The latest oil-painting exhibition by Julian Mallia at Spazju Kreattiv (open till May 26) offers the Maltese a taste of something completely different.

Marx & SpencerMarx & Spencer

An artist and personal friend of mine, Julian, known in artistic circles as Julinu, has always been fascinated by the surreal, with animals featuring constantly both in his works and in his imagination. At one point, he was fixated with the absurdly popular image of a fish on a bicycle. If you are into that sort of thing, then you will surely find that his latest exhibition does not disappoint.

A surreal experience which begins before it even starts (and you’ll have to find out why yourself – let’s just say you will melt your political worries away with laughter at the entrance, ensuring a visit these coming days to be both timely and appropriate), the exhibition is chock-full of a surrealist’s pipe dream: a place where reality is halted for a Daliesque melted moment and a bizarre environment, ironically and paradoxically more real than reality, takes its stead. All the works exhibited share this paradoxical quality of being amusingly entertaining but also absurdly truthful.

As with all surreal works, they must be seen to be appreciated, but I’ll do my best to lend you my eye, hoping it will intrigue you enough to return it (clean and polished) and direct yours to something other than your mobile screen.

The works, varied in theme and insanely creative in substance, will certainly not bore you. One is a ‘knot’ to Magritte, another presents a self-fornicating chameleon reminiscent of those who snake their way through so many changes of opinions that they eventually find themselves in a bind.

In another piece, Julinu jettisons the luzzu in space. Here I have to recall my many conversations with the artist on the subject of cliché: he has never been a fan of the run-of-the-mill landscape art that dominates the Maltese scene. We were both not very fond of the ordinary either.

Back then I thought, perhaps rightly, that it was merely our way to be different and rebel against the mundane. Age has lent a deeper meaning behind this instinctive repulsion, and I believe that what is really at issue here, what people like Julian truly abhor, is not the cliché itself but rather the inauthenticity of placing an item we clearly have no real regard for as a symbol of national identity.

Julian cannot stand the hypocrisy behind it all: the empty talk when we do not really do anything to save and preserve the things we supposedly love and that allegedly “make us who we are”, and the lauding of artists who maintain the charade by people who wax lyrical about ‘Malteseness’ and national heritage, and then do nothing to preserve it, or, worse, do the utmost to destroy it.

Of course, some of that youthful rebellion against the mundane is certainly there. Clichés always ruin beautiful things: I recall a TV advert for household cleaning products in my childhood that was sung to the tune of George Bizet’s L’amour est un oiseau rebelle. To this day, it remains one of the pieces I listen to the least, but sometimes I happen to come across it on the radio, and that is when I realise how beautiful a piece it really is.

The false idea of our ‘luzzu Malta’ is the main motivation however, and here Julian acts as a true artist, bringing reality to light and inviting us to reflect on the stale falsity we represent, and on the absurdity of it all.

Despite their seemingly ridiculous nature, the works convey simple truths

Reflection is itself the theme of another work on display that I find particularly interesting, for it is itself a reflection on how times have changed. It depicts the artist’s take on the classic children’s tale of Snow White. The story was about someone so obsessed with her appearance, so vain, a narcissist of the first order, that it truly consumed her. She was the witch, and the story sought to teach us the perils of envy. Today, those same ‘villains’ are called ‘influencers’, and everybody is self-absorbed and consumed by the idea of one’s self. A grim end to a wonderful tale.

There may also be some traces of the ‘Malteseness’ I mentioned in Julian’s work: I like to believe that Periodic Table was somewhat inspired by our infamous ornithological holocaust during the “stań°un tal-passa”, only the bird here flies freely as the table passes away.

Terms and Conditions Apply opens the door to a plethora of interpretative questions. Whose terms and conditions? For whom, and regarding what? Is it a reference to the religious terms and conditions set on followers, or is it mocking the trend of setting one’s own terms and conditions on a chosen faith? Again, inauthenticity takes centre stage. Funnily enough, the terms and conditions in the painting take the place of the crucifix and it is the protagonist of that work who carries the asterisk, which, in a subtle and clever play between artwork and caption, points to the title of the work itself. Indeed, title and work complement each other as do word play and visual play. The works fish for more complementary qualities, engaging the viewer’s imagination and interpretation: a complimentary offering in addition to the technical display of the illustrative arts.

Marx & Spencer, bringing together two figures from the past – one mildly important, the other a giant from our childhood – a juxtaposition which itself juxtaposes Marxist ideology with capitalism through a clever meta-reference.

Whereas I sense that some works are merely playful, most of the artworks on display are in fact thought-provoking traps, revealing the artist as a cunning hunter: calling his art ‘absurd’ while being oblivious to the irony behind them. That is to say, without realising the absurdity they are mocking, is in itself absurd, and, indeed, far more absurd than the artworks themselves. What Julian deals with (and to the viewer) is paradox: despite their seemingly ridiculous nature, the works convey simple truths.

Julian has observed the absurd in the norm, and decided to show this by turning the norm into the absurd. It is therefore important to go beyond the superficial and scratch beneath the surface, thus uncovering what lies behind the veneer, just as suggested by the piece titled Arani Issa: a portrayal of a make-over which only manages to turn the hideous into a freak.

Error 404: Azure Window Not Found refers to the typical error message encountered on the web. Ironically, the only place where one can actually ‘find’ the Azure Window today is precisely on the internet. Of particular interest here is how, in this day and age, imagery has become even more powerful in evoking thoughts: the great Leopardi had written poems about the passing of time, the fading of glory and the blind powerful indifference of nature, while today we have memes which convey complex thoughts, sometimes successfully.

Julian has always been fascinated by the artistic exercise. Once he showed me an assignment he was given by his art teacher where he had to digitally ‘vandalise’ a famous artwork. I believe he chose to perform the sacrilege on a Vermeer painting, cleverly replacing the poured milk with a trickle of blood and adding a bloody hand to the Milkmaid, one of my favourite works. I gasped at the horror, though not at the one implied: ‘adding’ to perfection was to me an unspeakable insult. Perhaps it was the puritan in me who could not see the artistic merits of this exercise, or perhaps it was his artistic pride that made him think of it a clever addition. Whatever the case may be, I feel that that instance has had a profound impact on Julian’s artistic upbringing, and here we have an offering not of his best “art”, but of playful artistic exercise, which, I believe, will only be a prelude to future offerings.

One thing is certain: you should definitely take the luzzu out of the garage and pay a visit. Just make sure you don’t park next to the dinosaur.

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