The struggle against narcissism | James Vella Clark

We speak to painter James Vella Clark about his participation in ‘Selfie’ – an exhibition of self-portraits by a healthy number of contemporary Maltese artists at Studio 104, Valletta.

James Vella Clark - self-portrait
James Vella Clark - self-portrait

How would you describe the ‘brief’ of this particular exhibition, and how did you go about interpreting it?

The brief seemed deceptively straightforward but once I sat down to think, it left me clueless. I started thinking of what ‘selfies’ really represent and came to the conclusion that for many, the selfie is a justified way of expressing one’s approval with himself and his or her appearance.

Through their selfie, people want us to see a side with which they are most comfortable with whilst hiding other less alluring realities. The selfie is also the product of a split second. Having such immediate qualities, the selfie reminds us that we no longer take time to look at who we really are. This is what is leading so many people to superficiality.

And this is why I chose to interpret this project through a self-portrait – because whereas selfies instantly show how people want others to see them, a self-portrait shows how the artist sees himself. Whether it is how he wants others to see him remains debatable.

What kind of work will you be exhibiting as part of the show?

I chose to show a self-portrait in pencil which is the medium with which I entered the world of art. It’s like going back to my artistic roots. Those who know me from a very young age, know that I never painted but I only drew in pencil.

Therefore, to many who are familiar with my abstract and colourful landscapes, this will come as a surprise. Also, when one works on a self-portrait, one finds himself looking deeper and this involves facing your past, your experiences and of course the least pleasant sides of one’s personality.

When I look at my inner self, I always find myself having to face my demons and they’re not pleasant. I feel I have managed to channel my inner anger at myself through this self-portrait. Contrary to selfies, through which people always seek to portray the ‘perfect’ existence.

What do you make of Studio 104 as a space, and what does it offer that other – perhaps more prominent – galleries do?

Studio 104 was a pleasant surprise when it opened. Not only because Valletta needs more art spaces but also because of where the gallery is located – very close to Marsamxett.

It’s not an area where one would expect to find an art gallery and I hope this will somehow manage to involve and impact the community living there. Having said that, the gallery’s management is doing a great job and from the previous two exhibitions I attended, I was very impressed with the level of curatorship and interaction with the audience.

How has your style developed over the years, and what have been some of the most important things you’ve learnt?

My landscapes are very Mediterranean, both visually and intrinsically. They reflect my bold, spontaneous and passionate character and my love for vibrant contrasts.

The omnipresent church dome and its steeple dominate most of my townscapes and represent the ongoing relationship between female and male, as well as society’s dominating character on the individual and his personal life.

Over the years, my landscapes have assumed a stronger abstract dimension, but still retain a familiarity with which the viewer can establish the first connection. One of the most important things that I’ve learnt is that my art always brings me closer to who I am and through it, I find my real self.

What, in your opinion, are some of the most pressing concerns of the visual arts scene in Malta, especially now in the run-up to V18?

One of the most pressing concerns that I see is the lack of ability in many people to look at art and appreciate not only its meaning but also the artist’s work behind it and that each piece is always the result of all the work preceding it. Many people are not even patient to stop and think what a work of art could mean.

They are not willing to let themselves be challenged by art and they dismiss all that they are not even willing to try and understand. Renzo Piano’s project – which is a work of art in itself – and more recently, the ‘chaos’ that Austin Camilleri’s three-legged horse has stirred are two cases in point.

Many people do not deserve to be surrounded by such beauty and the root of the problem is that we are not teaching art appreciation in our schools. For V18? We’re already way too late.

Selfie will be open until October 25. Opening hours at Studio 104 are 11:00 to 17:00 from Tuesday to Friday and 11:00 to 14:00 on Saturday.

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