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Opium of the classes

The JewThe Jew

Mark Mallia might just be the most promising artist to emerge from Malta. In December he is exhibiting in the US at the Miami Art Basel, a major international hub for art dealers, collectors and enthusiasts, with subsequent exhibitions planned in 2015 in Chicago and New York.

He is currently concluding a deal with a gallery in London to exhibit in the spring of 2015.

A student of Esprit Barthet, at 28 years of age Mallia became the youngest-ever painter to do a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, an honour usually reserved for masters.

His exhibition sold out and, as a consequence, he won a bursary to the academy of fine arts in Florence to develop his style.

After such a promising start, things disintegrated for Mallia. By his own admission a hedonist, he repudiated the Maltese establishment; he became a drifter living in France, then the US, before returning to Malta, where he abandoned art completely.

Sam The GuruSam The Guru

I sat down with Mallia to ask him about his past, present and future.

“I’ve never lost my verve for my art. In France, I was working as a photographer and storyboarder for Pathe, and Monaco’s Princess Stephanie commissioned me to do an exhibition of my paintings. In the first night, all the work was sold,” says Mallia.

While living in France, he mostly painted figures and characters he met and his idiosyncratic, subversive style resonated with a French audience.

There have been myriad interpretations of Mallia’s style. Some say it has expressionist influences incorporating the styles of Otto Dix or late Picasso; in the US, he is marketed as a European pop artist.

For Mallia, what matters about his work isn’t what movement he’s a part of or whether people look at his work and say it’s groundbreaking – what is most important is its authenticity.

“If it’s genuine, then you can make a connection with the viewer. When I make art, first and foremost I’m seeking to please myself. What counts is that I like the work. Others make of it what they will.”

After France, Mallia went on to paint and exhibit in Miami and Toronto, in the US, but it was after release from prison in 2012 for non-filing of VAT returns that Mallia really found his voice as an artist.

Mark Mallia is a man oozing existential angst and intensity. Long ago Nietzsche, one of the forefathers of existentialism, envisaged how Western civilisation was moving in the direction of the last man.

Unable to dream, listless, tired of life, he would take no risks, seeking only material comfort and security.

A little poison now and then makes for a pleasant life, and much poison in the end for a pleasant death, oblivious to one’s blindness. Mallia is openly critical of the establishment, within which he believes artists are gladly sacrificing their own individual authenticity to adapt to a regimented, depersonalised conserv-ative structure.

“Being in prison showed me my direction. That’s when I knew that I was going to dedicate my life to art. I taught inmates how to paint and they taught me my truth about art. Much of the stuff they were producing was excellent because at its core was their subjective truth.”

Mallia takes the view that, for too long, art has been a niche interest for the pretentious and over-privileged in a highly-lucrative but fraudulent high culture.

“I’ve got no time for the vast majority of the so-called art establishment. Express yourself sincerely. If you have got a strong voice it will resonate with others, whoever you are, wherever you’re from.”

Artists are sacrificing their own authenticity to adapt to a conservative structure

Mallia’s most interesting work involves taking polarised, sub-cultural or polemic characters, frequently (though not necessarily) characters he’s known, and ridiculing them through his portrayal of them with their features and environment. He forces his characters to surrender to their core essence.

An example of this and one of his most interesting pieces, the cheekily titled L’Enfant Méchant, Mallia takes Hitler and reduces him to a child: an adolescent upstart.

In this amusing painting he infantilises the monster and captures the essence of the man: a spoilt brat with malevolent intent, never adequately controlled. It is perhaps Mallia’s most interesting conceptual piece of work to date.

For the most part, characters portrayed in his paintings show signs of tension or unease. Working with paint and multimedia, his work is almost always quirky, seditious, unconventional or funny. Mallia depicts the context, but allows the viewer to interpret the ambiguity for themselves.

“Being in prison taught me that the difference between a political leader and a darling of the establishment and a criminal is just arbitrary. Spiritually, I’m an anarchist. I’m proud to be Maltese but I define myself in opposition to the conventions of this country. I hate rules. I hate boxes. I hate vested interests. Everything I’m trying to do as an artist is to undermine these things. Life gave me two choices: criminal or artist. I’m choosing the latter.”

So where’s the work going, I asked?

“I’m evolving with more intensity,” he replied, with an impish grin, “from anarchy to lunacy”.

Let’s see how the world will respond.

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