Art and design writer Ann Dingli meets Skye Ferrante at his New York studio to discuss contemporary portraiture, working in Malta, and a desire to make real connections.

We all know Malta is obsessed with social media, but let’s go ahead and throw some figures at this accepted notion to lend it more gravitas. Apparently, we’re the second most social media-engaged nation in Europe, with 90 per cent of our population habitually using one platform or another – mostly Facebook.

Young adults use it every single day, while the elder generation – we’re talking pensioners – use it at double the rate than most of their peer groups throughout the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, 75 per cent of businesses in Malta use social media, and we all know trying to get a local business representative to answer an e-mail takes triple the time it does to get so much as a thumbs up on Facebook (that’s not a statistic, but an observation that many people would put money on being an actual fact).

So, if the business world in Malta happens in a major way on social media, surely there’s not far to go before the art deal migrates to popular feeds – as it has done elsewhere in the world (think of heavy-weight British art dealer Brett Gorvy and his savvy Insta-trading, as well as a herd of artists who have cut out the dealer middleman and are selling directly via Instagram).

Art, like everything else, will always find a way to feed and revolutionise its commodification. But Skye Ferrante – a New York born-and-based visual artist – is more interested in the potential that exists offline and holds the likely unpopular belief that “the measure of success today is to be disconnected”.

His goal veers away from the arguably self-indulgent world of social media – albeit existing under the same umbrella of obsession with self-imagery – and moves towards something more lasting. He looks to provide ‘real’ experiences to his sitters; experiences that have the potency to transcend the flurry of daily ego-feeding activity that he believes has cultivated “a generation of people who are desperate for a real connection”.

Known in the New York art scene and beyond as ‘Man of Wire’, Ferrante is a sculptor who used to be a ballet dancer but inherently identifies as a writer. He has built a reputation from his prolific work spent sculpting line portraits out of singular, continuous stretches of wire. Ferrante’s subjects are generally friends, people from the art world, and nightlife personalities. His process involves sculpting abstract likenesses of his models in an approximate three-hour sitting, working quickly, using rapid, flowing gestures that he attributes to his years as a dancer.

To sit for me is real connection

During these wire-sculpting sessions, he employs what he terms as the ‘artist’s gaze’, as opposed to the ‘male gaze’, which is often assumed or even expected, but which he is not interested in. His ambition is to give his sitters something that will last forever – a memento of symbolic immortality in an age of fleeting vanities.

 “On an island where social media is everything, maybe it would be more effective to be exclusive and reachable only in person,” Ferrante says, speaking to the subject of Malta’s social media dependence. “People are so connected and yet so detached. I’m looking for real connection. To sit for me is real connection”.

Late last year, Ferrante travelled to Malta to undertake a series of portraits, and like he does with all his sittings, he offered his subjects a departure from moments of transient, short-lived, ego-highs. Instead he guarantees “three hours of conversation and a sculpture that will last forever, or as long as you take care of it. Longer than our lives”.

His promise of the imperishable is an asset that’s inextricably connected with portraiture – a genre that has held its relevance throughout art history’s various periods and movements with a white-knuckle grip. Portraiture refuses to ignore the exploitability of human beings’ inclination to safeguard their most flattering depiction, and instead channels it into one of the most persistent and captivating of processes. It mocks time, cavorting instead with degrees of pomposity and certainly with self-consciousness.

But Ferrante insists that portraiture can go beyond conceitedness and become a mechanism of ownership. “We’re living in the age of ego – but some people are [sitting for portraits] out of empowerment, and I’m not talking just about the nudes. Portraiture is something that people have always wanted to do, they think – I want to have the confidence to expose myself for art. And it’s a very different type of exposition”.  

This offering up of oneself to art is the gift Ferrante can and is eager to bring to the islands again and more frequently. He has plans to return to Malta regularly, and is currently taking portrait commissions via his gallery representation – Lily Agius Gallery. He loved visiting the islands, and contrary to the warnings he received surrounding the conservative tastes of local art enthusiasts, he felt his work was met with relative openness.

“Malta has tremendous possibilities. I’d like to have a studio hub and work there for a month or so every year. I’d like to stay awhile”. Who knows, he might even stay long enough to delay our frantic scroll-mongering, and prompt us to spare a moment for something more traditionally authentic and – perhaps – more worth our while.

For more information contact Lily Agius Gallery: (+356) 99292488, info@lilyagiusgallery.com, or visit Lily Agius Gallery, 54 Cathedral Street, Sliema.