Malta. An island in the Mediterranean. A place of archaeological density and human transition. A historical reality in the middle of a restless geopolitical situation. Patrick Dalli, one of the best Maltese artists in terms of talent and planning quality, was born and bred on this Caravaggesque island. We met in Rome some months ago, when, along with a mutual friend, we went to visit the atelier of a Franciscan priest, housed in an unparalleled place inside the Imperial Fora area, just a stone’s throw from the remains of the Temple of Elagabalus. Fila Sidival – this is the name of the Brazilian clergyman – is actually an artist expressing himself through fascinating monochrome canvases dotted with wide stitched scars. Meeting him was just as much of a pleasant surprise as it was leaning out of the windows of his studio: it felt as if we were experiencing the history of the Empire as protagonists, as if we were reproducing the optical perspective of our distant ancestors. That day, Dalli gave me one of his books, titled “thehumanfigure”. Later on, we said goodbye. I went home, but during the afternoon the cloister’s breathtaking panoramas, the oceanic blue of the sewn-up works, the abyss-like black and the sunset-like red over the capitoline roofs, the picturesque green evoking prosthetic limbs of the towering pine trees – they all came back to my mind. While I was feeling the colours alternate and flow across my mind, I started to browse through Dalli’s book, discovering another evocative journey, this time into the geography of the pictorial body. It was like an electrical discharge, pure vertigo in front of naked physicality, that reveals itself by unveiling itself, in the most intimate dialogue between two individuals – the artist on the one hand and the portrayed person on the other. Autumn was softly setting in: on that day, I perceived the energy of a destiny uniting lights and bodies, sensations and colours, nature and human beauty. The emotion aroused by the Roman Forum had mingled with the sensory trail of the nudes on canvas.
Some weeks later, I met Patrick again in a Roman restaurant. We talked about my idea of setting up a solo show of his work in Spoleto in the spring. Last January, then, we met in Malta, where a riper version of the project started to shape up. Here, I got the chance to see his whole pictorial production with my own eyes– apart from about ten works, maybe less. Seeing the work of 15 years housed in one single place is actually something of a rarity, for which Patrick deserves credit: being jealous of his own creatures, he takes a sentimental attitude that places a high value on the life of works rather than on their selling potential. There is no point in debating what is right or wrong in a possession philosophy: the power of art throbs in the integrity of these gestures, in the consistency of the artist’s personal story, in the bond of empathy between him and his own creations.
In Malta, I discovered a special light, that spreads out homogeneously and creates soft reflections on the colour of the local stone, on the red of the earth and on the low, thick vegetation reminiscent of Salento and Mexico. The sinuous landscape, the scar-like walls, the natural harbours stretching out towards the horizon like deep breaths, Mdina’s palaces, with their aristocratic air and their polished floors: there is an organic dimension to this place, as though the island was a body lying in the sea, a welcoming mater basking in the warm sun that graces those latitudes. Malta is dominated by a special hue of yellow mingled with brown; this mixture of hay, sand and sun, that resembles the colour of human complexion softly kissed by the winter sun, is actually the island’s bright skin, its own identity. A female island, healthy carrier of natural Eros, welcoming, resolute, open to the dialogue by virtue of its own anthropological spirit. As many would put it, a woman in all respects. Even its name, Malta, seems to slide lyrically, like an invitation to reach out for the sky, where heights reinvent sensuality, emphasising the feminine connotations of creation.
When I saw Patrick Dalli’s works in his studio, I deciphered the phoneme of my sensations. The answer was there in front of my eyes: I recognised Malta’s colours in the chiselled tones of the pictorial nudes, its yellow light in the atmospheres exuded by the bodies, the details of its stone in the complexion of female figures, in the shadow areas decorating their skin. Everything had become clear: the artist and the island belonged to each other like the membranes of the same story, where the particular and the universal blended together fluidly and affectionately.
At that point, once I understood the rhythm of the dialogue, the best part of the work began: setting up the exhibition being able to rely on the availability of so many works. Dealing with the fruit of many years’ work is like using all the keys of a piano, articulating images on a white wall as if they were the notes of a composition. When the artist fully reveals himself, you can catch all his emotional nuances, reconstructing the complexity of his figurative approach. The moment the study burst open in front of my eyes, like a bud of the island itself – a feminine room with Malta’s tonal atmospheres – only then did I start to (pre)arrange the canvases, chiselling the passages of a narrative pattern. Therefore, I created a possible sequence, a polyphonic dialogue where the pictorial silence would calibrate the vocabulary of vision. I could feel sentences shaping up – the beginning of an idea was by now the prologue of an exhibition.
