. Buttigieg, in turn, levitates the human form and time-travels nostalgically into the mythic hinterland of exotic wilderness, into the lush vegetation of the Amazon of psyche, into the harmony of primitive freedom, aching in the process, for a rejuvenation of the instincts which present day society, in his view, is deliberately corroding. This alas, as a result of induced layers of dehumanizing societal processes, seemingly irreversible, which gnaw at what remains of the essence of basic human needs and compulsion. His, perhaps, is a desolate act of taking stock of the human condition, of blowing the clarion call on the degenerative loss of the vibe of human tribal instinct, culminating on our immediate predicament as avid consumers. A last attempt, as it were, by recreating images, motifs, symbols and ethnographic forms, which are sensitively evocative of our human origins and existence, otherwise morsels of the genetic legacy of our ancestors, and allows himself to wade within it, deludingly unperturbed. It is somehow a last call through the wild, a return to beginnings which, despite the ingrained vulnerabilities, has navigated via the umbilical chord with nature and outsmarted the test of time.
Yet, taken alone, this would be a restricted view of what transpires from the work of Buttigieg. His is a vision of an accomplished human being who is stuck in a crossroad between his origins and his progressive social ills. Unmistakably, this approach might clash, unreservedly, with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s summary of the contrast existing between natural and social existence, when contemplating the critical version of the myth of the ‘noble savage’, which, incidentally also comes out in stark relief in the current work of Buttigieg. Rousseau’s social approach towards the quantum leap from: ‘ the stupid and unimaginative animal’to: ‘an intelligent being and a man’, as a balanced give-and-take arrangement, is revealed in his words: ‘ Although in this civil state, man deprives himself of some advantages he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled and his whole soul uplifted that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which is left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him forever from it and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man’(J.J. Rousseau: On the Social Contract (1762), pp. 195-6). In ‘Emile’ or ‘On Education’ (1762), Rousseau wrote: ‘Everything is good in leaving the hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.’ Within this context, I remain convinced that Gabriel Buttigieg is more concernedwith what man has ‘deprived himself of the advantages he got from nature’and with the ‘new condition which often degrades him below that which is left’ ,than anything else.
It may come as no surprise that the connection with Rousseau’s concept of the ‘noble savage’, or that of ‘Social Darwinism’ for that matter, should spring to mind, when surveying Gabriel Buttigieg’s latest output. Equally obvious are the strong visual allusions and deliberate references to the work of Paul Gaugin, whose return to a primitive state through art, his search for the natural person, his abdication from the stranglehold of European social custom, drove him to seek humanity back at source, at its infancy, in Tahiti, though not before investigating Primitivism in rural France. Traumatically, Gaugin failed to discover the ‘noble savage’ in Tahiti. To his delusion, he witnessed an island already invaded by Europeans, viciously defiling it of its natural and primitive purity. Effaced with this horrendous irreversibility, Gaugin decided to transform his canvasses into testimonies juxtaposing these two harsh realities - each elegantly overlapping each other - depicting what he idealistically aspired for, but disappointingly denied, to take centre stage, while on the other hand, what transpired in effect but tortured his conscience, lurking threateningly in the backdrop. Gaugin’s warm and radiant palette, his capacity to transmit equanimity of flesh and soul and a sense of unfettered time, ooze out of his canvasses. As a result, one may be easily drawn to suggest that there is a lot of underpinning taking place between the spirit and philosophical motivation of Gaugin’s bequest and how all this connects to the core of Buttigieg’s work in this exhibition. There is certainly a commonality of vision, which lends itself profusely when one examines the behavioural instincts of the male and female form, as each coagulates with the natural environment, while triggering off a vibrant dynamic of gender tension, hinting surreptitiously at female dominance over male submission, as being an erstwhile idyllic arrangement within a surreal natural order. These notions testify, in Gabriel Buttigieg’s work, to the long-standing preoccupations of the artist, lifted from personal experiences as well as from psychoanalytic considerations being examined in depth in a parallel discipline he is presently engrossed with. Buttigieg is somehow compelled by a strong artistic obligation to throw light upon the contemporary human condition as explained through the lens of psychological pursuit. In his artistic narrative, which runs across his previous and present oeuvre, one is able to unearth his attachment to notions of kinship and community bond, to tribal resilience, to that ultimate environmental covenant linking humans with habitat, otherwise the essential fibres of humanity.
In his second solo exhibition ‘Nudes’ (2016), Gabriel Buttigieg prolonged his expressed commitment to augment the possibilities derived from the artistic exploration of the human form, executing at the same time, in the mannerisms of German expressionists Baselitz, Grosz, Kirchner, Jawlensky, Beckmann and other collaborators of the ‘Die Brucke’and ‘Der Blaue Reiter’. His predilection tilted significantly towards the irresistible gravity of the human flesh, putting it however within a contemplative perspective, demanding, in so doing, social explanations to unanswered quandaries. Technically, he attempted to nebulize flagrant illustration and representation, otherwise poignantly evident in his first solo exhibition; his brush grew wilder, thicker, more imprudent, untamed, as his human subjects propelled towards a gradual manifestation of unfettered shamelessness. And it was at this point, brandishing thick and brash brushstrokes and an outright approach to affront custom to the limit, that Gabriel Buttigieg in late 2016, sought to question whether his artistic objective contained enough thematic substance worth pursuing further. His response to that dilemma was ‘Saudade’ – his fourth solo exhibition (2018), through which he underwent a conceptual ablution, as it were, and seek to levitate towards an oasis of sensation which allowed him to peer through the keyhole of social intercourse and highlight what excites and aggrieves humans as they gravitate towards each other’s psychic magnetic field. It was a radical exercise - otherwise unleashing turbulence within the formal development of any artist - something which later surfaced in his significantly altered technical approach towards medium application. His canvasses transformed into bright, flat-coloured commentaries, devoid of detail, subdued in pictorial intensity, stressing an allegorical blueprint, yet concealing ethnic and social enmity, which, like a leviathan, lay menacingly beneath the surface. It became evident that Gabriel Buttigieg was an artist in great hurry to deal with a flurry of perturbing issues which, while haunting him daily, were rendering him compulsively impatient to overcome the formative technical milestones which rigorous artistic development, inevitably demands.
