Punk Painter

Ryan Falzon In His Studio (photo by Tyler Calleja Jackson)

"The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web.” 

Walking through the galleries of Spazju Kreattiv whilst Ryan Falzon’s We Lost The War collection was being exhibited earlier this year it was that quote by Pablo Picasso that came to mind.  There, surrounded by visceral paintings and bright colours that threatened to overwhelm you, it was impossible to escape the raw emotions that the artist was trying to pass on through work that was saturated with references to popular culture.

For many, including myself, this was the first opportunity to experience Falzon’s work and such is the nature of his art that some form of reaction was unavoidable.  It is, however, only later that one can truly appreciate just how much of an impact a piece of art has left; a sentiment that is measured by the number of times you catch yourself thinking about the work and its meaning. 

This happened often enough for it to raise the desire to meet the man who gave birth to those images.   Acting as a counter balance to this desire is the slight feeling of unease when approaching someone whom you know only through their art.  Especially when that individual is willing to so openly and visually challenge accepted norms.

Is the aggression that comes through in his work also a facet of his character? Will any of the questions act as a trigger?

Of course, there was nothing in such thoughts. Instead Falzon is the epitome of calm as he works in his studio garage where he is surrounded by his own work.

“I spend a lot of time here, most of it working” he confirms.  “Working and filtering my thoughts.”  

“In truth, I do most of the filtering when I am going on in my everyday life; when I’m walking or driving and thoughts come somewhat naturally.”

“My studio is very much an open one.  Whoever calls asking to come here is more than welcome as I do not believe in trying to be secretive.  In fact it is the opposite.  I believe that if I invite people and we talk, it brings life to this space.”

Guests or not, in reality his studio is rarely silent if he’s in.  

“When I’m working there’s also some music or a film going on the background.  I have a collection of some thirty movies that I know by heart and which I follow as I’m doing other things.  Most of them are action movies so I know who has killed who!  Even though it might seem as strange, it gets me going.”

“I was into the punk scene when I was younger and had my own band so I think that the punk ethos, the DIY nature, the rawness and collage element of punk comes through in my work.  The urgency of my work has elements of the punk style.   As I draw there are definitely traces of the music.  “

Lately, however, he has begun to look beyond punk.  “Over the past year I’ve been increasingly listening to għana, Maltese folk music.  Għana is not some four old men talking about foolish things, there is aggression in it.  Għana is not innocent.  There was a time when għana was quite vivacious and filled with a rebellious element.  There was a time when għana was quite political.  There exist recording about għana at the time of Malta’s Independence that could not be broadcast on national radio as media was still censured by the British forces.”

“I find that the repetition of għana helps me focus on my work.”

That Ryan should choose this type of music to motivate him is interesting for there are quite a number of similarities between għana and his own work.  They both talk boldly about what is going on around us in Malta; dissecting every day elements of popular culture without attempting to apply too many filters for public decency. 

“There is a similarity,” he concedes.

“I believe that as an artist I have to react to my immediate environment which in this case is Malta.   I portray what is going on around me.  In Malta we have two extremes; either drawing the luzzu or iMdina which are both typically local or else work that is completely alien to the Maltese context.”

“I’m neither of the two.  There is the notion among the Maltese that Mattia Preti or Caravaggio are what art is all about.” 

“There is pop in my work.  You see pop icons like Scarface or the Winner (a soft-drink brand that used to be manufactured in Zejtun).  Like Any Warhol, I take elements of I take elements of pop and then present them as art.”

All this is done because he prefers to talk about things that he can see and feel.  “It is more a case of giving my own personal opinion rather than as a criticism to society.”

“I don’t think that we as artists can change as much as we would like or we think we can.  I don’t think that we have the power to bring about that change.  In a world where visual art is in constant competition with visual imagery and screens like Instagram where everyone feels that they have the ability to create images,  the strength of us visual artists has diminished.”

Interestingly, Falzon does not bemoan this but views it a matter-of-fact.

“I have a different opinion to many others in the art scene in that I don’t feel that art is important and you have to love it.  You can’t make me love football, for instance, so why expect that everyone else be willing to go to art exhibitions?”

“This does not mean that they shouldn’t be taught basic history of art or art appreciation.  I studied many different topics and I did not enjoy all of them.  Yet if you talk to me about history I can hold a conversation thanks to what I learned at school.  It should be the same thing for art where people are taught about it so they would at least have the tools to understand.”

“People who argue that abroad it is different lose me,” he continues.  “Malta is, essentially a medium sized city in terms of population.  If you go outside the main cities in most European countries it is not as if you are faced with art galleries everywhere you look.”

“We have our share of galleries.  And there are always events being held at places like Spazju Kreattiv that are open to anyone who wants to visit.”

Falzon’s own We Lost The War was arguably one of the main exhibitions put up at Spazju Kreattiv during 2017; certainly one that got people talking.

“There were people who really liked the work and felt that there is an absence of similar ideas; that at the moment no one else is working in that style locally.  There were a lot of people who were younger than twenty who saw the work, liked and understood it.  In fact many followed me and tagged my work on Instagram, which was nice to see.”

 “Overall the response was very good.”

“The guest book was interesting.  There were a lot of positive comments.  Then there were those who told me that I am too young to be so sad and to look at the world through such a cynical lens.  There were comments that my work shouldn’t be exhibited anywhere, let alone Spazju Kreattiv; that I belittle god’s name.  There were comments that my work is fascist and sexist.”

“There was a whole spectrum of comments.  Which is good.”

It was equally good for him to have the opportunity to exhibit in this venue.  

“I work in a very linear manner with a time plan where ideally I have in my mind a picture of where the work is going to be exhibited.  A lot of the work was tailor made for the space.  I wanted to exhibit at Spazju Kreativ not for the prestige that this brings but as it was the only place that could support that kind of work both in terms of size and of style.”

“I wanted to use and experiment painting large images because some ideas only work when there is a big painting.”

We Lost the War was also notable for the vivacity of the colours used.  “There were colours that clashed in a traditional sense.  It is another layer on top of the painting itself.  There is that game.  However, composition wise I make sure that the image works.  In work like mine unless you have solid composition, everything collapses.”

At this point it is worthwhile noting how an idea comes into being for Falzon.  “There are many subjects that interest me.  The theme of violence, that of detachment, love and impossible love, love that is over, politics…these are all of interest”

“One of the reasons why I work is because I keep going over subjects that I enjoy.  And I always deal about human subjects.  I am not one to deal with abstract themes.  Conceptual topics are not in my style.”

“My working method is that I collect a lot of information on a subject that I want to do something about.  So in the beginning there is a lot of research involved.  I’m not one to simply go and start painting.  The departure point is much more controlled.”  

“I get so immersed in the subject that at a certain point I have to start working on it.  A lot of the time the work changes as I’m working and the end result is different from what I had initially imagined.”

“My work is touch and go.  Supress and release.”

His work is also inspired by social media.  

“I have a series of drawings that is based on the idea of memes and which I decided to exhibit only online.  They were very topical and of the moment so if I were to exhibit them today they would be a bit dated and probably would need an explanation.”

The start of next year will bring with it another exhibition and a new series of work that will undoubtedly make people sit up and take notice.  “I’m working on monotone and acetone prints which are going to veer more on to the personal.   My work has always been personal but there has also always been a balance between the political and the personal.  This time it is going to be more personal than political.”

“They won’t be biographical, however,” he points out.  “At this stage it is personal matters treated through a political lens.”

More of Ryan Falzon's work can be found on his self-titled website and by following him on Instagram.  Photos shown on this page are from Falzon's Facebook page.


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