Although Daniel Borg is a newcomer to the visual art scene, he is no novice in the local music scene, having been a member of Maltese bands such as Skimmed, The Velts, Fastidju and Superlove. Coming also from a design  background, he feels that his shift to art was a reaction to personal circumstances.

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“I’m almost 35 years of age. Finding people to form a band at my age is very difficult, an age in which one is generally more inclined to start a family. I could have opted for a solo career in music; however, had I done so, the buzz, the interactions between band members, which is what interests me most, would have been lost,” the artist says.

A soul-searching exercise paved the way to an alternative way of artistic expression and to revisit his past.

“Pursuing something that I used to enjoy when I was much younger affected my choice of route. Preoccupations with mortality started creeping in as I’m not getting any younger. I have delayed this decision to paint by about 20 years,” Borg notes,  acknowledging that time was ripe to stop procrastinating.

Raffaella Zammit, co-creative director and programme manager of the Gabriel Caurana Foundation, points out that the foundation has been following Borg’s work for quite a while. She remarks: “We came across Daniel’s work through social media.  I had remarked to curator Elyse Tonna that Daniel is posting really interesting work.”

Borg fits the ethos of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, established in 2016, to provide support for up-and-coming artists, irrespective of their age and of their academic background.

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“Since 2017, we have been organising an annual exhibition. Last year, we embarked on open calls for collective exhibitions earmarked for our SPRING initiative. Besides smaller collectives, we organise one annual solo exhibition and Daniel has been our choice for this year,” Zammit adds. “My dad, Gabriel Caruana, always had in mind to develop an organisation with the aim of promoting modern and contemporary art, this was already something he had envisioned back in 1989, in parallel also with opening up The Mill.”  

Tonna explains that the foundation is always on the lookout for new talent and it offers an advantageous platform as it does away with the usual procedures adopted by the usual galleries. “We comprehend the difficulties encountered by new artists when they try their luck in submitting their proposals to galleries; these often ask for a portfolio that doesn’t always satisfy the gallery; or else they ask for a substantial financial contribution by the artist,” Tonna remarks.

“We do our utmost to give the artist more exposure via marketing and spreading the word around. We don’t get into the merits of the artist’s development as we wouldn’t want to interfere in the process of artistic growth,” the curator points out. “This exhibition conveys an amalgamation of consequences following a process of rediscovery, through a series of images unveiling aspects of the mundane. The exhibition shifts focus from extraordinary realities to ordinary experiences through an entire exploration of the self.”

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The title and the works were selected by Tonna, in discussion with Borg, to portray what is primarily an introspective exhibition. Tonna says that feedback sessions with Borg were held as from late last year, gauging directions while proposing curatorial advice. Since the artist was already in possession of a sizeable portfolio of works, it was decided that a dedicated theme wasn’t necessary at all.

“It was more an exercise of allowing and enabling the artist to create and create more, and the foundation reacting to these creations. The curation involved a choice from Daniel’s burgeoning portfolio, discerning themes, patterns and conversations going on between the works of art themselves, to create an experience for the viewers,” Tonna elucidates.

This is the objective that underlines all the exhibitions organised under the aegis of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation. “We gauged Daniel’s stages of evolution and that made it a very interesting artistic voyage for the foundation as well,” Zammit concludes.

Berlin and new opportunities

The move from Malta to Berlin, a city brimming with culture, exposed Borg to museums and galleries and their holds of art. “I’m not too enthusiastic about the art exhibited in the major commercial galleries where abstract expressionism is still a fad,” Borg remarks, adding that Germans love to come across as weird, an attitude which leaves him cold.

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The old masters shouldn’t be thrown out of the window; their work can be updated, re-explored and presented as a contemporary take

“Their schools are hell-bent on breaking all the rules, on reinventing the wheel. They sometimes miss the wood for the trees – one can be original by not being necessarily transgressive and dead set against the grain. An artist can reinterpret concepts and have something to say. The old masters shouldn’t be thrown out of the window; their work can be updated, re-explored and presented as a contemporary take.”

Figuration versus abstraction and size matters

The contemporary general trend if for a return to the figurative, upstaging abstraction.

“I feel the reason for this change in direction can be attributed to some extent to Instagram.”