For that exhibition, I recall writing the following: ‘In his current oeuvre, Gabriel Buttigieg is strongly determined to throw light on the very fibre of everyday life, as evidenced in the myriad of psycho-sexual instances that texture its ongoing narrative. He unfolds the intimate, the innermost private obsessions haunting adolescence, adulthood and old age, and explodes into a liberating dialogue, devoid of inhibition, brimming with unrestrained conviction, Gabriel’s soul-searching catharsis, revealing the essential vulnerabilities of humankind, is presented in a forcefully candid and almost ‘Matissean’ palette, denouncing any inclination towards dramatic evocation, but exuding serene nonchalance for what may ultimately comprise of life’s obscurely chronicled deficiencies.’ (‘Saudade’ (2018), exhibition flyer).
Earlier this year, we engaged in soul-searching with a view to prepare for his new body of work earmarked for Gdansk. It was evident from the start that Gabriel was already veering off, yet again, not just on a technical level in relation to pigment application and colour tonality, but radical switches in thematic orientation, which clearly reflected an insatiable search for alternative avenues, to give his artistic expression, authenticity of scope. Within a few weeks, I was looking at a set of drawings, seemingly transpiring from the dark antechamber of his unrequited soul, which, given their sexually-charged ostentation, raised in me a minefield of questions. Such as: what distinguishes controversy from purely artificial shock therapy; where is the fine line between art and obscenity, art and eroticism, art and pornography, proper and improper art; can obscenity spore essential art, it arising through wholeness and integrity, harmony and radiance; can obscenity, once handled skilfully, act as the providential ‘yeast’ in the unfolding of the aesthetic experience and what may cause it to slide into vulgarity. These sketches raised questions related to the value of ‘flagrant irreverence’ for its own sake; whether there was room for the artist’s penchant with upsetting values and order, with deriding moral authority, with ridiculing decorum, with bringing down to earth an illusory heaven, with questioning beauty. These sketches revealed the artist’s permanent resolve to antagonize propriety with licentiousness, pain with pleasure, beauty with taboo, restraint with playfulness. They threw in the face the artist’s hot pursuit to investigate hard human intimacy, to ‘penetrate’ into the very sinews of the human anatomy. They floated the question whether there exists any interdependence between art, pornography and sexual behaviour and whether, if transposed or juxtaposed, could transform itself into a true work of art.
My reaction to the above questions, and consequently, to the impact of these revoltingly cheerful yet odiously skilful drawings, essentially was that: ultimately, aesthetic arrest in art lies in the power of suggestion, in the reductive impulse, in the subtle hint, in that implication or allusion, in semblance, in the aptitude to instil a sneaking suspicion, in a connotation, in an intrepid angle peering into a forbidden reality, revealing less with less. If art fails to exude the epiphany of the sudden and startling moment of suspense, then it serves no purpose.
These personal insights were discussed at length in the run-up to and during the execution of the present body of work included in this exhibition. What started in 2016 as an inhibited expedition into the realms of figurative painting - with the human form serving as the centrifugal force - putting in perfect balance all that orbits around it, developed for Gabriel Buttigieg into an investigation of the social mores of contemporary society, as it struggles with its own existential relevance as well as with its blocked consciousness. This body of work manages to bring together a lustful fusion of sensations, executed in a myriad of nervously spontaneous, yet vividly chromatic and loosely articulated brushstrokes. It portrays a realization of the dire need for a reassessment of what constitutes those unchangeable primordial instincts and patterns of human behaviour, rituals which navigated across the annals of mankind, as an indomitable legacy of human survival.
There is alacrity, briskness and enthusiasm in this collection of paintings by Gabriel Buttigieg. There is an unabashed declaration that, despite the trials and tribulations that inchoate our relaapsing social despondency, there are still rays of hope to cling to as they allegorically offshoot from every angle of each painting. Natural elements merge, freely, folding around the veneration of the human symbol, whether in its state of harmonious interaction with the natural habitat, whether in unison with its social primates or whether in confluence with the realm of a maritime outland which, like the tide at dusk, laps the shoreline. There are sexual, social and environmental tensions, invisibly interwoven in all this paradise revisited.
And in a strange way, it is this true purpose of this ‘revisitation’,threatened by pitfalls brought about by our flagging ancestral human legacy, that Gabriel Buttigieg is daring to fathom
On ‘The Beach’ 2019
The feminine in the artist's psyche by Dr. Greta Darmanin-Kissaun
Gabriel Buttigieg’s stunning new work reunites us with our primordial selves and poses age-old questions that the human psyche has been attempting to resolve since the dawn of time. In the primordial series, vivid colours and vibrant Rousseau-esque scenes abound, resounding strongly with our innate instincts. (Morariu, 1979). The nostalgia for our ancestral primordial existence is figure, together with a longing for the freedom of existence as a ‘noble savage’ (Rousseau, 1762). The widest gamuts of red, green yellow and orange shades capture the lush exuberance of the wild jungle and this, together with the naked forms depicted, conjure the raw, primordial aspects of our psyche. A longing for unrestrained freedom and an unadulterated authenticity of being permeates the paintings.
The artist is clearly fascinated by the female form; his bold brush-strokes give life to youthful bodies that exude health and vitality. In Two Women and Orange Treesthe artist places clear emphasis on the maternal, reproductive features of the female form. The figures’ round buttocks and pert, upturned breasts appear to be tributes to the feminine, not only as mere physical or sexual objects but as symbols of reproduction and generation of life (Ayers, 2003). The woman is, in the artist’s mind, a giver of life, a fertile nurturer. (Darmanin-Kissaun, 2016). Yet in many of the paintings she is also portrayed as a sexual being who possesses infinite sexual prowess; she is a seductress, capable of unleashing death and destruction. In Gabriel’s work there is a strong sense of fascination with, and awe of, the feminine, together with a perception of the female as an all-powerful wielder of death. (Ayers, 2003). These mental states are reminiscent of the archaic experiences of infants with their mothers (Neumann, 1978). The artist is once again a small boy enthralled by the feminine aspects, in awe of the body of the mother who is at once nurturer and temptress. A deep longing and a mournful sense of loss for having been barred access to both these aspects persist in the artist’s work.
