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Malta’s maverick artist

Joe Agius reviews Mark Mallia’s recent exhibition, inspired by the music and various alter egos of singer David Bowie.

Major TomMajor Tom

Mark Mallia’s exhibition of works inspired by the music and alter egos of David Bowie is one example of a symbiosis made in heaven. Marie Gallery5 of Mosta hosted this foray into the enigmatic world of this great musical hero who, in no small way, contributed to the evolution of this genre.

Black Canvas might elicit emotions of gloom and doom that is quite often a fingerprint of Mallia. As one of the foremost contemporary artists on the Maltese art scene, he is often regarded as a mischievous and a maverick provocateur. His unconventional opinion on everything under the sun comes across in his paintings and sculptures too.

Mallia has a very expressionist and colourful palette, which sometimes morphs into a monochromatic introspective one whereby he descends into a personal hell that is the fruit of an eventful life. There is no thematic restraint in his oeuvre. This can range from menacing and proud crows that populate Edgar Allan Poe’s world to portraits of idiosyncratic characters that glare at their audience with malevolence. One can’t help but feel exposed and vulnerable at being sized up by a pair of condescending ‘Mallia’ eyes.

However, Black Canvas steers away from the artist’s usual themes. The black background in almost all of the works characterises this collection of biographical paintings that illustrate in a unique way the rise to superstardom of one of 20th century musical icons. David Bowie’s career had an inauspicious start in Malta, singing at the Malta Hilton for the entertainment of its patrons. This was just before the song Space Oddity shot him to superstardom. On July 19, 1969, the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface were a giant leap for mankind. A month before, the musical world had marvelled at this orange-haired lad who was singing about a lunar trip gone wrong for Major Tom, the astronaut who lost contact with ground control.

2001, A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick film about space travel, had inspired the cinemagoers just a year before, and Bowie, who was very well read, must surely have marvelled at Arthur C. Clarke’s world that was the springboard for the film. Space Oddity is a play of words on Space Odyssey. Major Tom can be considered as the first Bowie alter ego. He came up again in the Bowie masterpiece of the early 1980s Ashes to Ashes and in the video of the title song of his last album Blackstar, which was released a few days before the superstar’s death last year.

David BowieDavid Bowie

The 1960s were a decade of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll; a decade that saw the rise and fall of the Beatles. It also witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall and the deepening of the Cold War. The world was gripped by a fear of an impending Third World War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War were all pointing towards a thermonuclear apocalypse which at times appeared to be unavoidable.

However, 1967’s Summer of Love was a drug-laced escapism of sorts and the liberation from sexual prohibition. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll put on a veil on a forlorn war-torn world. The young gene­­ration valiantly tried to wish away this scenario by drugging themselves silly with LSD and heroin while listening to the music of an array of heroes like Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan among others. And copulating like there is no tomorrow. Joplin and Hendrix themselves fell victim to this unsustainable state of affairs at the age of 27. Suicide sometimes produces timeless icons.

Glam Rock was all the rage with the advent of the 1970s. Decadence and superficiality were glorified and the art rock world of the late 1960s lent itself to this world of psychedelia and androgyny. A lot of theatrics and a tot of occultism produced a cocktail the music-loving public could not resist. Marc Bolan’s early tragic death provided a timeless radiance to the whole genre. Bolan and his group T-Rex, Bowie, Brian Ferry and Roxy Music, Alvin Stardust, among others, rocked the stages with their heady music and a mix of outrageous drag, attitude, make-up and high heels.

His unconventional opinion on everything under the sun comes across in his paintings and sculptures too

Bowie embraced and became one of the brilliant leaders of this phenomenon. He metamorphosed from a late 1960s Space Oddity nerdy rebel into a zany Ziggy Stardust alter ego in 1972 and a menacing Aladdin Sane (a lad insane), the signature thunderbolt splashed across his face. Ziggy Stardust epitomises and personifies the space age promiscuous rock’n’roll superstar who has a drug-laced message of love and peace to deliver.

Aladdin Sane comes across as a schizoid misfit, where the lightning bolt symbolises the duality of an individual suffering the pangs of schizophrenia. Apparently, this was an autobiographi­cal dig at Bowie’s frame of mind during his American tour which had ushered in mixed feelings of love for this country and discomfort. Moreover, his brother Terry had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia so one can assume that this brought on its share of emotions.

Mallia’s interpretation of Aladdin Sane is one of the main highlights of the Black Canvas exhibition. This expressionist tour de force conveys the spirit of this important Bowie alter ego. The raw brushstrokes and the angry colours capture a soul in torment as well as that nonchalance which is the essential Bowie signature.

The Thin White Duke was a very controversial David Bowie alter ego in the mid-1970s. He metamorphosed into a very stylish, mad aristocrat wearing a white shirt, black trousers and a waistcoat. The glam rock garb and image were discarded. Always being one to embrace controversy, this persona made statements about Nazism and Adolf Hitler that the public interpreted as the superstar having pro-Fascist leanings. This he later categorically denied and declared that it was just part of an act.

When thinking of Bowie, one can’t help but marvel at the numerous transformations that accompanied his career along the years. Major Tom is the most enigmatic one as Bowie never actually transformed himself into a Major Tom persona, or maybe he did in the video of Ashes to Ashes when Bowie is attached via some space age umbilical cords to the endometrium of a spaceship.

Bowie appears also as a heartbroken Pierrot. The forlorn clown is a Commedia dell’Arte character who sadly pines for his lost love, Colombina, who had broken his heart and left him for Arlecchino. What was the reason behind the choice of this particular Commedia dell’Arte character? Colombina’s name is derived from the Italian colomba (a dove). Actually there is a dove in the Ashes to Ashes music video. The Pierrot Bowie frees a dove and throws it into the open sky. Is Colombina symbolised in that dove? A lost love? An impossible love? A full life with no time to dedicate to love? In the early 1980s, he apparently dated very famous women like Susan Sarandon, Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Tina Turner. Is the freed dove, his Colombina, one of these famous women? Ashes to Ashes seems to be a song about anything under the sun but not sensual love.

Mallia’s Black Canvas collection of paintings delve into Bowie’s world gone strange and the succession of alter egos. One is charmed into the iconic star’s milieu of personas, music albums and hit singles that spanned almost four decades. This unique collection of 21 paintings is a Mallia tour de force and a main highlight in this year’s cultural calender.

Quoting Bowie: “On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.” The Black Canvas collection of paintings invokes these ‘entities’ in an attempt at re-discovery. After all, ghosts are the embers of a life that needs to be gently remembered.

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