That afternoon, the exhibition for Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive was born. It is not only a chronological journey into the artist’s work, but also an imaginary tale, made of fateful meetings, emotions and revelations. The many female presences, friends or acquaintances of the artist, recreated the time frame of his career on the canvases– over 15 years of privileged relationship between body and brush. There were actually two chronological levels underlying the sequence of artworks: the one of the moment when the canvas had been painted and the one where the figure was moving in front of us, so that the time dimension and the space of emotions mingled together. The various figures created a continuous shot/countershot, turning images into a gift, an offer exuding common sensations, experiences, colourful emotions.
The fruit of this journey into painting is in front of your own eyes: please browse through the book, go back and forth to understand not only the value of single works, of their details, but also that of the way women exchange looks and alternate their postures, drawing on the magnetic energy of the human machine. One of the relevant points of this project actually concerns the balance of the relation between body and face, fruit of technical dexterity and precise expression of details. Few artists manage to balance the power of nudity and the features of faces: more often than not, one component prevails over the other, especially when painting is pervaded by such a wide and mobile gesturality; Dalli, instead, does feel the subject’s holistic geography, he can experience each one of its hidden angles, expressive details, emotional spaces. We can talk about pictorial dermographies, which calibrate the silhouette as if it was a human island, a complex apparatus that magically balances flesh and spirit. Eros and thought melt into a single entity that recalls Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and all those masters who undressed the body in order to reveal its inner expressions. Dalli interacts with them, borrows portions of their art to reassemble them inside the prism of his own surgical eye. He quotes them without actually quoting them, convinced, as he is, that there can be no art without foster fathers. Their lessons are the necessary education children need in order to grow up and become men, who draw their own maps, their favourite itineraries, the best landing stages of their aesthetic journeys.
Think carefully: anatomical realism is actually a mental dimension of the artist. Those bodies belong to his sentimental journey, to the complex plot of his daily emotions. They are archetypes that penetrate into the horizontal flow of human history, where neither the past nor the future exist, but only an eternal present. Please forget about the figurative study for a moment, about the sketches, the shots that Dalli takes as subjective notes: what you see, in fact, goes beyond the real moment and turns into an inner projection, a synthesis that condenses the attitudes of a period, as witnessed by some shots where Dalli mixes different portraits, creating human plots that would not exist otherwise. The body becomes a projection of wishes and actions, a plausible invention involving dreams, metaphors, symbols. The painting turns into the dermography of mutual desires.
In the book, you are sometimes going to notice the virtuoso juxtaposition of drawings, watercolours and paint on canvas. The subject appears to be identical; what changes is the formal approach, that at first conceives a black outline on a white background, then adds some watery colour craving for future density, and finally crystallises everything into an oil-on-canvas. These are the biological consequences of a homogeneous view of painting, changes that calibrate the techniques according to cognitive and emotional passages. Drawings imply a shyness to overcome, an attempt to slowly get closer to the naked body. It somehow forces the artist not to hesitate any further and to illuminate the mirror of the l. The first flashes of light are a still shy outcome, processed with liquid watercolour brush strokes, as if to evoke the chromatic geography of oil. At the end, when the artist has understood the inner profile of the subject he has chosen, the final connection starts to materialise – a connection that painting turns into muscles and bones, pathos and Eros, flesh of blood and soul.
The brush vibrates with lightning movements, catching the light that sticks to the epidermis. It moves like a generative wind, creating luminous events, fleeting shadows, dense depths. From up close, the geographic plan of the bodies is visible: the tonal variables, the thickness, the muscular vibrations can be perceived. Works might be motionless, yet they throb, wrapping us in a mantle of desire and curiosity. They ask our eyes for some protection, with a eucharistical gesture that smells of love. Works understand our wishes.
Painting as a sentimental act…
Patrick Dalli confirms that nudity stills is a revolutionary detonator. It has always been part of the artistic nature. In a certain sense, the naked body symbolically represents painting itself, as though it was an atavistic archetype of creation, like the divining mark or the sacred breath. For this reason, feminine beauty represents the climax of the contemporary age. The painted woman is the only earthly goddess we can caress and possess through our own eyes: yesterday, today and every future tomorrow.
A body, a spirit, a communion beyond the image…