The two women in the Two Women and Orange Trees and inThe Twins are at ease in a homosexual mirroring of each other.There appears to be safety in sameness; the two goddesses stand equal in beauty and youth, unlike the woman and man in Woman, Man and Dog whoclearly do not enjoy similar equal standing. Here the male figure is devalued by means of a flaccid penis, whilst the woman looks down (in contempt?) at the man/dog. The man, although clearly youthful and potentially virile, is reduced to an impotent being. Similarly in Woman and Cactus, male and female are again in stark contrast to each other. Though standing side by side, the cactus (phallus) although thrusting upwards, is inanimate and concrete, flanked by an imposing female form that exudes life and vigour. In almost all the works the woman is at once adulated and treated as a sexual object. She is vain, beautiful, seductive. Yet her destructive energy is tangible, as is the artist’s trepidation in the face of the woman’s ability to wreak havoc on a man (boy’s) body and soul. In Red and Green IIagain the man is depleted. His white flaccid body emulates the pallor of death. This man is faceless, lifeless, impotent; a victim of the sexual act gone wrong. Similarly in Woman, Boy and Birdthe woman’s foot rests on the boy/man’s body in a dismissive, cavalier manner. She is large and imposing, confident and powerful. The male is at her mercy, literally at her feet, whilst a curious bird regards the scene from a branch above. The three figures in the painting are reminiscent of Freud’s primal scene (1918), where the child witnesses the sexual act of the parents and is at once perplexed and aroused by it.
The bird in this painting, together with the mask in Red and Green II,could be said to represent the voyeuristic part of the artist who identifies with an unobserved onlooker who attempts to resolve the question of who is the victor and who the victim. In Red and Green IIthe snake is the predator, approaching a woman portrayed in sweet abandon, who is oblivious to the danger that lies ahead. Yet it begs the question as to whether the serpent is slithering away after having injected his poison into his unsuspecting victim, or whether the reptile has been trampled underfoot by the woman, rendering himthe injured party. A mask, like the bird in the previous painting, witnesses the scene unobserved and the artist appears to be unsure whether to identify with the dominant or the subjugated party. The woman can also be seen to be a projection of the artist, who, lying between the mask and the serpent, is torn between the masculine and the feminine. This painting, as do the others, echoes the artist’s concern with binary opposition of gender. The sexes seek to dominate one another and there is no sense of unity as long as male and female aspects remain split in the artist’s psyche.
InRequiemit is unclear as to whether the writhing bodies are lost in exquisite pleasure of an orgiastic dance or whether they are caught up in a macabre dance of death. The figures on the beach appear to convey man’s essential existential angst; the difficulty of being imbued by both death and life instincts (Freud 1923). The artist is preoccupied with man’s unfortunate destiny – that of having been doomed to wrestle with duality throughout life. Here he seeks to hold this ambivalence – to contain the life force and, contemporaneously, the death drive with its persistent wish for self-annihilation.
In Sirens persecutory forces abound and the artist’s demons are exorcised by means of this work. It seems as if every brush stroke gives birth to and articulates the source of distress, as the ego matures and is endowed with cognition and thus, with increased function. Through this work the sharpness of the artist’s internalized objects and persecutory anxieties (Klein, 1997) is mollified. On viewing Gabriel’s trajectory through his paintings in different stages of his life, it is clear that growth has taken place on various levels in his psyche. From the more concrete flatness of the figures in the previous series Saudade, he gravitates towards the more symbolic and less impulsive stroke. Wordless and nameless objects and emotions can now be identified, labelled and articulated by means of the torrent of words spoken by the paintings.
Gabriel’s paintings are at once cathartic and formative as he continues to search his soul for answers. His life trajectory reflected in the different stages of his art echoes the givens of existence, portraying the issues that every human being faces and struggles to work through from birth to death. The journey of the psyche from divisive thinking and splitting to the ability to contain ambivalence is a slow and arduous one. The end-point is the ability to conceive of the co-existence of man with woman, good and bad, victim and victor, sex and death. It would appear that Gabriel’s latest paintings are a harbinger of, or an invitation to, psychic unity and integration.
Greta Darmanin Kissaun PhD
Dr Greta Darmanin Kissaun is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and resident academic at the University of Malta, where she is currently Head of the Department of Psychology and Deputy Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing.
Ayers, M. (2003). Mother-infant attachment and psychoanalysis: The eyes of shame. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
Darmanin-Kissaun, G. (2016). Malta’s great mother archetype, individuation and separation in psychotherapy.In C.Cefai, & L.Lagana (Eds.), Psychology and the Arts: Perceptions and perspectives.Malta: University of Malta Publishing House.
Freud, S. (1918). From the history of an infantile neurosis. Standard Edition, 17, 1-122.
Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id.Standard Edition, 19,3- 59.
Klein, M. (1997). Envy and gratitude and other works1946-1963. London: Vintage. (Original work published 1946).
Morariu, M. (1979).Douanier Rousseau. London: Murray’s Remainder Books Ltd.
Rousseau, J.J. (1762). Emile, or On Education. Istanbul: E-Kitap Projesi.
Neumann, E. (1978). Storia delle origini della coscienza [The birth of human consciousness]. Rome: Casa Editrice Astrolabio-Ubaldini. (Original work entitled Ursprungsgeschichte des Bewusstseins, published 1949).
On ‘The Beach’ 2019
Primordial Musings by Mr. Joe Farrugia
Over the past few months I have been privileged with occasional glimpses into Gabriel Buttigieg’s world as the paintings which form his latest oeuvre unfolded in his studio. The artist’s studio is always a ‘sanctum sanctorum’, in this case situated in a highly urbanised area in Malta, and the paintings scattered in the rooms of the studio create a sense of a space within a space, of being transported from the buildings and traffic outside into the intimacy of a primordial world which strikes me as a lost but potentially disturbing Eden. The rich foliage and seascapes create a feverish atmosphere in which the viewer feels almost like an eavesdropper, intruding on the figures that populate and interact with these surroundings.
Yet this is not a nostalgic return to nature.
Rather, through his palette, the artist casts an x-ray on contemporary relationships, stripped of buildings and vehicles and garments, to make visible (with reference to Paul Klee’s ‘Creative Confession’) and to focus on the psychological underpinnings of human relationships, particularly between the genders – as he sees them.
There is a strong matriarchic element in these works. The female figures are generally more solid and treated with thicker paint strokes than their counterparts. In most of the works, they face the viewer as the central presence, with males as secondary participants, which I sense is akin to the male spider’s instinctive attraction to the female of the species, in spite of the apprehension that the courtship could well lead to his demise.
