Exporting the ritual | Gabriel Buttigieg

Artist Gabriel Buttigieg takes ‘The Beach’ to Poland, as a recent collection of paintings heads to the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. TEODOR RELJIC speaks to the prolific young painter ahead of this exciting opportunity

Gabriel Buttigieg
Gabriel Buttigieg

As a prolific painter who frequently exhibits their work, what motivates you to keep painting?

Essentially, painting is for me a ritual. It is an anxious, frustrating and physically tiring process which requires  immense dedication. That said, it is also a way for me to release my thoughts and energies at the time. Even though I’ve been painting for quite some time now, I still feel that I have a lot to discover, both thematically and in terms of technique. Painting is also, in my opinion, the most difficult language in visual art.

There are quite a few contemporary painters whom I admire, however, in a local context the use of this medium has decreased. I feel that it is my role as an artist in Malta to keep this medium alive.

On a thematic and also visual level the reason why I keep on painting so prolifically is because whether I like it or not I am always changing. There is always something new, whether intellectual or aesthetic, which occupies my mind. This is then reflected in the work I create.

 Night Scape (from The Beach series) by Gabriel Buttigieg
Night Scape (from The Beach series) by Gabriel Buttigieg

Apart from it being an international exhibition, how would you say ‘The Beach’ differs from your other, most recent solo showcase, ‘Saudade’?

‘The Beach’ was a difficult process for a number of reasons. It is being held at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, a venue where a number of artists have showcased their work. It is not solely a private space where I am sending one of my artworks. So I had to do a lot of research on the themes I wanted to discuss and also the execution of my work. With the encouragement of Dr John Paul Grech, Ambassador of Malta to Poland, who facilitated this exhibition, the constant dialogue with curator and mentor Prof. Vince Briffa and other people such as Sarah Farrugia, who has been managing the project and many others who have visited the studio throughout the summer months, I think I have succeeded in achieving a strong visual aesthetic which is worthy of the venue.

For ‘The Beach’ I have taken many elements from my previous exhibitions: the brush strokes of my first exhibition ‘Paintings’, the lines of the ‘Droplet’ series and various aspects of narration from ‘Saudade’. The beach was, unsurprisingly, my theme, as this was always a subject which has haunted my work. However, ‘the beach’ is both the setting for these paintings and also a metaphor for the marginality and ‘liminality’ Prof. Vince Briffa speaks about in the exhibition catalogue.

To flip that question over: how do you feel about exhibiting your work abroad? Are you confident that your work will communicate well to international audiences, and do you see this as an important stepping stone in your artistic career?

I think it is a very important step for an artist to take, even if it’s also quite intimidating. The thought at first made me quite anxious, especially since Poland is well known for having retained its respect for painting. The fact that it is being exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts and not a private gallery was also quite a stressful prospect, as it is a hub where students and academics gather. That said, after meeting the people involved and looking at the space, I felt very relieved. I was happy to see that they were eager to see this Mediterranean element found in my work, and so I felt free to remain loyal to my aesthetic and narrative.

Figures in a landscape (in Red and Green) by Gabriel Buttigieg
Figures in a landscape (in Red and Green) by Gabriel Buttigieg

The human figure and sexuality in particular remain recurrent themes for you – how do you develop upon and play with them when they’re ‘on the beach’, as it were?

At a young age I was introduced to the work of two geniuses of figurative art which left a huge impact on me as an artist. The first is the elegance I saw in the figures of Modigliani, and the second was the earthy work of Eric Fischl. Two very different artists, both masters of painting in their own way. I think it is safe to say that they are the main reasons as to why I keep on exploring the human figure.

At the same time, the human figure is also a subject which is very personal to me. The human figure is just a vessel. In spite of evolutionary or societal changes, we’re are all still the same species. Our instincts, our sensitivity, our demons are more or less the same and will most likely remain the same. They are simply expressed in a different, more contemporary manner.

Similarly, sex has always been a prominent subject in my work. As a person, I am inspired by deterministic ideologies and feel that the reasons behind the way we dress, react and express ourselves is linked to the desire to reproduce and keep our species alive.  

In this exhibition, I have taken the themes of sex and the human psyche but also entwined them with the theme of death, which on an unconscious and conscious level is also the driving force towards sex. This theme has always been present in my work, but in ‘The Beach’ it has become more prevalent.

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

The local art scene is what it is. Everyone has their own language, their own circle, their own insecurities and their own ambitions. As a visual artist who has been consistently loyal to painting, I must admit that I am a bit sceptical over other art forms.

That said, I feel that as long as the person is loyal towards what they feel, I have no problem with it. The problem I have is when a person tries too hard to look for something new and as a consequence is not genuine and true to what they are trying to portray.

As a Maltese artist I do feel that, once again, we lack painters. Which to be honest I find quite surprising, since painting has once again risen to the forefront on an international level, with a number of artists opting for it as their chosen visual language – artists whom I respect and admire very much.

After Poland, what’s next for you?

2020 will be a busy year. First of all, I would like to complete my final year of psychology at the University. After that, the plan is to dedicate more time in the studio, working on both local and foreign projects. I will be attending a residency in France and also taking part in a collective exhibition in Piacenza, Italy. It is highly likely that ‘The Beach’ will also be exhibited in Malta at some point in the near future.

‘The Beach’ will be on display at the Armoury of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, Poland from October 8 to 22. The project is supported by Arts Council Malta - Malta Arts Fund and the Embassy of Malta in Warsaw