Last spring, the whole world succumbed to the effects of this pandemic, forcing us to change our lifestyles and ultimately adapt to the new normal. Ryan Falzon’s work also took a different turn in subject matter; for the first time, he is presenting us with a series of leafy green plants in their domestic habitats.
The satire that we associate with Ryan’s work has always been a constant and is nonetheless woven through the thick layers of paint, yet in a subtler manner than we’re accustomed to.
Botanika succeeds in capturing and defining the essence of the typical plant patch one finds in a Maltese home, be it just a bitħa (yard) or a rooftop terrace. With space being a dilemma on the island, causing an ever-increasing thirst for green in this concrete jungle, these urban patches grow into our sacred and intimate sanctuary.
Plants and the nurturing of them is therapeutic and itself a ritual that many have grown fond of during these times where we are confined to our homes. This series directly highlights this; these plants serve as a surprising coping mechanism.
However, once this pandemic is over, will we tend to these creatures as faithfully and lovingly, or will they serve as a distant memory? Like a dog, would they have only served us as our patient and loyal companions? Ryan declares: “Plants patiently wait for you, even if they dwindle and die. They wait.” Having quite the green thumb, Ryan recognises his passion for plants and the commitment of maintaining them. Like human beings, this relationship also needs time, love and hard work. The artist also has a particular interest in chilies and their method of preservation, again taking pleasure in what some perceive as ‘mundane’ rituals.
This collection of paintings can be acknowledged as a noteworthy moment in Falzon’s artistic development. His signature caustic remarks on the Maltese macroscopic society have been replaced by this portrayal of an inner sanctum, a microcosm that flourishes in floral life amid a few dashes of technology like the radio cassette… Botanika might also be a nostalgic quest for a past already lived within the domestic confines of a yard or a rooftop.
Falzon introduces elements that alter the traditional still life genre to comment about the behavioural patterns of the Maltese
The exterior space that takes centre stage is part and parcel of the house; it is, in fact, an extension to the volumes of the house. The right amount of sunlight, the oxygen, the refuge from the harsh elements, each plant sensitively watered according to its species – these are all variables that come together and are all conducive to luscious growth to create a green lung and a sanctuary where solitude can be savoured and enjoyed.
Visually, this series of drawings and paintings ooze a bright palette that brings out a positive light in any space. The portrayal of these plants is botanically correct, yet they are still playfully represented in all their glory.
The tongue-in-cheek references, a staple in Falzon’s oeuvre, abound in some of the paintings. Grazzi Ġesù talli Rbaħna ’l-Covid f’Ġunju 2020 is a sarcastic reference to a statement by Maltese politicians that induced an untimely sense of fake enthusiasm. The statue of Jesus reinforces the Maltese context as these religious artefacts are sometimes found in Maltese gardens amid the greenery.
Ornaments, as in Fancy Carpets and Exotic Animals, similarly reflect a Maltese tendency to collect kitsch. These may include souvenirs from travels and purchases from local shops that stock kitschy esoterica and artefacts from non-Christian religions.
Falzon introduces these elements that alter the dynamics of the traditional still life genre to comment about the behavioural patterns of the Maltese. He doesn’t spare any segment of Maltese society, as Have Friends that Bring you Books, Flowers and Drinks when in Isolation, 2020, is a tongue-in-cheek observation on a different social class.
Art history can furnish us with many examples of still lifes of flora in all its glory. One can go back to the Renaissance and to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who used fruit, leaves and flowers as compositional elements in his grotesque still-life portraits. Jan Breughel’s oeuvre is mainly devoted to grand depictions of floral arrangements. Henri Fantin-Latour and Édouard Manet modernised and reinvigorated the genre while Henri Matisse introduced luscious flora to complement his sinuous female nudes.
The still life genre generally requires a staged internal setting. The artist plucks the vegetation and flowers out of their natural setting, which can be a garden or the wild countryside, to satisfy the whims of composition. Hence, the living material is transformed into lifeless nature morte. Having served as inspiration to an artistic celebration of natural life, the flora pathetically withers away and is unceremoniously disposed of.
Matisse’s plants are alive and flourishing in their new habitats inside the artist’s house, away from their natural environment. The nude is the central theme for Matisse, the plants are important embellishments that still live on although in a restrained, septic environment; one in which they are not allowed to run riot. The space and the inhabitants of the house determine their shape and size. They also rely on them for their nutrition.
Falzon depicts flora outside in his yard or roof, exterior environments in which they naturally belong. These still lifes are frozen in a moment in time. However, they are not nature morte in the literal meaning of the phrase. These plants will continue living outside in a natural environment that factorises sunlight, humidity, temperature and wind into the equation. Vegetation immortalised in conventional still lifes conveys a sensation of grandeur that precedes eventual decay. Falzon’s exhibition, besides the social comment aspect of it, also explores the semantics of still life as a term by celebrating vibrant life instead of organic decay.
Botanika, hosted at Studio 87, Ta’ Liesse Hill, Valletta, is curated by Justine Balzan Demajo. Opening times are Monday to Friday from 3 to 7pm and Saturday from 11am to 1.30pm until December 22. COVID-19 restrictions will be in place, with only five people allowed inside at a time. Masks are obligatory as well as sanitising of hands upon entry. Anyone who prefers to view the works privately may e-mail Justine on email@example.com or call 9932 4466, or call Ryan on 7933 3215.