A series of paintings by Stefan Spiteri explores painting and its corollaries, looking to nature as his source. Lara Zammit speaks with the artist about his latest exhibition at Valletta Contemporary.

A set of works by Stefan Spiteri exhibited under the title On the Nature of Painting currently greets visitors as they enter the Valletta Contemporary gallery.

Finding myself drawn to this title spurred by old habits, I could not help but wonder how a series of artworks would ponder this question.

The title suggests a consideration into the matter, form and mode with which painting (understood as noun and verb) is given to be – its essence and existence. Questioned about whether this series is an attempt to answer the question of what sort of things works of art are more broadly, Spiteri said that, “even though this body of work is not primarily motivated by this question, this is definitely part of the fabric which makes this series of paintings.

“Rather than questioning the existence of works of art, I am specifically focusing on painting and trying to uncover its many corollaries. To do this, I am looking at the natural world as a source for my work. While extracting proportions of its plenitude, I am using it to get an insight into the painting process.

“Moreover, I am observing the cycles in nature and its constant transformation, temporality and fragility. Subsequently, I am drawing parallels to the activity in the natural world to learn more about the painting process. In this case, the natural world is the teacher; it is the model used while attempting to justify the fluidity, unpredictability and spontaneity of painting as both a material and process.

“Even though this is a finished body of work, it does not mean that anything has been resolved. On top of that, further questions arise, and that’s how one body of work leads to another.”

Rather than contemplating on the nature of painting, therefore, Spiteri is using nature as an analogy to draw from this the qualities of painting. He speaks about this body of work as looking at the painting process as an action that behaves, reacts and adapts just like any other natural instinct.

Quadrat 7 (42 x 34 cm, oil on panel, 2021)Quadrat 7 (42 x 34 cm, oil on panel, 2021)

“The small-scale panel paintings are named ‘quadrats’. This is a reference to the square frames of wire usually placed on the ground by ecologists to study the distribution of living organisms in habitats, to look at the plants or slow-moving animals within them. Similarly, each panel is acting like a quadrat which examines the behaviour of paint within every rectilinear enclosure.”

The work is finished when the painter has nothing more to give

Asked what the process of painting tells us about the nature of painting and how central the painter is to the painting, Spiteri said that every empty panel is the chosen ground of the painter.

“No matter how fluid paint can be, it can only flow within that set perimeter. Rigidity is required by the human brain to determine the irregularity and the unpredictability of painting. Just how the square frames are needed in ecology to study vast areas of land, the miniature paintings serve as specimens of the endless possibilities of painting.

“This body of work is entirely based on the rigidity of the human hand and the fluidity of paint. The painter and the paint are interdependent therefore – the communication between the two is crucial. Additionally, this can be seen in the way the paint acts on the surface it is applied to, how it travels from brush to surface and how it responds to aggressive scratching and layering. 

“As a result, the finished work is a mere evidence of the life of a painting; the very dynamic act of painting is translated into a very static product. The work is finished when the painter has nothing more to give to the painting. Ultimately, a painting is only revitalised in the viewer’s experience and the perception of the work on show.”

Speaking about his conflation of painting with natural processes in his works’ subject matter, Spiteri noted that although they are not observed paintings, the presence of the natural world is immediately recognisable in this body of work.

“While coming up with a title for this show, it was very important to me that these works, despite their strong resemblance to the natural world, weren’t considered as just ‘paintings of nature’.

“On the Nature of Painting suggests that these paintings are more than a mere copy of some part of the external world. While representing a subject that registers a response to observed phenomena, the aim here was to obliterate, as much as possible, the distinction between the observer and observed, artist to nature, here and there.

“This body of work, despite being so artificially constructed, recognises the presence of nature within us. In this mindset, one can see that just like any living organism, a painting, despite being an artificial entity, has the power to grow and evolve over time.”

If these works can tell us anything about the nature of painting through analogous consideration of the dynamics of nature, it may be that painting is inherently transformative and transformational, whether of the painter or of the snippet of reality laid to bare on the canvas. There is more to nature than the painter can contain, much as there is more to the artwork (although not all artworks) than the artist may imbue; there is a point at which art exceeds the artist.

“I consider the works on show as paintings of transmutation,” Spiteri concluded. “The very dynamic process of painting is mummified into a visual object. The painting process is being considered as a natural process only though its human counterpart, the paint on the other hand is established as the tool used to make this process go on.”

On the Nature of Painting is showing at Valletta Contemporary until August 14.

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