Highlights from…MCAST ICA Festival 2017

Highlights from…

MCAST ICA Festival 2017— Fine Arts end-of-year exhibition

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While I am not one to easily dole out compliments to MCAST, this year’s Fine Arts end-of-year exhibition is the best in recent years. Curated by Lisa Gwen Baldacchino, it is a superb showcase of the work of this year’s eleven Fine Arts graduates.

The benefits of bringing in an external and impartial curator are readily visible: the presentation has an avid no-nonsense way to it which doesn’t overburden the show with unnecessary frills or details, and focuses all the attention on the work. Title and artist name where on the ground below, there are nails instead of frames, sectioned spaces and no plaques, bring to mind a ‘more is less’ approach, an effective way to deal with a collective show of varied work.

Although the artworks on show were diverse, my bone to pick is the lack of themes that deal with aspects of Maltese or Mediterranean identity or something of the here-and-now of the socio-political climate of the islands. While this is not a liability for me, it is disappointing to see the lack of interest in the local issues and identities that are ripe for exploration.

Some of the work shone out for various reasons, but a favourite is Emma Grima’s series of photographs. Despite the dislike for the work’s concept, the photographs as a series are a treat, packing beautiful analog photography with the ever-interesting subject of the nude, notions of ‘gaze’ and an engagement with the viewer.

While there is an ambiguous, but obviously intimate, relationship between the two models, there is also a relationship between one of the models—her face is visible and looks directly at you—and the viewer. Her gaze roots you in the spot, it makes you engage with itself. Especially compelling is the photograph where the model is standing up holding the curtain, looking down on you, dismissing the model in the foreground. The quiet sexually-charged look is a powerful and engaging look that at once changes the the involvement the viewer has with the work. What is fascinating to me, is the role of female gaze in the work, which makes for a refreshing theme.

Luca Azzopardi’s DIE. LIE. TRIUMPH. are three quiet, whitewashed sculptural vignettes of ‘traditionalist’ references seemingly from Neo-Classical paintings (David’s Death of Marat to Delacroix’s Liberty leading the People). The execution and level of detail is impressive and a certain realism, thanks to a keen use of the material, is achieved. Despite this, the self-confessed use of appropriation of the artist commits him to find a better way to contextualise his work—the contextualisation of these otherwise beautiful pieces is weak, if not non-existent.

Serah Stringer’s piece Vicissitude, is an installation of three panels of resin and glass in a row, that attempt to analyse a process of artistic heritage and evolution. While the references are somewhat vague, the symbolic concern is appealing: the roman foot of the back panel, strives forward through death, or perhaps the trampling of the nature world for the setting up of the institution of men. The middle panel is said to reference the dissolution of the ‘old’, perhaps the tradition or non-secular pseudo-science of Renaissance institutions, with the finality of the splurge of colour, which while being quite an outdated visual for ‘contemporary’, does virtually epitomise the diversity, in good or bad, of contemporary living. Contemplating this symbolic process is enough for the work to be interesting, whatever the rigour in assimilating the references was. In addition the work has a scale that deserves to be better exploited, and a hope that we might see more of Stringer’s work in this vein in the future.

The ambitious multi-media installation by Joanna Portelli is the only work that uses ‘new media’, as the artist attempts to say something about old ways of seeing. The installation is divided in three: first you walk up to a fragmented painting of a woman, then through black curtains to the right to face four screens where you see a replay of yourself looking at the painting. Then on to a blacked-out room with a projection of a house, which upon closer inspection turns out that you can see yourself through the house’s windows—yourself at the very moment of looking at the painting and reacting to it.

It’s as if the artist wanted to separate the viewers from themselves, leading them along the way. The resultant disassociation is interesting: not only is there a dissociation of time—differentiating the then-and-now of looking at yourself moving about from a few seconds earlier—but also a dissociation from yourself. You look in on yourself from the outside into the inside, using the house as a very clever way of forcing distance between the viewer and their own image. This opens up a lot of problems and questions about issues of reality and self: it is almost an experiment in what happens when the viewers’ gaze is turned upon themselves, what the role of ‘gaze’ becomes when the viewer becomes itself the subject of the art work. Definitely a complex piece that outdoes itself—it would be curious to see the process refined and set up again within different contexts.

The final word is about the catalogue. An appealing little book, well-designed on the surface but I’ve come to realise it’s a bad, bad piece of design. The catalogue—a core component of an exhibition—is an important piece of documentation and is supposed to become part of these graduates’ portfolio. Sadly it turns out that this catalogue was overlooked and poorly executed. The pictures used for the work are mostly sensational close-ups instead of being documentative. Furthermore, the text is abysmal: there is no rhythm to the two sections of Biography and Statement, no structure and no tonal consistency to the writing, which is itself ambiguous enough to be unconvincing and too grand for its own good. Suspiciously, it’s as if the students wrote their own text, then put together un-edited and unreviewed.

As patronising as it might sound, the real test is how these young artists will evolve and what they will achieve as they start their careers. So far, it looks promising.


 

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