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Is This The Contemporary Art Exhibition Malta’s Been Waiting For?

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Photos: Elisa von Brockdorff

Hunting season’s almost over but art season is in full swing, and kicking 2017 off with a bang is young Maltese artist Ryan Falzon’s highly anticipated new show, provocatively entitled ‘WE LOST THE WAR’.

“WE LOST THE WAR is about conflicts on different levels. A viewer would be delusioned if expecting pictures related to the common notion of war – that is soldiers and wars. The imagery presented is borrowed mostly from pop culture and religious iconography, rendering a very personal language which may take some time to sink in.” Falzon tells Lovin Malta.

We Lost The War

“It is about losses that we have to deal with daily, situations which render an individual helpless and most often disillusioned; situations such as falling in and out of love, failed relationships, addictions, beurocracy…issues that an individual cannot change on his own accord.”

Ryan Falzon, artist

This thought-provoking exhibition opens tonight at Spajzu Kreattiv in Valletta and has been fully funded by The Arts Council, who have given 28 year-old Falzon carte blanche to produce a huge body of work – and he’s certainly run with it. 

His two previous critically acclaimed solo shows, Ex Voto in 2014 and A Quick Fix: A Morality Tale in 2016 have already made waves on the local arts scene. This will be the promising artist’s first large solo show in the St James Cavalier exhibition space, adjacent to Castille – a fitting venue for the artist now seemingly at his prime in both painterly style and social awareness.

The artist, from Zurrieq, has always been fascinated by the punk movement, working class heritage, and the history of organised crime – especially how it’s depicted through film. He is particularly taken by the idea of the “anti-hero”, such as fictional character Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver, where De Niro’s troubled character famously states that “Someday a real rain will come and wipe this scum off the streets.”

“In the works there are continuous references to the underworld, especially the glorified, romanticised period of the 1920’s Prohibition era. Like with all of my work, the local influences always seep through,” he explains.

“In the past 3 years, Malta has seen a notorious rise in what are dubbed as ‘Mafia-style’ executions, that is murders being committed by professional hitmen, where everything is predetermined and the utmost is done to hide evidence. I have also looked at other elements related to violence on a local level, that is murders committed in the past 100 years and political violence from 1950 until the 1980s,” says the artist.

Falzon 1

As well as the unanimously recognizable drug lords and suited gangsters, Maltese audiences might also recognize some local-looking characters. Another recurring feature which is very familiar is the bold text so prominent in the artist’s paintings – similar to that found painted on boathouses, country or wasteland walls and inside private garages. But these are no ordinary graffito scrawling – if you look closely you’ll decipher the secrets of the underworld which are so often left not unsaid, but unwritten.

His works showcase some unsavoury pastimes turned into pop art motifs such as hunting, fast food eating, gambling and drug taking. But Falzon doesn’t seem to be glorifying or even damning these learned behaviours, simply airing them for all to see through his contemporarty art commentary.

The 24 works on canvas are balanced by someone with an innate sense of composition and knack for colour and contrast. Falzon’s work has been likened to that of the late New York street artist turned famed neo expressionist painter Jean Michel Basquiat, who’s upcoming landmark summer exhibition in London’s Barbican Centre is being waiting on with baited breath by art lovers from all over the world.

Both Falzon and Basquiat use bold colour and text to navigate through and highlight unsettling social issues head on, but one of the main differences between Basquiat’s work and Falzon’s is it’s a lot less “mad”. The Maltese artist is much more controlled, less scribbly, less manic. He is less impulsive and aware of every brushstroke. The “naïve” style is deceptive, he is a calculated painter and commentator. And as Basquiat famously put it: “Believe it or not I can actually draw”.

Artist Photo

The works in ‘WE LOST THE WAR’ are sometimes uncomfortable to decode. Religious iconography is juxtaposed with weapons, and some of the work tackles themes that are particularly hard to stomach – hideous true stories and urban legends that are ingrained in our small island psyche. There’s a strong sense of “Did he just paint that?” that is sure to ripple through the exhibition audience – but that’s exactly what Fine Art should evoke – emotion. Even if it makes you feel sick. Especially if it makes you physically shudder.

Falzon instists he doesn’t do anything to shock for the sake of shocking.

“There is no shock factor,” he tells Lovin Malta. “The audience is not shockable anymore – anyone trying that is on a losing path”.

Falzon 2

Which is of course true in a digital age where we are definitely desensitized to horrific themes due to overexposure in the media. In 2017 we can skim over harrowing news stories and photos of war, suffering… Even imagery of dead bodies or our favourite naked celebrities can’t shock us now. What’s perhaps most shocking is the existence of the work itself – it’s fantastic to have such a large Maltese contemporary art exhibition on.

In a world so obsessed with calling out “fake news”, conspiracy theories and corruption scandals, Falzon’s work is most current and unanimously “real”– you can’t really argue with it. We all know this stuff goes on and has gone on for centuries. Instead of obsessively reading the news which never seems to get to the bottom of anything, really, it’s definitely worth a trip trip to Valletta to confront Falzon’s interpretations face on. Shit like this doesn’t come about very often.

WE LOST THE WAR opens today, 20th January at 7:30pm at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier, and is on until the 26th February at 9pm.

Will you be visiting this exhibition in Valletta this opening weekend? Tag an art-loving friend in the comments on Facebook!

READ NEXT: Do Maltese People Care About Art?

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