It takes two | Mario Lautier Vella

Qormi-born but London-based artist Mario Lautier Vella speaks to MaltaToday about his upcoming exhibition ‘The Two of Us’, in which he explores the layered implications of the art of portraiture

Mario Vella Lautier
Mario Vella Lautier

Could you tell us a little bit about your history as an artist and painter? What were your initial triggers and motivations to begin exploring the creative path.

I have been on this creative path since childhood. I am from Qormi originally but left for the UK while still a baby and grew up in a very artistic home in North London. My grandmother who also lived with us had been an artist when she was younger and still living in Bormla, but she wound up her art practice once she started a family. My earliest memories are being with her – I must have been three or four years old – and always being encouraged to draw and paint, and then talking about my efforts and also being shown an array of images. My mother was a dressmaker and my father was a painter and decorator, plus our London home was packed with Maltese Catholic imagery that I was always fascinated by, so there were always these conversations about colour or ways of making and doing things and always something to look at, watch, think about and discuss – being creative was something that was second nature to us all.

Works forming part of ‘The Two of Us’ by Mario Lautier Vella
Works forming part of ‘The Two of Us’ by Mario Lautier Vella

I studied art at secondary school but didn’t have the most encouraging teacher. Once I left school at 16 and went to college I found myself exploring other artistic fields including theatre design, costume design, graphic design, typography and video. Soon enough I found myself on an information and graphic design degree course which I loved. I’d spend hours in the university library looking at fine art and photography books all of which fed into my course work. Later I worked in the media as a music and film writer and website editor but visited exhibitions and attended evening classes to refresh and enhance basic skills like drawing and painting as well as branch out and try other techniques including sculpture, sewing and printmaking. After being made redundant I decided to pursue art as a full-time profession.

Those early years definitely shaped who I am and what I do, and I feel very blessed to have had very encouraging parents, some great teachers and close friends who were always supportive with all the decisions I made. The creative path is not an easy one to follow so it helps to have good, genuine people in your life to help you along.

You’ve chosen to work in a number of different media, formats and disciplines. What informs this approach?

My art practice is largely ideas-driven in that my work is often made in response to something I’ve seen or something I have experienced, and in turn that shapes what media or discipline I choose to work in. Sometimes one piece of work inspires a new piece, that’s then made in a different format, yet everything connects through an association or theme. My new exhibition, ‘The Two Of Us’, has been partly influenced by the newly restored gallery rooms at the Palazzo de la Salle – the paintings I am exhibiting have taken some cues from the vast rooms they’ll be shown in, so even exhibition spaces have informed my work and this has also been the case when I’ve worked with installation and performance.

What was it like to establish yourself as an artist in the UK?

Establishing yourself as an artist is generally difficult the world over and the UK is no exception. I feel lucky being a Londoner – the city remains one of the most busy, exciting and important art capitals of the world but this is both a blessing and a curse. The London art scene is also highly competitive and there is an aspect of it that can be faddy, cliquey and superficial – this doesn’t sit well with me personally but the art world has always been like this wherever you are. As an artist you have to engage and negotiate your way and find your groove with it all without losing your integrity.

What can visitors expect from The Two of Us? What are some of the main thematic and aesthetic undercurrents of this exhibition?

The exhibition features a number of painted portraits and explores ideas of what we see and think about when we encounter a portrait – whether we’re concerned about understanding who the person is, how and why it’s been created in a certain way and whether we can somehow go beyond the façade and decipher the sitter’s character or personality. The painted portrait remains a very prestigious way of presenting yourself to the public and I’m interested in ideas around the space between our public and private lives – how we are seen and want to be seen by others and how we really are – so the use of masks and other means of obscuring or protecting the subject’s face is something I’m fascinated with as it also determines how we encounter the person on show.

The Two Of Us also explores ideas around the physical process of painting and what it is to paint. From planning the painting through to the construction (and sometimes deconstruction and reconstruction) of the artwork, I am interested in how exercises such as drawing, underpainting and painting application techniques such as washes, glazes, colour mixing and alla-prima techniques all come into play. Some of the paintings have mixed media elements so you’ll find sewing or collage as part of the piece, with work swinging from the figurative to something more abstract.

As an art teacher, I’m interested in both classic and contemporary artmaking techniques alongside notions of incomplete, interrupted, inaccurate and damaged work, and how this brings further meaning to an artwork: how we may speculate on who or what we can see, why the artist has responded in this manner, why they have accepted the result or even abandoned the painting altogether.

Each painting is only 15 x 21 cm – a decision and response to working with the Palazzo’s vast rooms. Relating to themes of scale and space, these small paintings invite us to get up close and personal or view from a polite, safe distance. Finally each painting is titled ‘You and Me’ – a response to all of these themes of identity, persona, artmaking techniques, presentation and response.

What’s next for you?

Work being shown in ‘The Two Of Us’ will go on show in London and Hertfordshire in the autumn. I’m finalising a solo exhibition of the work, plus some of the paintings will be shown in group exhibitions in September and November. I’m also travelling to Venice soon to deliver a drawing and painting course as part of my art school plus I’ll visit the Venice Biennale – I’m looking forward to seeing Trevor Borg’s work in the Maltese pavilion as well as British artist Cathy Wilke’s work which is always interesting.