Atrophy refers to wasting away, to degeneration, to succumbing to the ravages of time. It hints at a process which can be relentless though slow, which deforms and which leads to the loss in normal function, biological or otherwise. 

Atrophy also relates meta­phorically to the brain and its misuse through a dearth of thought processes, thus resembling a vestigial organ, like the male mammary glands or the human appendix, an atrophy of function through evolution. 

Rupert Cefai. Photo: Rupertcefai.comRupert Cefai. Photo:

The appendix, an apparently useless attachment to the large intestine, is a relic of the evolution of the human species from a strict herbivore in which the organ was necessary for the more efficient digestion of plant cell walls. Some biologists believe that this ‘atrophication’, through its consequent non-use and non-function, will result, via further evolution, in its progressive elimination.

One can claim that, once we are born, we do start steadily atrophying – the time period assigned to us among the living gradually starts running out after taking our first breath. From dust to dust, this nihilist biblical saying relates to the decomposition, as we are lain into the ground to atrophy and become one with it. 

Enough to ForgetEnough to Forget

For his latest exhibition, Rupert Cefai, well-known for his paintings of Valletta streets and their daily hustle and bustle, besides his other figurative oeuvre, is investigating abstraction in a rather non-traditional way. The launching pad for this collection of paintings and sculpture originates from the figurative, from the natural environment and the ongoing cycle of creation and destruction via the agency of water. 

Cefai explores the duality of this property of water, a compound of two chemical elements without which most life would not be possible as organic biochemical reactions require its presence. Water constitutes a large percentage of the human body; in certain cases, this is even gauged at 75 per cent. We are essentially made up of water. Planet Earth’s surface is also 71 per cent water; the number suggesting a numeri­cal universality of water as a predominant life source. 

However, water can be the agent of destruction, and eventual recreation, through the sweeping away of everything that obstructs its course. Canadian author Margaret Atwood remarks that water can be patient but also stubborn. 

“Water always goes where it wants to go and nothing in the end can stand against it,” she remarks. 

Decadence − Too Much of a Good ThingDecadence − Too Much of a Good Thing

As expressed in Cefai’s painting Decadence − Too Much of a Good Thing, life cannot happen without water; however, anything in voluptuous excessive volumes is overwhelming and can lead to decadence and decay. 

Cefai’s observation of nature and water

Through his excursions after heavy storms to Wied Qirda, in Żebbuġ, Malta, Cefai encountered the fragile ecosystems that populate this valley. The abstract patterns created by twigs, grass, leaves, as well as pollutants, such as discarded car tyres, offered compositional opportunities; it was like nature was capable of improvised abstraction. 

All Hope Has Run DryAll Hope Has Run Dry

Valleys are natural channels of water, accumulating it and directing it towards the open sea. Malta’s valleys, dry and parched in summer, as depicted in Cefai’s All Hope Has Run Dry, rediscover their primordial original function as river beds, especially during the heavy downpours that occasionally drench our islands in autumn and winter. 

“Cefai, emulating water, similarly transforms form into rhythm, texture, structure, tempo and harmony”

The cycle of life and its dependence on water is starker and bleaker in these sorts of biomes; life abounds and multiplies during the wet months while it seems to hibernate or appear lifeless in the stark Mediterranean summer months. The valley beds evoke the leathery texture of some of Italian artist’s Alberto Burri’s abstracts.

Water, thus, erodes, degenerates and transforms the inherently solidly representational into abstraction. Cefai observed this, transporting this transformation onto his canvases and integrating actual valley detritus into some of his sculptures. The titles of his paintings point towards a narrative, a series of chapters that docu­ment the dynamics of the creative process. The water-induced natural abstraction presents Cy Twombly-like patterns and glyphs, deciphered by the artist and translated into a prompting language via the titles of the works. 

Art critic François Jacob remarked about Chinese-French artist’s Zao Wou-Ki’s late-period works: “They present for us the birth of light, the origins of water and, beyond these turbulent upheavals of matter, a distant sense of the life energy coming into being in their midst.” 

This is similarly evoked in the Maltese artist’s works.

Atrophia and rebirth 

The gestural works of Zao Wou-Ki, Joan Mitchell and other protagonists of Art Informel as well as Malta’s own Alfred Chircop, although all seemingly abstract in concept, originate from ideas grounded in the figurative. Cefai, emulating water, similarly transforms form into rhythm, texture, structure, tempo and harmony. Water is the paintbrush of the valley’s nature, alchemically mixing, transforming and transcending. 

Where Bones RestWhere Bones Rest

Death and atrophy, as suggested in Cefai’s painting Where Bones Rest, can be found in submerged, anaerobic environments; the dissolution of flora and fauna into a formless mud as the template for recycle and rebirth. Water atrophies nature, degenerates it into its finite elements, makes a sludge of it through which the valley ecosystems’ next generations flourish. 

Through this body of work, with the title of the individual pieces acting as possible prompts that help the viewer reach out towards alternatives in representation, Cefai is inviting us to take in this cyclical and seasonal timelessness, this documentation of it on canvas and through sculpture. 

Atrophia, curated by Christine X and hosted at Christine X Art Gallery, Tigné Street, Sliema, runs until June 10. Consult the exhibition’s Facebook page for more information.

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