There is a progression through the three phases of these works, starting from the ones dubbed as ‘Primordial’ to others termed as ‘Figures in Red and Green’ and leading to the final subset entitled ‘The Beach’. The physical setting starts from a dense, jungle-like environment and leads towards an aquatic scenario. The light becomes darker and more obscure in the later works. The artist’s palette transforms from the stark contrast of complementary colours, as seen in ‘Woman, Man and Dog’ to more subdued colour mixes as seen in ’Nightscape’ and ‘Requiem’. Likewise the brushwork is more controlled in the initial works, but the artist’s confidence increases as he progresses to The Beach series through the application of more subtle glazes and a freer technique that reflects the marine landscape better. This approach becomes also more synchronised with the subject matter as the compositions become more complex with intricate interaction among the multiple figures in these works. The artist masterfully also engages with this technique to blend the flesh of the figures with the landscape elements of his paintings.
This series reaches its culmination in ‘Sirens’, with its display of swirling bodies, which are merging with the watery elements expressed through an agitated palette. The impulsive brushstrokes transform the figures into flowing currents engaged in an energetic, perhaps deadly, dance. Beneath the gestures that may, at face value, appear to be a loving embrace or sweet caress, there is an underlying tension that sucks the viewer, almost hypnotically, towards the dark and deep core of the painting. Figures of flesh become water and dissolve into outlines as they fade into the abyss. The figures do not express baroque emotions, but rather cast a stoic gaze as they are resigned to their role, or their fate. There is a sense of determinism, a seductive inevitability that is infectious and extends beyond the confines of the painting into the viewer’s space. The painting itself thus becomes a siren’s call that inexorably transfixes its audience and engages them in this tableau.
While the works certainly represent honest visual introspections of the artist’s inner spirit, it is forgivable that the audience would imagine such paintings to come from an older artist with wider experience. This is evidence of the promise that this young artist carries with him as he continues to embark on more thought provoking projects in his artistic future.
On 'Saudade' 2018
'In his current oeuvre, Gabriel is strongly determined to throw light on the very fibre of everyday life, as evidenced in the myriad of psycho-sexual instances that texture its on-going narrative. He unfolds the intimate, the innermost private obsessions haunting adolecence, adulthood and old age, and explodes into a liberating dialogue, devoid of inhibition, brimming with unrestrained conviction. Gabriel's soul searching catharsis revealing the essential vulnerabilities of humankind is presented in a forcefully candid and almost 'matissean' palette, denouncing any inclination towards any dramatic evocations, but exuding serene nonchalance for what may ultimately comprise of life's obscurely chronicled deficiencies.'
Dr. John Paul Grech
On 'Saudade' 2018
For Gabriel Buttigieg, human beings are immersed in a Proustian longing for lost enchantment, adrift in dream worlds that maroon them from compassion, self-awareness and purity.
At first glance, the works seem exuberantly happy. They are drenched in dazzling colour, luxuriant blooms shower figures floating and coupling in the air like fantasies made flesh. Others frolic in delightful orgies and golden summerscapes. ‘Saudade’ celebrates nature’s fertility and splendour.
But these are nuanced and multilayered paintings, and the viewer should take a closer look. The figures hovering in mid-flight are actually in mid-fall, plunging to earth like Icarus after their mad pursuit of dreams. The fecundity of nature and the beauty of the human figures presage autumnal decay. The erotic tableaux, despite their whimsical details and playfulness, hint at rape, subjugation, neglect and stolen innocence.
In these beautiful, unsettling works, Gabriel Buttigieg suggests that regret for an alternative past or present, or saudade, is both corrosive and inevitable.
On 'Saudade' 2018
‘In ‘Saudade’, Gabriel Buttigieg is exhibiting a series of paintings which portray the mundane lives of ordinary people along other paintings, which convey stories of figures drawn from mythology and imagination. The basis of these art pieces lies in the representation of passions, nostalgia and the need to be desired by others. In each image, there is an outburst of colour, careful composition as well as a balanced emphasis on the figure and landscape. Such emphasis indicates a change in the artist’s influences and style. Buttigieg is painting both the joys and troubles of life. A sense of longing for serenity ultimately unifies the work.’
On 'Saudade' 2018
‘Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. It carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
In his new body of work Gabriel explores with beauty the strained nature of experience. Establishing identity through memory, nothing remains unmoved. Gabriel’s paintings array how cultural memory is a reconstructive affair where through colour, tone, and emotion, specific events are constantly recollected or revalued.
Saudade; or the presence of absence.’
On ‘Saudade’ 2018
I have known Gabriel and followed his work closely for nearly the last decade, having visited his studio a few times especially in the last two years. I have also held long discussions with him and witnessed regular changes in the way he looks at his process of artmaking, particularly in the way he chooses to express himself through his drawing and painting.
As a young artist, I must say that Gabriel has managed to mature pretty quickly. His earlier work showed a strong passion for the raw act of painting, which compelled him to ravage the canvas in order to create works that rested on raw execution and expressive colour to deliver their content. His handling of paint, although quick in execution, has always shown a maturity that belies his age and a keen sense of colour observation. Gabriel’s interest and direction has always been towards figuration. Being driven by all that makes us human, he relies on the bodily form to deliver his concept, swaying between the expressionistic rendering of the human figure and on the other hand its abstraction.
I have seen this wonderful collection of works take root some months back in one of my visits to Gabriel’s studio. Back then he told me that he was increasingly becoming interested in a reduction of his instinctive brush stroke and preferring a more defined, flatter colour application. He also informed me that he was interested in unearthing his childhood memories, and therefore the works that eventually came to form this exhibition are an elegy to the progressive loss of his, and I also contend our own, childhood. Gabriel uses the work as a rekindling of childhood memories, in his case not through the serene and joyful common practices of looking at family photos or listening to recorded tapes or viewing of video films, but through the much more painful, lengthy and complex painting process.
Recently, Gabriel was also feeling the need to alter such a process in order to ‘become one’ with the canvas, a self-redress that also meant that he had to choose to work in a larger dimension in order for the canvas dominate him, rather than him dominating the canvas as is the case in works of a smaller dimension. He found this oneness not only through the change in his painting process, but also in the subject matter chosen for this exhibition, embodied in its title - Saudade: which translates as a feeling of longing for something or someone that one loves and which has been lost, repressed by the knowledge that the subject and object of longing will never return. This feeling is normally experienced when one loses a relative, a loved one, or a relationship, or even the feeling that comes from barrenness, of a child that one could never have. The strange thing about the state of Saudage is that it puts one in a melancholic state which at times inversely heightens one’s emotional charge.
