I lost the war, too. →
Visiting We lost the War, I happily realised this is what artistic maturity looks like.
I was never much into Ryan Falzon’s print work. It felt phlegmatic; distanced and unemotional, as well as muted in its apparent attempt to epitomise some essence of ‘Maltese‘. The punk aesthetic in his printmaking coupled with the subject matter seemed ineffectual in tackling the width and breadth of ‘Maltese‘, or my perception of it.
But in We lost the War, not only did the medium change but with it so did my perceptions of what Ryan’s art was about. We lost the War is a tour de force in its achieving a powerful analysis of ‘Maltese‘, while managing to maintain a consistency in a style which Ryan has by now made his own. The style is fascinating in its ambiguity: child-like, yet assured and consistent—it isn’t a deficiency on the part of the artist, it is a device he uses for effect. That effect is glimpsed in the subject matter, to best capture and convey ‘Maltese‘.
If at first glance the work looks like child art—the naive style of punk influences in Ryan’s work—it soon becomes evident that this is the very style that coagulates the work into a successful critical commentary on Maltese culture, past and present.
In light of paintings from 2014’s Ex-voto, this show uses colour, text and scale more extensively. Colour plays a vital part as a tool for constructing compositions, making work more appealing, not merely as empty space or a filler. Another element that Ryan has utilised is repetition; on a bigger scale, repetition is amplified, especially when that repetition consists of idols, icons and text.
There is an ease with which Ryan fills up the paintings with references, a veritable accumulation of jargon from the local pop culture, underground cultures, slang, local bawdiness and more and more (I’m sure I missed a lot). The references multiply and bubble froth, amid the familiar symbols of saints and guns, christ and cocaine, mothers and gangsters.
The use of text makes for an interesting motif. The repetitive way with which text is employed allows for it to guide the viewer, but also act as a backdrop against which the visual symbols and motifs operate.
An example can be given with Toni, a Scarface-cult inspired painting (ironically reminiscent of a local Toni of the White Arrow fame). While the mountainous valley of cocaine on the table leads to Tony Montana, the text allows for a Maltese conscience to seep in and attach to it the memories and knowledge from our shared cultural references. From going to all-male secondary schools to occasionally experiencing the ħammalli underworld, these are references that have been taken up, interpreted and adapted to local fantasy.
Fantasy is a fascinating word to throw at this work: Ryan effectively brings together a compendium of collective Maltese fantasies, with its masculinist, happy-trigger Americanisation. It is fascinating that a lot of the references are imported and shaped and moulded in the hands of ‘Maltese‘; gangster attire, cult films, playboy magazines, and a plethora more (I definitely missed a lot).
In light of this new show, the paintings in Ex-Voto weren’t as incisive nor as confident as these new ones. And what’s more, We lost the War is well-packaged: in its compactness this show can be regarded as a very unique body of work, the paintings easily referencing each other to work as a whole.
Finally, in mentioning text as a main motif in Ryan’s paintings, we cannot fail to tip the hat to Ryan’s writing (although I can’t find it for reference). In a way We lost the War is very narratorial, which opens up a space for connections between Ryan’s writing and his painting, and also makes me realise how prosaic his paintings actually are.
I urge you to visit the exhibition—there’s no substitute for the real thing. It’s open till the 26th of February at Spazzju Kreattiv, St. James Cavalier, Castille Square, Valletta.
Further read-up on this exhibition: