The home offers a comfort zone away from it all, conducive to introspection and relaxation. Joseph Agius discusses with Anna Calleja her autobiographical exhibition, Homebound, and its pertinence to these abnormal times when the term ‘home’ has gained such overwhelming relevance.
The title of the exhibition strikes me as having a dual meaning. It indicates subliminally both a choice and the lack of it. Or else, as is this case during these pandemic times, it is a forced necessity over which our control is severely curtailed; thus, the home becomes a safe place for health reasons. To which category does the metaphorical ‘binding’ to home belongs? Was it an intentional conceptual choice to go for Homebound as a title instead of, let’s say, ‘Housebound’? Maybe ‘home’ captures the intimacy of the exhibition much more succinctly?
The title of the exhibition, Homebound, does indeed hold a dual meaning, but in the sense of the word indicating both a return to home but also being confined to home. After living in Cornwall for three years, I returned to Malta on a homebound flight in March last year. Therefore, Homebound not only reflects upon my personal journey home but our global experience as the domestic space has become both our haven and our cage.
The small dimensions of most of the work and the tight perspective emphasise that these are snippets of life, excised from a more inclusive reality, one which is severely limited by the walls of one’s house. Is this an intimacy evoking claustrophobia or vulnerability or both?
The work is small because it belongs in the home, there is an intimacy in working small that is relevant to the conceptual thinking behind the work. To me, it is neither one nor the other. Where there is comfort, there is vulnerability.
Where there is confinement and safety there is also claustrophobia. To me the work sits within the tension between these dualities. Between comfort and melancholy, between safety and danger, between nostalgia and uncertainty, and a number of other dualities too.
In Alone in Quarantine, I really did feel this sense of claustrophobia and brewing unease. It is a self-portrait I painted during my time in mandatory quarantine after a two-day journey from Cornwall to Malta in March last year. The painting challenges the historical trope of the reclining female nude in figurative painting.
Here the figure does not activate the male gaze but is passive, independent and introspective. The stillness of the figure is juxtaposed with the moving abstraction in the painting above. The abstraction embodies the disquiet within, reflecting upon the present moment.
Your paintings demonstrate a deep knowledge of art history which you have so admirably reinterpreted. Alone in Quarantine elicits comparisons with Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. There is a shared pathos of the inevitable. The Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky refers to the Holbein painting in his novel The Idiot. Have we all become idiots, awaiting a post-COVID resurrection?
Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, lamentations of the dead Christ and reclining figures in the history of art serve to ground the work in tales as old as time. I also look at cursed sleep in fairy-tales, how women are entranced in the most dangerous of situations. By retelling stories and referencing narrative tropes, I may channel and express my own personal narrative and reflect upon the present moment. Sleep and stillness therefore became a metaphor of our time; these reference a way to reflect upon the present moment. Sleep is an in- between, passive state. While the world grows ever more turbulent, divisive and moves steadily towards climate crises, we sleep on.
By retelling stories and referencing narrative tropes, I may channel and express my own personal narrative
Holbein’s painting inspired Escape, a self-portrait of me on my phone. Yet unlike Christ, who is resurrected and ascends into Heaven, I leave the confines of home through the phone and into the virtual world.
Sometimes the autobiographical takes a step back when you portray people in a peaceful slumber, like in And They Lived Happily Ever After… and in Lucia and Nina Sleeping. The loose expressionist brushstrokes of the former painting somehow elicit the Bay Area Figurative school of painting, especially Elmer Bischoff and David Park. Park once remarked: “I have found that in accepting and immersing myself in subject matter I paint with more intensity and that the ‘hows’ of painting are more inevitably determined by the ‘whats’.” Are your ‘hows’ determined by your ‘whats’ during the creative process?
My process when making is very intuitive. The process of painting develops depending on my own state of mind and how I let the painting develop, simplifying and letting it grow organically. The ‘hows’ are me problem-solving within the moment. I don’t paint in a structured way. In And They Lived Happily Ever After…, I paint my parents on a video call. It’s painted on a cutlery tray, the surface becoming a portal home.
Within this work, I also reassessed the childhood certainty of the ‘happily ever after trope’. When you are a child, there is a sense of certainty about the future, that you lose as you grow up. In the case of that particular painting, the loose strokes developed because I quickly fleshed out the painting, only to realise that it worked; the mark making, and loose brushstrokes related to the representation of the digital video call.
In Lucia and Nina Sleeping, the painting developed much more slowly, I wanted to retain translucency within the paint, to allow the pigment within the burnt sienna to retain its warmth. Therefore, the surface of the painting is very different, thinner and translucent to that of And They Lived Happily Ever After…
Each painting seems to need a different treatment depending on the subject matter, colour palette I am using or the surface I am working on. Depending on whether I am painting on canvas, paper or panel, the application of paint changes slightly.
The tondo format of painting, favoured during the Italian Renaissance by Botticelli, Michelangelo and the relief sculptor Luca della Robbia encircles the protagonists of the painting in a much more pronounced intimacy. Lucia and Nina Sleeping is a highly poignant painting that captures familiarity and comfort in a bubble. Is this an interpretation of a pandemic bubble as a tondo?
The use of different surfaces and formats wasn’t a conscious interpretation of the pandemic bubble, but I really enjoy the viewer bringing their own interpretation to the work. To me, the use of different formats pushes me creatively, challenging my sense of composition. In this case it was to evoke a sense of intimacy, portal holes, round mirrors, intimate cyclical embraces.
There is an inherent rhythm to this pandemic-induced seclusion. There is comfort in the everyday repeated pattern of having showers, having naps, eating food and surfing the net, which you have captured in a number of paintings. The other side of the coin is a boredom that sets in and which becomes a way of life. Banal objects like a pair of scissors or the bath tap suddenly speak out, become relevant and worthy of scrutiny. There is a Richard Diebenkorn starkness in such a realisation. Do you think that our perspectives have been dramatically re-evaluated in this last year? Does being homebound become a life lesson that will change most of our habits permanently?
Richard Diebenkorn is a really wonderful source of inspiration. He changed and developed throughout his life, moving between figuration and abstraction. His portrayal of the everyday evokes a real sense of sensitivity that I admire deeply. In fact, Shears were partly in homage to him, but also to the shears of fate in Greek mythology, that cut the thread of life. The joy and fulfilling nature of making art is finding and making meaning.
Therefore, the everyday repeated pattern of life can become a way to express themes that are universal, in my case using my notions of comfort to deal with uncertainty and anxiety. Interestingly, those two works were made before the pandemic changed our lives.
Since then, I think we have all had to find meaning in the mundane and revaluate the value of things we have previously taken for granted. We have been forced to notice that everything from the postal service, the production of food, mass production… everything in our capitalist society, still requires people, and that those people are valuable. A light has been shone on systems that were somewhat invisible.
I see a return to the handmade, second-hand, analogue photography, baking bread, sewing and painting, as we search to find tangible, accessible sustainable processes in a very intangible digital world heading towards climate crisis. This possibly began as a reaction to capitalism and climate change, but the pandemic has really accelerated this shift.
Homebound has been hosted by the Malta Society of Arts but had to close due to the new COVID-19 measures.
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