In Search of Meaning Through Art

It is hard to explain what it is that attracted me so much to it.  ‘Tizjina’ is a rather unassuming painting that at first glance simply depicts a branch of ivy.  Tilt your head so that the light hits it at a certain angle, however, and you can just about see the shadow of a boarded up window.  Look even closer and you notice other little details like the ivy using the frame of that window to shape its growth.

Thinking back, it is those details – and the questions they raise - that got me.  Who lived behind that window?  Why was it boarded up?  Was there any reason why the ivy was drawing our attention to it?

Such is the art of Alex Dalli. 

On the face of it, his love of minimalism is reflected in work stripped of clutter.  And yet the lack of (obvious) detail does not reduce the power of his work.  His ambition isn’t that of overloading the senses of whoever is watching but, rather, to spark off their imagination and get them to think. 

It is not an easy style to have as your trademark.  For one thing, it isn’t the kind of work that is likely to be widely understood and appreciated especially by those for whom art means almost exclusively detailed landscapes.  Apart from the question of taste, there is also the issue of execution; if you throw so little at the canvas you could easily end up with a painting that says nothing.

Dalli, however, comes up with work like ‘Tizjina’ that hold meaning far beyond the mere details that it depicts.  His talent lies in looking at an image and stripping away all the noise until all that remains is that which gives it real meaning.

“It is as if I am peeling the layers,” he explains as we look at the paintings that decorate his home that also serves as his studio.  “I like minimalism and I like to dive deeply into the image until I have something that can transmit my emotions.”

“I don’t want to tell people anything.  I’m nearly sixty now so I’ve passed the stage where I feel the urge to rebel against the way that things are or shout out my opinion.  What I do have is experience that has shaped the way I see things.  I want to share that with people.  Hopefully my work will touch them in a manner that they still get to feel the emotions that I want to transmit.”

Soft spoken and unpretentious, Alex Dalli has nothing of the clichéd flamboyance that is often attributed to artists.  Instead he measures his words carefully, clearly delighting in sharing his thoughts about each of his paintings without ever giving the impression that he is expecting any word of praise in return.  His pleasure comes in seeing his work leaving an impact and in hearing others’ thoughts.

From the way that he talks about it, the theme of emotion is clearly an important one for him.  “I am an emotional man; I don’t see anything wrong in expressing my emotions.  I used to work as a nurse and there I used to see a lot of people in pain, both physical and emotional.  Whenever I saw people getting despondent I never shied away from hugging them.  That physical expression of emotion helped a lot.”

Fittingly some of his work is also a physical expression of his emotionality.  Dalli shows me a painting that is essentially a block of plaster.  On it he etches those instances and moments that touch him.  “I was walking and saw that someone had etched his and his fiancé’s name on the wall and I got thinking about that couple, or what had become of them as well as how they had a record of that moment.  So I decided to make this painting and on it I etch important names or dates.  There’s the names of my family, for instance.” 

“Recently I saw the horrors of what was going on in Syria so I etched that country’s name on it.  I will keep on adding to it.  It is a living painting, probably the only one I have which I would never sell.”

Dalli has similar stories for all of his paintings.  The more you listen to him talking about them the more impressive the whole process is; how he lets ideas rest as he contemplates.  It is akin to an expert goldsmith working on a piece of precious metal, forming and shaping it until the jewellery that he has in his mind emerges.

Throughout the days these thoughts are sifted and explored at the back of his mind until he gets to a point where the idea is mature enough for him to start working on it.  This is a crucial period for him; the gestation of the idea before he is ready to birth it.

The actual painting process is equally measured.  “I like to use wood as my canvas,” he explains.  “I enjoy its natural texture and feel that it gives it all an added dimension.”

“After putting the wood together I start layering on the plaster and paint.  There have been people who have said that my technique is akin to sculpting as I shape the image as much as I paint it.  Each one has a number of layers because I like to lay it on thick and then remove from it because each scratch or embossed patch can help my message.”

“This takes quite a bit of time in order to dry so I usually work on two paintings at the same time.  Whilst one is drying I switch to the other and vice-versa.”

“Often, however, I just sit and look at the work in progress.  It allows me to think about it, how it is turning out and what else I should be doing.  I want to involve the viewer in my work and that means that I also have to look at it to see it with different eyes.  I have to think about it, to absorb it and get a feeling for it.”

When he is not actively painting, he is still looking to improve.  One of the ways he does so is doodling.  “When I have a spare moment I enjoy doodling.  It relaxes me and at the same time it allows me to build a skill of drawing shapes.  If I’m doing a curve, for instance, I try to doodle in a similar manner to get to the shape that I want in as free flowing a manner as possible.  I find that when I then get to the painting it helps me get what I have in mind quicker.”

In doing so he creates small works of art despite the absence of any discernible theme.  “There have been people who have encouraged me to hold an exhibition purely based on these doodles.  And one day I will.”

In the meantime, he continues to work.  He shows me his current project which, in my eyes is already a pretty impressive piece but which he feels requires further attention.  “It is good to hear that even at this stage you’re getting what I would like the viewer to feel.  Still I need to refine it a bit further before I am satisfied.”

That satisfaction is what ultimately matters.  “I used to be quite pessimistic as a person,” he confides as he shows me some of his earlier work that, in contrast to most of his more recent art, is dominated by dark colours.  “With time I changed.  Now I am more of a positive person and that is reflected my art.”

That positivity shines through in the nature and execution of his work.  Which is no easy task as Dalli does not shy away from tackling heavy subject.  And yet, that he does it so well is not so surprising.  The secret, if one could call it that, lies in the process that he readily admits to which involves thinking and distilling his topic. 

There is a light that shines through in his work and that is the light of Dalli’s own positivity.   Someone else might end up focusing on the negative of each situation; Dalli instead opts to look for what hope there is in it.  Rarely does he fail.

Want to hear a contrasting view?  Check out how Ryan Falzon views art and how the punk ethos influences his work.


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