He observes: “Size matters in contemporary art, the large-scale dimensions of the pieces are essential. This precludes them from domestic settings. Anyway, nowadays price of property and family size are suggesting a general domestic downscaling.”

The artist regards abstraction as having been exploited beyond its limits, and in need of a period of rest to reinvent and repropose itself a few years hence. However, figurative painting does not rule out abstraction. “Take Cecily Brown’s paintings for example; they are in a state of flux, a relentless shifting between the figurative and the abstract.”

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Photography, cinematography as springboards

There is a strong illustrative quality in Borg’s work, nodding towards the output of American illustrator, Bernard Fuchs. He admits that Fuchs is an influence as his paintings similarly illustrate slices of everyday life. “I snap photos as preparatory groundwork, as springboards that would evolve into fully-fledged paintings. Some of them are snapshots of my immediate family, which stands to reason as the theme of the exhibition centres around the pictorial documentation of these last 10 months or so of my life, coinciding with my transition to the visual arts,” Borg ascertains.

The Maltese artist uses technology like Photoshop to manipulate an image chromatically, adding that he uses his brain as a filter to get at the colours that he feels work best. “Photography is a tool that wasn’t available to the Renaissance and Baroque artists; it gives us contemporary artists a certain edge.

“Take British artist Jenny Saville.  Her use of collage wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of photography. The work of photographers Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Mark Owen and the street photographers interests me. I admit that I’m also heavily influenced by cinematography. Flash photography and the way the flash alters the colour temperatures intrigues me too,” Borg continues.

 “I keep the titles simple as I don’t want the titles to be like a TV manual, showing the viewer how to look at the painting, I don’t want it to limit the perspective,” he emphatically declares.

Dialogues and other conversations

Going through Borg’s portfolio of paintings, including those not featured in Midlife Crisis, one could not help but remark about possible associations with the work of Luc Tuymans, Wilhelm Sasnal and Alex Katz.

Far Away evokes a Francisco de Zurbarán asceticism while Lina is reminiscent of the elegiac, introspective quality of Felice Casorati’s Child Sleeping. Having casually mentioned these artists in the past as being possible reference points, as my reactions to Borg’s postings on social media, this had elicited non-plussed interjections by the artist: “First time I’m hearing of this particular artist, let me google him or her”.

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“Coming from a musical composition background, I tend to use similar methodologies and dynamics when creating a painting. I used to be very conscious of the music around me. My songwriting stems from a state of an unselfconsciousness and non-awareness; I have transposed this to creating art.

“I look at loads of paintings, images and covers of music albums, which I find very educating. There are times when I task myself to paint like, let’s say, Hockney, but it’s obviously not easy and it would not make sense in the long run. But without fail, I always get to the point that I’m happy with what I had produced and that’s what matters in the end,” Borg insists.

Academic training versus self-teaching

Eric Fischl, one of Borg’s favourite artists, once claimed that: “Artists of my generation were not educated. We were not given the equipment because it was generally believed to be  irrelevant.”

Borg feels that academia and technique can hinder the creative process. This concealment, this restriction within the straitjacket of academic instruction, is detrimental in the Maltese artist’s opinion: “Sometimes I look at a painting and can’t help but exclaim that the artist is using all the tricks learned through a formal education. These days, one can learn these techniques via YouTube, that’s how I became aware of them. Taking the analogy to musical composition, people expect an accepted sequence in the  chords, as professed via a formal musical education. I try to break this mould.”

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He again takes Hockney as an example who, although the British artist attended art school, he claimed that he  had to go through a process of ‘unlearning’.  Abstract Expressionism was in its heydays during his early career. “Hockney managed to find that balance between the figurative and abstract, this much so after his sojourn in California. An artist who has never attended  formal art education is at an advantage, as unlearning is a very difficult process.

“Habits die hard, especially those ingrained through a formal education,” Borg concludes.

Midlife Crisis, under the auspices of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation and its SPRING Artistic Programme, is hosted at The Mill - Art, Culture and Crafts Centre, Birkirkara. It runs until July 29. Please log on to the event’s Facebook page for opening times. COVID-19 restrictions apply. More information on https://gabrielcaruanafoundation.org/events/midlife-crisis/

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