Published on Thursday 27 May 2021

“Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long”. This statement is the essence of David Hockney’s latest video installation, detailing a vibrant sunrise in a sky which is evidently in the process of approaching twilight.

A paradoxical positioning which is much in line with the manner in which many lived the pandemic. In life, we are at times faced with situations wherein we are forced to reflect on existential concerns, dilemmas such as what unites us to the rest of humanity, what makes us diverse, and what makes us so similar. The pandemic thrust humanity into the depths of the abyss, when death visited our doorstep on a daily basis, when the need for human contact had to be kept at bay due to enforced isolation. Our individual and collective sense of being was ruptured, without rite or ritual, and a transition of great magnitude loomed. However, such liminal spaces arrive with added benefits, as with each major transition comes the possibility of change. Just as we descend into freefall with familiar, disorientating, gut-churning chaos, we similarly have the capacity to emerge out of moratorium, having shed the old and embraced a more coherent world view.

With this context as a backdrop, the artist in me had the liberty to take central stage. I had the physical and mental space to ponder on fundamental issues, and finding meaning out of a meaninglessness reality spurred me to action. My creative forces were let loose. Day after day after day, while the pandemic raged on, I found refuge in my studio, thinking, sketching, and painting. While firmly rooted in an urban context, my imagination explored familiar and distant terrains, both primitive and divine.

The journey started off with the “Lands” series, wherein I explored the female form, adopting a mostly arid background, except for the presence of life-giving water. The series moved from figures in total abandonment to figures in a state of complete union, in blissful serenity. Themes of isolation and clinical detachment were balanced out with the harmony of oneness, in synch with what was going on around me. In this series of works, I pondered on what makes us draw near and what makes us detach; what makes us seek the novel or the familiar, and what makes us retract. Amidst the contextual confusion that surrounded me, I concentrated on themes related to the intimacy of being.

My next major enterprise during the pandemic was the aptly named “Darkness at Noon”. In this collective exhibition which explored the uncanny, I employed frenetic figuration and the use of the union of the human with the bestial, mixing the mythological and the pagan, with opposites and dualities being explored through juxtaposition and mirroring. This resulted in multi-layered collages, wherein the most primal and raw emotions were portrayed. Archetypal characters on canvas assumed primordial and base qualities, with this representation implying that adopting an animal nature prevents humanity from becoming conscious of its creaturely origins. Similar to Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic concept that unconscious forces prevent humanity from thinking of its animal nature and, consequently, its death (Rank, 1930/2003), I wanted to place the fear of death at the foreground, at a time when such a fear was palpable in the community, through embracing the individual and collective shadow.

The pandemic also gave me the possibility to reflect on the more elevated aspects of what makes us human and what links us to the ethereal. As an artist, I am deeply interested in classical painting, in the beauty of form, line, and composition. With these concepts in mind, I embarked on a diptych entitled “Agnus Dei”, featured in the collective exhibition {v}. The diptych featured the union of the gods with humanity and the bestial, with the upper section depicting a utopian salute to creation, and the lower section flagrantly displaying the downfall of man.

“Primavera”, the largest canvas I have painted to date, came hot in the heels of “Agnus Dei”. At first glance, the painting features mythic figures, humans, and animals, caught in a seemingly playful, surreal dance, cavorting in complete and utter abandon. Yet, similar to the tragedy that has struck the world, the main protagonists of this orchestrated pictorial scene are visual symbols of the angst which torments humanity, and the aftermath which may occur when man is in the grips of the relentless pursuit of pleasure. Our hedonistic displays have exacted a high cost.

This is the reality I have lived for the last year, and the artist in me has echoed the roller coaster ride that the world has lived through. Humanity has not emerged unscathed. Let’s hope that the scars will be faint and the cracks will be small enough to sustain the living.

Photo credit: 'Mediterra' series (Circe and her Nymphs), Gabriel Buttigieg.

Words by Gabriel Buttigieg.