'The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you give over all the pulsations of a person ... The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation ... with their face you have to try and trap the energy that emanates from them.'
- Francis Bacon
A current one man show by the London artist Antony Micallef, his seventh and appropriately called 'Self', exhibits the artist's self image as a collection of painterly embodiments'. His strategy, given the title, appears to be an assault on the superficiality of the trend of the 'selfie', the contemporary ubiquity of which has lead to a saturated meaninglessness. Like Nietzsche, who wished to hasten nihilism's coming so that he could also hasten its departure, Micallef wants to indulge self-representation to an extreme; he quotes William Blake in a written piece for the Wall Street International, published on the 9th of February, 2015, saying ...
'... The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. I became the very thing I was painting about without me realising. I morphed into this world of excess and it completely took over. This is my way of stripping it right back and getting back to the basics. In this age of self-glorification and self-promotion, we advertise ourselves like a shop window.'
One can suggest that this spectacle of 'self', is like a dream state of unattainable desire, morphing our habitually-mediated image into a torpor of endless consumption, becoming a surreptitious surrogate for disrupted identity. Micallef's impasto offensive rises from the ocular luminescence of mineral and liquid prima materia like a swirling nemesis, conjuring anxiety before the insidiously questionable motivations that have led us to a position of faithless angst and demanding a proportional erasure of all that it challenges. His paintings are a call to arms. The questions that are provoked by their power are spiritual, philosophical and psychological. Who are we? What have we become? Where are we going? During the nineteenth century, famously, both Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche engaged with the paradoxes proposed by a changing culture from one of unquestionable faith to a secularism that has led, rationally, to an end of such faith. Scientific positivism has liberated us from superstition in the West, but has led to a disconnection from our environment and our place within it. The cosmic and cultural landscape we inhabit has changed from an organic relationship to one that posits us within a paradigm of virtuality, a domain where the 'self' is in constant flux, where identity, from a premise of anonymity, morphs as regularly as breath. But like painting we too are in constant metamorphosis keeping up with a desire for acceptance.
'To will a new form is unacceptable, ...' wrote Philip Guston in his essay, Faith, Hope and Impossibility,
'... because will builds distortion. Desire, too, is incomplete and arbitrary. These strategies, however intimate they might become, must especially be removed to clear the way for something else--a condition somewhat unclear, but which in retrospect becomes a very precise act. This "thing" is recognised only as it comes into existence. It resists analysis--and probably this is as it should be. Possibly the moral is that art cannot and should not be made.'
Each new mark leads to an uncertainty that is unanimous with a long held belief that nature is somehow beyond representation, a primal complexity for image making from Ovid's Narcissus to the contemporary 'Selfie'.
Micallef's alchemy, in a furious reflection of a frustrated commodification of selfhood, fascinates with the industry of hard won contemplation. What distractions of mind did he fend off as he battled alone? These paintings further establish an already-seasoned artist as a mature, confident painter and demand answers. Who are we? What have we become? Where are we going?
Antony Micalef’s ‘Self’, continues at Lazarides, Rathbone Place, London, W1, until the 19th of March.