The title for the exhibition is therefore very carefully chosen, as, for me, the works themselves present a similar, if not this same contradiction. They are charged with a deep inner sadness, but also testify to a reassuring happiness that stems from the very same state of melancholy, this opposing duality of sadness that comes from missing someone or something loved, as expressed through Gabriel’s explicit narrative; and the warm and reassuring happiness of having experienced that love.
Such contradiction becomes more complicated when one is faced by the seeminglycontradictory vehicle that carries this pictorial narrative, that is , the careful selection of bright, flat colours and the meticulous compositional stasis of the works, which are normally strategies used by artists to carry much lighter themes.
One thing that becomes clear in all of this intricacy is that only through producing this work, could Gabriel’s redemptive catharsis happen. Through the very personal act of painting, and through the morphing of memory to allegory, the artist completes the circular path to catharsis, as without the work, and without the verbalising process of painting, the complete state of Saudade is never reached. To put this dilemma in another way, were it not for the creation of these brightly coloured quasi fables, the artist’s purging of his inner turbulence would not have been possible.
In this work, Gabriel does not want to show us metaphors. He is careful to choose allegory as a form of fiction to represent his immaterial memories as images. He rests on this age-old form to make us read the work as a story; a frame not very different from that of a comic book or a fairy tale, but nevertheless one which engages us on many levels of participation if we dare to dig deeper, such as the art historical, the sociological, the philosophical and the cognitive amongst many others.
It is with this reflection on the allegorical nature of these works that I would like to end this address, and leave you with one last friendly word of warning. Do not be carried away by the pictorial and the superficial composedness of these works. These are only the calm before the storm. These works are as turbulent as Gabriel’s former, more instinctive work, if not more!
The main difference is that this time Gabriel is more calculating with his emotions, and through guileful and glossy bargaining, he is wittingly involving us in his complex dramas. It is up to us to willingly give in and make our own sense of the works through reading their multi-layered memories according to our own baggage. It is only through spending time with these works that we can unravel their secrets. I will therefore stop here and invite you to get lost in Saudade’s wonderful complexity.
Vince Briffa 8 November 2018
An Essay by Lara Zammit — On Gabriel Buttigieg’s “Icarus Series”
Contradictions in Flight: An Essay that could have Waited, but didn’t.
A set of paintings named after Icarus remained stirring in my mind after having viewed them on Thursday, 8th November, 2018. Upon viewing some new paintings by Gabriel Buttigieg and curated by Sarah Farrugia, a desire to speak of them arose, perhaps because the setting was so surprising. A Latin proverb states, with all the authority of a language threaded into eternity, “ubicumque ars ostentatur veritas abesse videtur” (wherever art is ostentatious, truth seems to be absent). It must be then for a lack of ostentation that some truth was allowed to seep through the cacophony of those unseeing, who seem to gather whether what they are shown is truthful or not. How surprising to find some truth in days like these...
A set of four, draped in blue with hints of red, displayed in prominence a figure dissolved into the Lethe of this common narrative we have inherited from the Greeks. The mother of Icarus: a nameless axiom, a necessary preconception, uncontested and unnoticed, who is unseen the way things that are everywhere are invisible to us—anonymity (namelessness) shrouding her into concealment.1 But she has a name, according to Apollodorus: in his Library, a compendium of Greek myth, he identifies her as Naucrate, a slave of Minos, the King who condemned Daedalus and his son to oblivion within the labyrinth Daedalus himself had built.2 But even when named, she is nameless.
Things are true in disparate ways. A thing named becomes true by virtue of some initial recognition, and upon recognition can ensue identification (first we notice, then we place into some greater system: one composed of things that are the same as one another). Truth here is only true insofar as what was once concealed is now available to our minds. Recognition and identification give way to discernment—the named thing is then put before the scrutiny of judgment (how true is this thing that we have identified?). There are truths that are true by virtue of having emerged from causality. Parentage is a causal concern that we do not always bother naming. It is axiomatic that Icarus had a mother, whether she is recognised or not. Indeed, she is only ever mentioned once by Apollodorus in passim—Ovid does not speak of her in his compendium, the Metamorphosis—perhaps rightly so, for her only role was to have birthed Daedalus’s son. Nowhere else is she to be found, dissolved into the obviousness of the axiomatic.
But we find her displayed, or splayed, in the surprising series by Gabriel Buttigieg, who grants this axiom some agency of its own, giving it the possibility to be itself surprising. She exists with the autonomy of an agent uninhibited by recognition—unnoticed, she is free. In a way, she is less of a slave than Daedalus who is condemned to be recognised ad aeternum. We see her at her most free, enthralled in the spirit of Eros with a lover himself unnamed (is this Daedalus prior to the invention of Icarus, or is this a lover she has taken on while the rest of the narrative goes on without her?).
Icarus strives for the freedom residing outside the oblivion of his father’s labyrinth. He ignores the proto-Aristotelian advice of his father to neither strive too vehemently nor too laxly, to fly not too close to the sun nor too close to the sea—a Goldilocks principle as old as time. Icarus is often characterised as the embodiment of hubris, as a warning to all those who are tempted by the self-defeating nature of ambition. He is always seen as the agent of his own destruction, marked in time by an island and sea named after the hamartia that removed him from the narrative. But who is it really who falls when Icarus tumbles to his watery grave? Daedalus survives and lands in Sicily, and his mother is very much alive in the works of Gabriel Buttigieg and in the axiomatic truth that grants her existence necessity, but at what point in the confounding event of parentage do they end and their child begin?
Icarus, like every child, is composed of a contradiction. In Western logic, a contradiction is usually shunned, or, at best, regarded as a helpful tool for discerning where one has gone wrong and must rectify some mistake. Propositions (P) are regarded through a threefold logical edifice:
(P) is (being)
(P) is not (being)
(P) is or is not (being)
However, the Buddhist logical argument called Catuṣkoṭi, “the four corners of truth”,3 includes a fourth category in addition to the Western ones, namely:
4. (P) neither is nor is not OR
both is and is not
In other words, the forth category is the contradiction. Icarus is both himself and his parents: compelled into being by the very forces that compelled his parents into being and their parents before them, he is simultaneously this and, also, indivisibly himself in all his distinguishability. A continuity stretching across time immemorial, axiomatic, necessary, and unnoticed, has forged him into existence, and thus is carried with him throughout every instance of his being-in-the-world. Within him is the infinity that spurred his own existence. His enactment of himself is at once singularly his and of the entire lineage that begot him.
