Meet Ryan Falzon, a cynical pop artist based in Malta and Berlin, discussing politics and society with colour, acrylic and print.
We talk about Malta, political commentary, and 2018 goals.
Describe the social and political landscape of Malta?
Malta is a small European island, comparable to a small village in Europe where everything is intense: the sun, the swearing, the traffic, the meals, the partying and the construction boom. Malta has been independent since 1964 and a republic since 1979. It joined the European Union in 2004. It had a troubled political history in the 80’s and a rush to catch up with the rest of Europe in the 90’s.
How does culture effect your identity?
The Maltese tend to have a rather fragmented self-identity gathered through centuries of the islands being ruled, and exploited, by foreign rulers. My understanding of our identity is that it is a rather constructed one, that the Maltese never had time to come to terms with its true identity. Although Malta has been part of the European Union for 14 years now, strong elements of post colonial mentality are still visible and effecting the social and political sphere.
How does Malta feature in your art?
A substantial input in my art is a personal interpretation of situations I encounter daily. I spend most of the year in Malta, so it is only natural that various Maltese situations and facades spring out in my work.
Your art feels very political, is it?
It is, and I make no apology for it. It is not political in a partisan way, nor is it meant to work as a caricature. I hope it is much more subtle than that. I try to infuse my paintings with back stories which support the multi-layered treatment. This could be a line in an international newspaper to village gossip and urban legends, or a rich local pop culture which expresses our national identity issues. Living in a country where it takes less than an hour to cross, may give a mistaken perspective of dimensions, a false sense of control. Combined with a grandiose understanding of our place in world history – such as Malta’s past victories against the Ottoman invasions in the 1500s, and the victory against the Axis powers in World War 2 - might encourage the idea that Malta is God’s gift to the world, this sunny paradise that can be barely seen on the world’s map.
Could you explain this?
Of course. This mentality is fertile ground for ego boosts. Take for example, the painting “Satan as an Angry Teddy Boy”. It was triggered off during one weekday morning, where while out and around, I passed the village square. Resting in the shade of the main church in my home town was a group of elderly man, with one in particular sporting a Teddy Boy hairstyle, boasting that he doesn’t want to go to heaven when he dies, but would prefer to go to hell, “where the porn stars and the Cadillacs are”. Such a mind frame intrigued me, the idea that one can control afterlife based on taste. So I created this work where Satan is angry because all Maltese bribed their way and went to heaven, leaving the Malta section in hell empty.
How important is art in affecting politics/social issues?
I wish it were, but I don’t think it is as important as we wish it to be. Art often becomes a reaction to political and social decisions, but hardly ever leads them. In Malta most art is not typically political. While in the past, art served to reinforce the status quo, today nothing much has changed. My art is atypical in that it is expressly concerned with commenting on current issues as I see them.
How would you describe your style?
As regards my personal style, I see my art as having an editorial function, in that I literally use collage and the juxtaposition of elements to create a reaction to things I feel strongly about. My art can be either a backlash towards issues that annoy me, others that I think are quirky and a good laugh, with loads of dark humour thrown in to balance things out.
How does technology affect your practice?
Today art is in perpetual competition with the saturation of images from social media. When exhibiting, I always feel that artists are in competition with the little device in the viewer’s pockets or handbags, waiting to show the latest updates about individuals in one’s network, individuals one has an established relation with, and this may harm the viewer’s assimilation and bonding with art, especially art which isn’t easily digestible.
You make both paintings and prints, which medium do you prefer?
The preferred medium is always the one that fits best the theme I’m working on. Elements in a theme are pushed and amplified best in painting, others in different printing disciplines. It is merely an investigation of formal elements of each medium in relation to the concept. In my last two solo exhibitions, I used to different techniques. In Quick Fix: A Morality Tale, I showed a series of 14 lino prints depicting a morality tale, on an almost medieval style. In WE LOST THE WAR, I showed 24 large scale paintings.
Is there an inherent tone in each?
Yes, I think so. I tend to push the medium I’m working with to give me just the effects I need. While printing tends to be more technical, in painting there is more room for experimentation and overlapping of media. My paintings combine acrylics, charcoal, pencil and oil pastels, with digital prints, monoprints, linoprints, and acetone prints. The main shared aspect of paintings and prints in my work is definitely an element of flatness and collage. Most often I treat a surface, whether paper, canvas, wood, as flat and I do want to create a realistic 3D illusion on it. I like creating layers of meaning, giving the audience hints to unveil and decipher the work. I need my audience to engaged with my work, to bring their knowledge and experience, to read a work. I leave a wide margin for personal. I hate spoon feeding and I’m easily bored, so I try and place myself as one of my viewers when creating works to be exhibited.
Is either restrictive in any way?
Not at all. I think all good artists, digital, traditional, all know the limits and potentials of their media and rightly so, it is part of being professional. Some ideas to be successful as artworks need a high definition, hyper real rendition of the subject, other themes are best explored in abstract works. The only way to break down restrictions between media and concepts is by undergoing processes of creating bridges and compromises.
What is the meaning behind your imagery?
My imagery can be best described as cynical pop art, or pop art without entertainment. Most often it is a mixture of two opposing forces, good and evil, sacred and profane, love and hate. Linking back to what I said earlier about reacting to my immediate environment, in my work there is a predominance of religious iconography, often presented in a raw, expressionistic manner.
My generation (I am 29) discovered the magic of cut and paste on their desktops, and that is echoed in my works. I manually select, edit and paste borrowed imagery with the same facility that digital editing allows. In this sense, I have chosen to stick to traditional techniques because I believe they portray the feel and tactile elements I want in my works. I believe in the talismanic power of the hand drawn object and symbol, the artist’s touch being a conscious aesthetic choice on how to portray an object. The artist knows that his touch makes all the difference in how an audience reads that image. Objects can be rendered as realistic or, with the artist’s touch, as defective, imperfect and thus more human. My work is transgressive, often displaying humanity in its imperfection and dysfunctionality.
What are themes you think are important to explore?
The personal, the political, and dark humour. I feel they are my three main outlets, and like my works, there are layers or sometimes personalities in me that needs an outlet, and these outlets require different media and language to be fully executed, amplified and understood.
Could you walk us through, ‘Are you Happy Now, Mr. RAF?’.
That painting is one of the largest I did so far, 190cms by 190cms. The idea after reading an online article about the situation of the Left these days, and the debatable question whether one is to have a pacifist approach towards oppression or one we could call an eye for an eye reaction. The colour scheme is politically loaded, showing a skull with round glasses – the skull showing that this is an old argument within left wing politics, and the glasses have a double interpretation, they are old fashioned glasses but also hipster ones. The background shows a Xeroxed poster of the West German group RAF, on which the main motifs are imposed. The question at the bottom right refers to the initial reason why RAF formed, that is as a reaction towards the involvement of America in Vietnam. It is a rare piece in the sense that it doesn’t carry any Maltese reference, which can be due to the fact that although the work was executed in Malta, the idea for this work, as well as a politically charged series of never exhibited paintings was conceived while I was working as a designer in Berlin.
What is one thing you would like to achieve by this time next year?
Currently I have a number of prints exhibited in a group show at Heike Arndt Gallery in Berlin, and the aim for next year is to solidify and increase my trips between Malta and Berlin - it is so refreshing being based in two vibrant places at once, travelling keeps boredom at bay.
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