Patrick Dalli is synonymous with female nudes. Joseph Agius talks to curator RODERICK CAMILLERI about Dalli’s current exhibition Landforms at the Malta Society of Arts.

JA: Patrick Dalli is renowned for his paintings of monumental female nudes; it is a label that identifies him. Landforms, an exhibition of landscapes by Dalli, is striking for a number of reasons, among which the obvious thematic change and the choice of a more vibrant palette, far removed from the fleshy tones of the nudes. What brought on this abrupt change?

RC: This very particular change in Patrick Dalli’s artistic oeuvre may come across as a radical shift in his painterly process and aesthetic product. However, a close reading of his previous works will reveal that more than an abrupt change, there is an incremental pictorial development and a gradual exploration manifested through a new theme.

An analysis of his nudes reveals the underlying elements which led to this new collection of work. These paintings demonstrate a reorganisation of his typical painterly approach, a kind of reformulation of his typical compositions which developed through a gradual process of stylisation.

JA: Do environmental issues concern Dalli? Was this evolution towards the pristine and natural an ache, expressed via his art?

RC: Well, this exhibition is not really addressing environmental issues in any direct way. It is a creative expression, featuring an artist who is inspired by the elements of nature. Dalli is externalising his spontaneous artistic approach through a painterly conversation, formulating a direct interpretative stylised language manifested in terms of formal and visual elements.

JA: In your essay for the exhibition catalogue, you say: “Dalli inverts his painterly elements by overturning his typical configuration….He pushes the figurative aspects into the background and pulls forward his typical abstract backdrop”. So does it follow that trees have replaced the nudes in these new compositions? Has human flesh become putrid?

RC: These new compositions are still rooted in a form of figurative rendering. The centre stage and focus of these works are trees or distant vegetation, which are sometimes withdrawn in the background, always aloof, dominating the aura of the picture plane. At a subconscious level, they might be read as a temporary stand-in for his typical figure painting but this is not an intentional decision made by the artist. What makes these works intriguing is their unique format and how the artist filters his content through his personal visual vocabulary. It is also intriguing how such a theme takes on a new dimension in his artistic oeuvre, forging new layers to his particular and creative journey.

JA: Trees reach up, are virile, erect and strong – is this Dalli’s representation of the male? The male nude had previously been utterly excluded in his oeuvre. Does he find the male human body, being himself male, a repugnant form, lacking the sensuality and volume of its female counterpart?

RC: As already stated, Patrick Dalli is one of those artists who is interested in the pictorial qualities, and works from observation, exploring what his subject might proffer to his work. He is a painter who is constantly searching for visual cues and ways of how to represent them on his large canvases. It is true that his representations of trees are very strong and dynamic, and it might even recall the robustness and virile features of the male figure. However, such interpretations are surely not intended by the artist. As a matter of fact, he finds the male body as interesting and relevant as the female body, even though it is less featured in his work.

Patrick Dalli is a very direct and instinctive character. His particular disposition is reflected in his work and artistic method- Roderick Camilleri

JA: In some instances, the style of composition evokes that of Richard Diebenkorn, at other times, the landscapes are structured like those of Milton Avery, Nicolas de Staël and Etel Adnan. The trees are semi-abstract evoking the stylisation of Jan Mankes. The brush strokes in representing the trees are sometimes intentionally raw, emulating Wilhelm de Kooning. From Lucien Freud/Jenny Saville to Richard Diebenkorn/Milton Avery – was the transformation abrupt or was it an urgent urge to steer away from a theme that Dalli has explored for years?

RC: Patrick Dalli is a very direct and instinctive character. His particular disposition is reflected in his work and artistic method. His impulsive and extemporaneous unswervingly being is imprinted in his compositions, characterised by vigorous modulated colours and stout forms. It is always a spontaneous act, never hindered by premeditated thought or reflection, although it does feature an artistic baggage informed by experience and artistic practice.

JA: Which landscape artists does he find very inspiring?

RC: Well, I don’t believe he has one particular favourite painting that he finds specifically more inspiring than the others. Yet there might be some works that could be more appealing to him.

One specific painting that is particularly close to his heart is the one displaying what might be seen as an unfinished work, an almost outlandish composition, featuring a mysterious cloud in the central plane, featuring the underlying rose-colour undercoat. It is a work that bestows intrigue and spectacle due to its peculiar visual qualities and due to how such elements can be interpreted in different ways.

JA: As you stated in the above-mentioned essay for the exhibition catalogue, there is layering in the picture and juxtaposition, reminding one of the techniques of collage, assemblage and cut-outs. We are seeing a more experimental side to the artist. Do you feel there will be a return to his old themes and palette? Or maybe an integration old and new as his next step in his artistic development?

RC: I think that this collection of artworks should not be seen as move away from his main approach or style, but rather another step in his artistic trajectory. It is an explorative route, providing new visual possibilities to the artist. It will surely unfold a new chapter or another stage in his artistic career that lead to new creative content.

Landforms, curated by Roderick Camilleri and hosted at the art galleries of the Malta Society of Arts (MSA) in Valletta, is open until August 11. Entrance is free. Consult the event’s Facebook page for opening hours.


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