Mr Dalli's solo exhibition, taking place in the lower galleries of St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, was inaugurated on April 4. In this show, Mr Dalli has presented the largest ever number of paintings, drawings and sculptures in his career so far. He has only been exhibiting his work for the past six years or so; yet his paintings are characterised by a style which can hardly be compared to that of any other on the island. Many have drawn comparison between the work of Mr Dalli and that of Lucian Freud, and it is no secret that the artist both admires and draws inspiration from the German-cum British guru of hyper-realism. Even his poses and compositions often mirror those of Mr Freud, and yet Mr Dalli's paintings cannot be dubbed as pertaining to the hyper-realist realm. In Mr Freud's work, the blood flowing through the pulsating veins just below the surface of the skin is apparent; one almost feels as though they could reach out to touch the painting and that one's hand would be met by the warmth of human flesh. This pulsating life is missing in Mr Dalli's works, even though he accurately gives a strong sense of weight and rotundity to his more often than not statuesque figures, created through an almost oversaturation of paint upon his surfaces.
What I find very particular about these works is their lack of erotic or sensual content. Despite his figures being - in the majority of cases - stark naked, they do not arouse or stir us. Not for a moment do we forget that the figures displayed are simply models or sitters - only in a couple of instances is the psychological mind-frame of the figure portrayed otherwise; figures are treated in much the same way as an artist would treat an object, that is as a series of shapes, positive and negative spaces and multi-toned pigments arranged in a certain order. I cannot help asking myself, what is Mr Dalli trying to achieve by painting nude after nude, figure after figure? I would go so far as saying that his "obsession" with the figure approaches the notions initiated by Claude Monet in his numerous series of paintings depicting subjects like The Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, Waterlilies or Haystacks. Monet's series achieve a quasi-abstract status when tackled simply for the sake of representing different times of day under various weather phenomena. Even Lino Borg claims that in most cases the subject of his paintings is simply an excuse or pretext for him to paint... so could this also be the case with Mr Dalli's works? Could it be that his prime concern is no longer the depiction of the human body, but simply painting itself? Or has he lost himself in the process of representing his chosen subject matter?
What is veracious is that most of his figures exist in a vacuum, with no context, background or setting present (or rarely), save for a chair, drape or settee/mattress. Thus the viewer does not become engaged with the sitter; and whether purposely or not, their eyes are rarely directed outwards to meet our gaze. This gives an enigmatic quality to his works, almost as though the sitter were somehow ashamed and embarrassed of the nudity resulting in the spectator's own self-consciousness.
When it comes to Mr Dalli's drawings and sketches, however, the viewer is met with a fresh and spontaneous side of the artist which is undetectable in his oil paintings. His free-flowing, fluid line communicates the ease with which he executes the human body. His lines are accurately punctuated in instances where pressure and shading are demanded and left faint and "unfinished" at others - most especially at the extremities of the limbs. Furthermore, in this series of works he is adventurous and playful: he aptly manages to capture motion or the idea of latent motion. Often a faint wash traces the portions of the figure devoid of light, and at other times Mr Dalli simply smudges or uses basic single hatching to give the figure a sense of three-dimensionality.
Mr Dalli's exhibition contains particular significance when related to the development of art in Malta. Throughout Malta's art history many an artist has shied away from exhibiting work containing sensual or erotic connotations, or which just overtly exposed the human figure in a raw and crude way, and instead sought refuge behind safe and conventional themes. Therefore we are unaccustomed to seeing such life-size images in large quantities laying the human flesh bare. This exhibition breaks with tradition and celebrates the human body in a natural unidealised fashion.
• The exhibition runs till May 8.