There comes a point in every child’s life when he begins to see in himself his corresponding parent, and can foresee, with varying degrees of aversion and distress, that he is to become one or the other parent in the near future. Once the parents stop being merely parents and take on the form of human beings, their qualities and quirks start to become visible to us, and begin to become recognised in ourselves. Where do we begin, we ask ourselves, and where do our parents end? But we are using the wrong logical device there. It is not a question of either-or (3) but of both-and (4). Icarus holds within himself his father and his mother. Indeed, his mother, although unrecognised, not included in the narrative explicitly, resides all across the narrative wherever her son is present, but also, simultaneously, is not there wherever her son is present. The same goes for Daedalus who both resides and does not reside within the delimitations of his son. There is a hint of this contradiction in the painting entitled “Icarus’s Mother (After P. Gowy)” where Icarus’s mother is depicted in the same position in which Jacob Peter Gowy depicted Icarus falling from the heavens in his own painting. The parallelism of mother and son, taking on the same physicality, encapsulates the contradiction of them both being and not being each other simultaneously.
We must not forget, however, that Icarus is the agent of his own destruction. He alone is responsible for his own downfall, for, when called to action, only those who are present can respond. His father and his mother are not capable of speaking except through the delimitations of their own respective selves, and so cannot take on the responsibly of being other than themselves. Only Icarus qua Icarus can speak, and therefore respond to the call of conscience brought about by that formative and (ultimately) fatal event. We see Icarus himself in the final painting of the series, in flight right before the fall, in seemingly blissful unawareness of the dismantled wings he bears, the bird resting on his hand a symbol of self- deception.
Subjectivity is composed of the physicality (both corporeal and subtle) of oneself and all other elements of character that teem from this singular configuration, and, simultaneously, the history that placed the configurable elements into that singular being. Continuity through parentage, while carrying within itself the vast history from which it stems, is always incomplete. Each child is an attempt to quell that incompleteness, an attempt to subdue the tension brought about by what is felt to be unresolved. The merging of two distinct parts of a sequence creates the next element of the configuration in an attempt to call for some possible resolution, but, much like the Fibonacci sequence that threads through much of the natural world, this sequence is always perennially incomplete, with its hands always reaching outward, looking for the next element, and the next, and the next... If we map out the Fibonacci sequence into a Golden Segment, we find ourselves feeling as though we are beholding the most harmonious of figures. Harmony must be the result of completeness, we tell ourselves. The Golden Segment must be entirely proportional, following a ratio of terms, hence being rational, but the Golden Segment is composed of a sequence that is inherently irrational as it is without resolution, always calling for completion but always falling short, since, like every instance of irrationality, it goes on forever.4
A child is irrational in the sense of being incomplete and thus always striving for resolution. This for us often takes the form of striving to escape the labyrinths our parents have built and unwittingly condemned us to, which may or may not be a fatal endeavour depending on the wings they have bestowed us and our own sense of proportion. We are at once irredeemably our parents and uncontestably ourselves, and this contradiction is what spurs is us the desire for resolution. Icarus’s downfall is an act of defiance in the face of the necessity of his own incompleteness. On the other hand, having a child is irrational in the usual way of understanding the word, namely an activity that is so far removed from proportion that it is near impossible to justify or comprehend.
The paradox of continuity is recurrence, and with each event of recurrence comes novelty tinged with what came before it. The mother and father of Icarus may very well have caused in him the conditions for his eventual downfall, and may just have easily been helpless in the face of Icarus’s incontestable agency, but, again, it is not an either-or, but a both-and. We see glimpses of a mother who is herself an incontestable agent, enthralled in nameless freedom, but the contradiction lies in her very motherhood: a term indelible, a “damned spot”5 irremovable, a mark of agency tempered by necessity. Likewise, ‘son’ is a term infused with necessity, a mark of karmic incompleteness and irresolution, whose bearer’s task is to escape the parental labyrinth and become himself... an endeavour that may very well encapsulate the greatest of contradictions.
1 Un-concealment, the Heideggerian aletheia (also crudely termed “truth”), is denied to her because the privative ‘a-’ can only be deprived of things than can be, at the very least, noticed.
2 Apollodorus, The Library, Volume II, Loeb Classical Library 122 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), 138–39.
3 Aaron J. Cotnoir, “Nāgārjuna’s Logic,” in The Moon Points Back, ed. Y. Deguchi et al. (Oxford University Press, 2015), 176–88.
4 The seed of this thought had been planted in my mind in October 2018 during a European Graduate School seminar given by Robert Brewer Young.
5 William Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” in The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 1330.
Apollodorus. The Library, Volume II. Loeb Classical Library 122. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.
Cotnoir, Aaron J. “Nāgārjuna’s Logic.” In The Moon Points Back. Edited by Y. Deguchi et al., 176–88. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” In The Complete Oxford Shakespeare. Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 1307–34 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
On 'Dik il-Qtajra' Series 2017
“In Buttigieg’s work, lines on paper converge with the artist’s memories and desires. This convergence is recurrently presented with very little modification. In the nakedness of these depicted bodies, the artist has concurrently exposed his own thoughts. This bold act does not require elaborate colour. People undress willingly when they feel confident to do so and this work reflects the artist’s confidence in inviting the viewer to delve deeper into his mind. The line is nude. Where the line is drawn, it is a decisive mark. The artist provides a visual and personal statement, explained in lines. In this work the images are left bare in order to allow the curious onlookers to wrestle with the honesty that is being displayed in front of them.”
On 'Babies' Series 2017
In his ‘Babies’ series, Buttigieg reflects on what he sees as characteristic features of our human condition. From the moment of conception, we are subject to deterministic forces bestowed upon us through the expression of a parent’s irrational will. Each and every one of us exists in a world, and inhabits a body that is, to a very large extent, indifferent to our desires and motivations. We are nevertheless simultaneously both motivated and enslaved by these very drives which we can neither fully control nor simply reject.
