The collection of paintings, titled Evanescence, marks Xaxa (Charlene) Calleja’s fifth solo exhibition. The artist talks to Joseph Agius about the dualities that one can discover in her art, mirroring life itself.
Evanescence, the title of your exhibition, perfectly describes the texture of these paintings. Some of them reflect a mood, an aftermath with fingerprints and a ghostly shadow lingering in the background. There is an ominous mood that something untoward had just happened. What is the underlying narrative of these paintings?
The underlying narrative are my own reflections of life. All the joys, the sorrows and the evanescent quality of life itself become part of your brushstroke. When something unexpected happens in your life, that stops you in your tracks; it leaves an indelible mark. No matter how you try to escape that feeling, the imprint leaves you scarred. When you are a creative person, your medium of choice becomes your means of expressing yourself and can help you work through issues, even those you are not conscious of.
There are ‘tendrils’ in some of your paintings, evoking marine flora that seems tenuous and fragile. Other emanations are reminiscent of billowing flames in a controlled context, however reaching for the skies. Are these symbols of a breakable femininity or do they represent something altogether different?
Life is fragile. Being a woman, I have been lucky enough to experience childbirth, but I have also experienced the pain of loss, when life slips through your fingers like sand. When you are thrown into these situations, it sometimes feels like you are about to reach your breaking point. In a sense you are broken by these experiences and reborn again because of them, so as a person you know you are not the same. I tend to put whatever I experience into my work and generally the audience will feel whatever mood I am going through.
One of your recurrent themes used to be the ouroboros, the serpent biting its own tail. It symbolises eternity and endless return. Is this a representation of some personal status quo or is the message to be delivered more universal? Have you developed this central theme in this current exhibition?
I am drawn to the ouroboros symbol, I feel that this symbol represents the intertwined relationship of creation and destruction, that there cannot be one without the other. On a personal level, I see the destruction of the former self every time I go through some hardship or life-changing experience which makes way for the next stage of life.
On a universal level, many of us know the insignificance of our own existence and we are only a small part of a long chain of events. We are part of an unending cycle not by our own choice but we just find ourselves here. The fact that this symbol has been around since ancient times and is still relevant today I think says a lot of man’s relationship within the universe.
I have one or two works inspired by the ouroboros in this series. In my past three exhibitions, there has been one work inspired by the ouroboros. I think that the ouroboros symbol and what it represents spills over into other works and that is why it is still significant to my work.
We are part of an unending cycle not by our own choice but we just find ourselves here
There is a sense of flux across your general oeuvre, even in your most static of paintings. It is like a wind or a breeze calmly caressing the elements. Even a butterfly, the calmest of creatures, evokes a sense of disquiet, like a lull before a storm that would tear it apart. Do you think that destruction and creation are complimentary? Is this one of the concepts that in some way defines your art?
As I mentioned earlier, in the symbol of the ouroboros, creation and destruction are intertwined. I think that as a society, we are so focused on creating and building things up that we try to avoid the fact that we are the major cause of destruction. We are constantly destroying to survive; I know that my existence has meant that countless other beings have died.
Perhaps, I have never really looked at my artwork in that way. If we are looking at destruction as something negative and creation as something positive, some people have remarked to me that my works can go on the dark side and some prefer the lighter side of my works. I look at them as being one and the same, and that is why I feel that I need to go from light to dark. I want my artworks to be a reflection and exploration of both sides.
This is your fifth solo exhibition. Do you feel that there is an organic progression in your art? Do you revisit themes? Do certain themes define you as an artist?
I do feel an organic progression in my artwork and tend to work in a series. Very rarely do I create one-offs. I explore a theme, a feeling or a mood in several works and once I feel that I have exhausted it, I move onto something else.
There are certain symbols like the ouroboros, serpents and butterflies that time and again I find that I re-explore. I wouldn’t say that they define me as an artist but are a more a medium to express my thought processes at that moment. I tend to utilise the same subject but depict it in a different way, depending on what I am exploring at that moment.
Do you regard yourself as an ouroboros at some level? Is that alchemical symbol more factual in these pandemic days? It is often felt that we are running around in circles and that we can never break that circle.
I never looked at myself as an ouroboros, I just looked at myself as being caught up in this cycle of existence which I feel is represented by the ouroboros.
The first time I depicted an ouroboros was a pivotal time in my life. Unbeknownst to me, I would complete that work after my father suddenly passed away. It became a symbol of healing for me, in this symbol I found a reason for his death. I understood that without death, new life cannot be created.
I feel that this pandemic is just a small event in the greater scheme of things. True, it has had unprecedented repercussions to our lives and hopefully these changes have paved the way for something new. Hopefully, there will be a realisation that our unsustainable way of living needs to change; on the flip side, if we refuse to change, our own destruction will bring about something new beyond our control.
I find that your art has a spiritual relevance in a Zen or Far Eastern theology or philosophy sort of way. Peace and disquiet – yin and yang. Am I off the mark?
No, you are not off the mark. I once heard something which really stuck with me in the way that I look at things. I think that it was said by a Zen master who said that when you are admiring the full bloom of the flower, remember that you are also observing the demise of the flower. I find this thought coming back to me quite a bit and probably this does influence my art.
As more time goes on, I feel myself drawn to more simplistic works and the emotion that can be expressed in one brushstroke. I feel that I am comfortable with less and the works can be more simplified yet still be expressive.
Are there artists that you find more intriguing and that you feel are influential?
There are some artists who have left an impression on me and luckily, I have been able to see some of their works. Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado have stuck with me in the way that he was able to express that dark period of his existence. One work, The Drowning Dog, although not a renowned work, I think represents the fragility of life and how so many situations are beyond our control. Frida Kahlo was able to depict so openly her own vulnerability and the traumas that she suffered during her life. Gustav Klimt’s paintings are so exuberant but he was also able to depict the greater themes of life.
Finally, Edward Munch’s The Scream which first led me to study history of art. I felt that if one artist could depict so much in one painting, then surely art is worth studying. Although I have never seen this painting with my own eyes, I feel like that painting could represent anyone.
Evanescence will run until August 9 at the Casino Notabile in Rabat, Malta. COVID-19 restrictions apply when visiting the exhibition.