Negotiating modern morality | Ryan Falzon

Up-and-coming artist Ryan Falzon speaks to us about his latest exhibition, Quick Fix: a morality tale, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a petty thug through 14 lino prints incorporating pop and punk imagery and Byzantine art

Ryan Falzon
Ryan Falzon

What was the reason you went for a ‘morality tale’ as the overarching theme for this exhibition? 

Printing as a medium has a long history as a vehicle to convey a moral message, even if for long it has been overshadowed by other media, mainly painting and sculpture.

Prints, ranging from Biblical scenes to Hogarth’s satirical etchings to Maria Antoinette’s lesbian adventures, the focus was rarely the medium itself. In an age where mental engagement is crucial to a successful artwork more than ever, I do find this idea of using the print as a vehicle, without ignoring its aesthetic elements, as extremely intriguing.

The title obviously refers to the Medieval morality plays, or interludes, where actors, often low-lifes, played symbolic roles such as God, Death, Evil and Justice. In Quick Fix: a morality tale, contemporary elements are made to play the same roles. The series can be seen as a modern Allegory.

However, as opposed to historical morality tales, the series I am presenting here is open-ended. The viewer is to decide about the fate of the hero, through clever use of text and visual elements, especially colour.

How did you work out this concept, and how does it tie into your previous work?

I tend to work in a series, rarely producing one-off works. I have been experimenting with the idea of having a series with a linear plotline for quite some time. I am using the term ‘linear’ with reserve; the series is far from a straightforward narrative.

I try to avoid spoon-feeding my audience, and love to allow ambiguity and contradiction in my works, so that viewers can have an opportunity for reflection. As in my previous work, this series demands engagement from the viewer, and refrains from providing comfortable answers.

The use of colour in this series is unconventional and unsettling, echoing my choice of palette when painting. Composition-wise, the prints are quite challenging and can even be described as collages, where a variety of sources are juxtaposed together, with the interaction between the elements allowing for new interpretations.

Thug life: 'Age 16' by Ryan Falzon
Thug life: 'Age 16' by Ryan Falzon

The exhibition also appears to incorporate various styles and aesthetic interests. What were the various influences that came into it?

The images have various references, from Byzantine to Neo-Expressionism, with a dose of pop and punk thrown in for good measure. Some are straightforward, such as the use of the Ford Escort as a statement of machismo and coolness.

Other references may appeal to art lovers who will recognise styles and influences from the history of art. I also include details which captured my attention while researching this exhibition. For example the kind of car used by the Mafia in the 60s to make a public statement in their terrorist attacks was a white Alfa Giulietta, which I include in one of the prints.

The exhibition has got several undertones, such as redemption, vengeance, violence, sexual perversion and the afterlife. I am trying to create a particular, local visual language, using a vast array of sources. Without wanting to sound tacky, I have to say that the local element and identity is always present in my work, not because I am Maltese and the works were created in Malta, but due to the popular images and urban legends that fuse their way, sometimes subtly, in my works. 

You appear to be making an effort to organise solo exhibitions at your own initiative over the past couple of years. What are some of the challenges of carving a niche for yourself in the local arts scene? 

The challenges that I encounter aren’t local, but are the same challenges that aspiring artists struggle with. These include getting your name out there, financing your art and exhibitions, being fresh and innovative all the time and such, having a sounding board against which to bounce your ideas.

This exhibition is also a first collaboration between myself and curator Michael Fenech, one which we plan to be long term. We have spent long hours discussing the concept and narrative, and it is always useful to have someone who challenges your thoughts.

I don’t come from an artistic background, therefore I had to learn the ropes all by myself. In Malta, young artists who are starting off face difficulties in showing their work professionally. Having said that, a lack of available platforms can be an opportunity for artists, especially emerging ones, to come up with exciting, fresh alternatives of how, and where, to display their work.

That is where professional curating comes in, to provide guidance and support as well as a more conceptual reading of the ensemble of artworks.  Artists also need the encouragement of support from national institutions. I am thankful that this exhibition is being supported by Heritage Malta and Spazju Kreattiv.

Speaking of which, what do you make of the Maltese arts scene? What would you change about it? 

I would love the art scene to be sharp. Sharp and relevant. I would like the art scene to be just like my music; loud, fast and aggressive. I would love to see certain platforms, especially national ones, being more selective about works being shown in such spaces. I am all for art that is socially and politically committed, and feel that there is not enough of this type of engagement  from local artists.

What’s next for you?

I have already started working with Michael on another solo exhibition coming up at St James Cavalier in July 2016. Titled ‘We Lost the War’. This show will feature large-scale paintings and is supported by the Malta Arts Fund. On a longer term, Michael and I are also looking at opportunities to show my art in venues abroad.

Quick Fix: a morality tale is curated by Michael Fenech and will be on display at Heritage Malta, Melita Street, Valletta from January 15 to February 3. Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 10:00-16:00, Sunday: 10:00-13:00. The exhibition is done in collaboration with Heritage Malta and supported by Fondazzjoni Kreattivita