In the womb, the child exists in a suspended state, represented in the series by the large empty spaces that surround each of the infant figures. Yet it may also be noted that the series does not depict the children as foetuses or neonates, indicating that the deterministic process of character formation occurs from the very beginning.
On 'Dik il-Qtajra' & 'Babies' Series 2017
There is something preformed about our personalities before they are ever even moulded and yet we often do not have the slightest idea who or what we are until we become it. This series of works on paper deals precisely with this preconceived idea of who we are before we are born and the sexual self-narrative that according to artist drives us all forward.
It has long been said that the purity of line is capable of holding the free expression of pure artistic thought and sentiment. These works contain many delicate definitions of many interesting points of form, and there is expression as much as there is spontaneity in each one, as the two go hand in hand for the artist. His babies are formed with the fewest of lines, and like Marlene Dumas’ ‘The First People’ these infants are all lying in peculiar positions. However, whereas Dumas emphasised monumentality, Gabriel emphasises sexuality, self- awareness and survival. These babies are contradicted by their innocence and need to survive, they put themselves first as they subconsciously fantasise about satisfying their sexual needs and desires. Likewise, another type of line is at play here, the line of Alfred Buttigieg’s words in ‘Dik il Qtajra’, as these conditions of sex and survival, of love and pain, are further explored in Gabriel’s reactions to his father’s work from the 1980s. The very essence of sex is stripped down to its bare essentials, sometimes more abstractedly than others, and yet he has found a place for its realism without it ever becoming banal.
Gabriel’s work is this and more; it is about being the same person over time whilst not holding onto every aspect of one’s current self but instead, changing purposefully. Transformation does not necessarily threaten identity but instead unearths our core identity, our essence. The work in his third solo exhibition is located smack in the middle of this transformation.
On 'Nudes' 2016
The works on paper and canvas in this present collection constitute Gabriel Buttigieg’s second solo exhibition. Buttigieg’s work is instantaneously recognisable, both due to its style and subject-matter. Many of the works on paper feature a series of quasi-impulsive, free-flowing brush strokes which give a sense of naturalness and spontaneity to the works. Such spontaneity is however also supported and controlled by strategically distributed bolder lines which create determinate boundaries within the works, and draw the composition together into a structured whole. Other works in this collection are however decidedly softer, and give off a more intimate feel.
Buttigieg himself seeks to steer away from over-rationalising his own work and intentions; the thrust of his art can be said to intentionally rest on this explicit emotive rather than conceptual content. Buttigieg’s attitude towards his own work may then be paraphrased as follows: “there ought to be no psychologising present here … the works simply are what they are, and say what they say”. Yet it would be impossible not to notice the recurrent theme present in Buttigieg’s work overall: predominantly female figures – bar the fact that artist occasionally features as a protagonist – hidden behind an uncanny, alluring, yet at times unnerving, veil of anonymity. The way the figures are portrayed in turn give the artworks an intimate, personal feel, and invite the viewer into their world as well as that of the artist. Interestingly, the figures draw the viewer closer, yet their anonymity allows them to remain forever at a distance.
I would then claim that Buttigieg’s work is deeply conceptual and existential, even if the artist is rarely willing to explicitly concede this. His work is not innocent for the very same reason that a slip of the tongue is not simply innocent. In other words, his work often speaks more than it lets out, even if its underlying force is never present at face value.
On 'Nudes' 2016
‘Nude but anonymous’
There is a lot to be said about nudity. That common denominator of bare skin which each and every human being is born with. That very same covering of skin which can determine so many things, so many facets of a personality, so many unspoken understandings and misunderstandings, so many social and intimate norms, quirks and peculiarities.
Gabriel Buttigieg is yet another artist who attempts to tackle the nude and this is not surprising. The human figure presents a continual challenge for an artist because no figure is quite the same as another. No person exposes his or her skin as valiantly or as equally as another. No skin colour or body shape is quite the same as the rest. Everybody wears his or her skin differently. And while we are bombarded with images of the nude, be it in a soap commercial, a burlesque show, a pin-up magazine or a love scene on the big screen, we still somehow look at artistic depictions of the nude with different expectations.
Why so? Because each artist imbues the nude image with his or her own sensations, thus making each artist's nudes unique in themselves. The bodies take on a different meaning, a different perspective, depending on the artist involved. The nude body is transformed by an interpretation belonging to that very unique artist who comes with his or her own baggage of experience, both artistic and non.
Because the nude painting supports an underlying sense of voyeurism, felt even more intensely if the nudes are audaciously succinct. In the case of the Nudes by Buttigieg, it is evident that he has kept his sitters anonymous, in some cases, purposely demure. These nudes have no eyes, blank eyes, empty eyes, eyes which, where visible, give away nothing, no identity, no emotion. It becomes evident that the artist attempts to step into the wider and broader aspect of the nude when engaging in the painting of Two Nudes - specifying their ambiguity by giving their eye sockets the black-out effect - it is none of our business who these bodies belong to after all. However, he evidently knows them well enough. The depth of each encounter is decipherable from the artist's unconscious use of subtle or violent changes in colour, the dark depths of intrigue, the lightweight colour of romance, the happy, the sad, the fleeting, the angry, the extraordinarily passionate. The artist's moods are tangible and real. The viewer remains titillated, then becomes suddenly confused, then goes back to feeling serene or even curious - each nude tells a distinctly different story. Yet none are obscene - the artist remains reverent towards the human figure throughout.
Although I personally tend to prefer larger paintings, this time, out of the 24 paintings on show, I seek the smaller and more intimate versions of Buttigieg's work - I feel they help me to understand better. I particularly enjoy absorbing the light and colour invoked to display the painting Reclining Female. It speaks of warmth, youth, happiness, past pleasures and sensations... ...promises. It feels somehow more intimate than the rest. It feels neater, away from anything other than caring.
Then I become intrigued by a non-nude or rather, a non-body-nude - Portrait (Blue), an oils on paper showing a face, a quasi-portrait - young, petite and unique. The artist teases the viewer further, keeping the sitter's one eye averted, the other totally absent. This play of paint urges a closer look - is this a wink? - ah no, but look at the simplicity of it all! There is another portrait, Portrait (Red), which is however, strangely shielded by the one accessory that stands out valiantly in this show of barren bodies - a pair of spectacles. Why depict a face, possibly the same face, twice, in a nudes exhibition? Maybe because the face is the one nude characteristic we rarely cover up and perhaps (Blue) is truly a bijoux of a face worth remembering.
The curator Michael Fenech has thought well to urge the artist to include such a mix of works for this show of nudes, punctuating the collection of female figures with the occasional squatting 'Male'. Gabriel Buttigieg has likewise thought well to experiment in this segment of the visual arts - not many will tamper with the nude figure in art, and those who do either succeed well or fail miserably. In this case, I see there is potential for further growth, even while, I feel this artist, in this exhibition arrived right on target with that one little reclining female I liked so much.
On 'Paintings' 2016
How can one live in this day and age? In an essay on Theodor W. Adorno, Terry Eagleton notes that “for what the body signals to Adorno is not first of all pleasure but suffering” however, one cannot ignore the aspect of pleasure since it serves as a gauge in those instances of intense pain (1990, p. 41). Today, the body which still lives is damaged and reduced to its barest minimum. Time is left to touch a terrain in which “humanity itself has come to a full stop” (Eagleton, 1990, p.42). One questions how life has continued after this complete cessation. Nothing new seems to emerge and the differences which individuals look for appear to be fixed (Baudrillard, 1998). At the same time, contemporary society is constantly facing uncertainty (Bauman, 2007). It is therefore more germane to this context to ask another question: How is it possible to paint since everything seems to have already been negotiated?
The artist who aims to be distinct by moving away from the mind blinkered by imposed customs which, to him, envelop the whole of society has to come up with his own project. This involves making a plan and disciplining his mind to work for hours on his art. It is developed in moments of frustration and agony while facing the dense and suffocating environment of norms and rules. At times, this project is revealed by the things one uses and makes, which are left scattered around and are left for others to comprehend. By looking for and at what is left, one may also find traces of the person who has worked in that closed environment. However, this space is not invulnerable to the elements which characterise the society he resides in. The artist grapples with the values and norms which seal the enclosure he faces (Bauman, 2005). The institutionalization of “the artist against the norms of society” as well as the reduction of freedom to the possibility of choosing from pre-set configurations within the market, leave the artist no escape (Bauman, 1993; Blackshaw, 2005). Entrapped in this cage one finds that his “vulnerabilities” become his muse. From one cage to the other with no openings, anxiety leaves the artist fighting for breath. This state of anxiety also becomes an object of inspiration and study. The act of wrestling against the norm is not only the outcome of this perceived order, which the artist aims to break, but also of the ambivalence which torments him knowing that there is no actual opponent which can be located in a fixed place (Bauman, 1993). The uncertainty about which way to go within the complex of cages and the constant test by others to see if one is following a desired path leaves the person under examination susceptible to succumb to anxiety. It is how the artist is able to turn the tables on anxiety which makes it possible to see that the negotiations are also inconclusive. It is the fear of empty cages which the artist aims to eliminate. By going astray from the meaning which others give to confinements, the sense of an empty enclosure is produced. At the same time, one is bound to feel free to choose which path to take from what is available.
The paintings are made in haste ; the rush is to fill up the canvas with paint. The canvas is meant to be full. There is a sense of the need to ascertain oneself that no part of it is left untouched with paint in order to eliminate the void. It is said that after an accident in which Pascal was involved in , his anxiety intensified and fearing that there was a chasm on his left hand side he used to position a chair to assure himself that this abyss was not really there (Vidler, 2000). Pascal’s “abyssal anxiety” and his fear of the void accompanied his general interest on emptiness and the vacuum (Vidler, 2000, p.16). For the artist, the void which is covered with paint is not rooted in the psychological but in the social. A vacuum is created when the individual is left abandoned due to the collapse of those regulations which confine as well as provide a framework to comprehend the world (Bauman, 2007). In this precipice, the echo of Emile Durkheim’s warning on the state of anomie can be heard. One may also find that this complex of cages is part of a much larger structure and some of its sections are older than presumed. The artist is aware of this enclosure by heeding the insight of those who were there before him and the pieces of information he encounters.
The artist is confined to a society whose enclosure is shrouded with interlocking gates and hides the ambivalence which permeates it with complex systems of conduct. The sense of individuality is ultimately also a consequence of the society which provides it with room to breathe. This individuality facilitates the promise of being away from the confines of society but, at the same time, it makes that person reliant on this possibility (Marske, 1987). If this struggle for individuality becomes the basis upon which both life and paint are put, then one finds himself aiming to be alone no matter how unsuccessful the attempts turn out to be and taking passages within the cage with the aim of maintaining a distance from the rest. This leads the person to wander those areas which are less frequented and to begin to consider the enclosure as empty. In an empty confinement with boundaries which can be perceived, yet unsure how to proceed, the artist considers his vulnerabilities as a starting point for investigation. One strives for individuality yet knows that one cannot escape the tangled roots of relations with others; the family and sexuality are two domains where other humans have to be acknowledged (Bauman, 2003).
The artist, imbued with anxiety upon realizing the confinement he inhabits, attempts a pedagogical manoeuvre upon himself by transforming the questions which he is asked by those whom he meets on his way to these empty parts into statements. From this stems the source of inspiration for some of his work. The question “What are you doing?” becomes “This is what I am doing” and “This is my anxiety”. The artist begins to build his own space in those empty parts of the cage. He positions the figures in a way which makes it unclear whether they are reposed or in strain. The artist fights against the empty parts of the canvas with paint but it is the fear of emptiness once again which resurfaces on the canvas. This emptiness is like a deep well which is devoid of water; a well that is empty. The emptiness which resurfaces in the form of paint is like that in the case of an empty well—a confined space holding the potential mass of a heavy downpour. The fear of this mass which can engulf the vacuum and the frightening scenario of being trapped down there is felt even when the well is empty.
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Bauman, Z. (1993). Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2005). Work, Consumerism and the New Poor. New York: Open University Press.
Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Blackshaw, T. (2005). Zygmunt Bauman. New York: Routledge.
Durkheim, E. (2006). Suicide. New York: Routledge.
Eagleton, T. (1990). The Significance of Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Marske, C. (1987). Durkheim's "Cult of the Individual" and the Moral Reconstitution of Society. Sociological Theory, 1-14.
Sammut, F. (1971). Il-Gaġġa. Lux Press.
Smith, D. (1999). Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Vidler, A. (2000). Warped Space. London: MIT Press.
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