Artist Gabriel Buttigieg - Humanity In Its Rawest Form

Sarah Micallef - 2nd June 2019

Inspired by primitive sources and that which truly makes us human, artist Gabriel Buttigieg has never pandered to the masses. He speaks about his artistic journey and the importance of believing in your work with Sarah Micallef.

At just 26, Gabriel Buttigieg may rightly be considered a young artist, though his artistic journey already spans longer than most. “The first drawing I have is of an Indian from when I was five years old,” he recalls, looking back on the beginnings of his interest in the subject. “I still have it, and I think it’s interesting because even though I was so young, the way I painted it shows all the details of the body, including things like the nostrils and fingertips. The technique is also quite similar to what I do today, in that the focus is on the line and filling in with colour,” he muses.

Gabriel reveals that he always had an inclination towards expressing himself artistically, as well as a certain sensitivity towards his environment, particularly in relation to the psychology of human beings and relationships. Literature was another component in young Gabriel’s formation. “My father was a writer and would share ideas with me from a young age,” he says, referring to renowned local playwright Alfred Buttigieg. “His approach was always more existential however, while mine is more primitive in that I try to paint humanity in its rawest form, which I feel particularly makes sense within the modern day, as people continually manage their image and ideals depending on who they are around,” he says. The artist adds that he has always been inspired by primitive sources, like cave paintings and mythology, as well as those natural, innate aspects of ourselves that make us human: “anxiety, vulnerability, happiness and unhappiness – I try to portray all of these things in my work.”

These multiple sources of inspiration and influence continued throughout his teens, during which, despite receiving tutelage from celebrated local artists including Caesar Attard and Ray Pitre, Gabriel preferred to carve out his own path. “To be honest I’ve never listened to anybody,” he smiles. “I say this with the greatest respect, and it’s not because their comments weren’t valid, but I view the subject as extremely personal,” he explains, revealing that he began and resigned from both Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Fine Arts courses, preferring to seek inspiration from other sources like music and film. “I’m now studying psychology at University, which I feel makes a lot more sense for me,” he says. These varied sources of inspiration also come into play when I ask him about particular artists he looks up to, to which he admits there are too many to name, and their fields run the gamut of art, literature and psychology. “American painters from the ‘80s like Alex Katz and Eric Fischl, in literature the absurdity of Beckett, the psychology of Camus and Freud… so many things. There are also various contemporary artists, including 28-year-old Polish artist Igor Moritz, whose work is very much on the same wavelength.” Gabriel was just 18 years old when he began exhibiting his work, starting from a collective exhibition with a number of other artists at Xarolla Windmill in Żurrieq.

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Woman painted by artist Gabriel Buttigieg

A number of solo exhibitions followed, including last year’s Saudade at Palazzo De La Salle in Valletta, and now, the artist is turning his sights abroad. “I have a residency in France and a solo exhibition in Poland coming up,” he reveals. In that time, I ask, has he developed a particular technique? “In the past, I would focus a lot more on the paint and the treatment of it,” he tells me, describing himself as a lot more expressionistic and impulsive at the outset – features which Gabriel feels reflected his age. “Studying psychology has grounded me in the sense that it joined the dots… I could make sense of certain thoughts and feelings I had, and it enabled me to find a nice balance between that which is abstract, as art is, and science,” he maintains, explaining that this led him to move away from the impulsiveness of paint and focus more on the narrative aspect. Confessing an enduring interest in drawing and a love of line, Gabriel affirms that for the work displayed at his most recent exhibition, Saudade, he “literally, like a kid, created a drawing and simply filled it in with colours.” As he goes along, Gabriel deems his technique more reductive, and continues to feel drawn towards narration, symbolic elements and creating a certain atmosphere, stripping away elements of technique in favour of theme and symbolism.

“I’ve actually had some criticism from people who compare my recent work with what I used to do before,” he says, maintaining that his previous work contained many more layers. “The criticism now is that some consider the latest work to be ‘flat’. I don’t see it that way because I feel that there are even more layers involved now, in terms of the composition, choice of colours, etc,” Gabriel attests, making reference to this style of ‘pop’ and ‘flat’ painting gaining ground overseas, in places like London, Berlin and Poland. “Being inspired by primitive sources which are, in themselves, flat, it made much more sense for me to develop this kind of approach.” And while at face value, the theme appears the same – sex – the artist discloses that there’s a lot more to it than that. “Along with sex comes a whole host of other things like attachment issues and vulnerability, for example. I feel that I depict sex because of the fact that it is, even from an evolutionary point of view, the most primitive experience a person can have. Relationships in general, and the way we interact with people, all boil down to this,” he says, and while many may interpret the work to be very sexual and intimate, in reality, Gabriel sees many things that go beyond that. “Being inspired by things like evolution, biology, evolution psychology, psychodynamic psychology… it’s inevitable.”

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A chair painted by artist Gabriel Buttigieg

“Being inspired by primitive sources which are, in themselves, flat, it made much more sense for me to develop this kind of approach.”

Indeed, he goes on to affirm, while it often changes and develops, to a certain extent, the theme remains the same. “I continually delve into the same subject and interpret it in different ways. You could call it overarching as a theme, but the way in which I tackle it changes. At one point I can show it in a sweet, indirect way that is pleasing to the eye at face value, and at other times I could produce a series of drawings that portray the same subject in its rawest form.”

He goes on to reveal that in his current work, he intends to take this a step further and move away from the figurative to focus further on symbolism and metaphor. Showing me a selection of pencil drawings that were set to be exhibited later that week, he explains, “these are the rawest drawings I’ve ever done. I wanted to show the act in the most direct way, moving away from what I did for November’s exhibition entirely – I always have a tendency to go from one extreme to the other.” Asked about his creative process, Gabriel explains that he will often spend a length of time working continuously, followed by a pause in which he’ll think, observe and sketch. “Once I start, I tend to start with sketching on paper, moving on to paintings, one leading on to another, but I never set out to create a ‘final piece’ – the process always teaches me. I’ve always had this expressive element within me, and even though this may sound romantic, I also believe a lot in the unconscious – I really like the fact that I don’t always have complete control of what I’m doing. Certain elements come out in the work as I’m painting, and I don’t like to plan them out, but rather let them happen,” he says. Looking back on his journey so far, Gabriel points out several highlights, including a 2016 exhibition titled paintings at Heritage Malta, which was followed some months later by Nudes, a collection.

gabriel

He goes on to reveal that in his current work, he intends to take this a step further and move away from the figurative to focus further on symbolism and metaphor. Showing me a selection of pencil drawings that were set to be exhibited later that week, he explains, “these are the rawest drawings I’ve ever done. I wanted to show the act in the most direct way, moving away from what I did for November’s exhibition entirely – I always have a tendency to go from one extreme to the other.” Asked about his creative process, Gabriel explains that he will often spend a length of time working continuously, followed by a pause in which he’ll think, observe and sketch. “Once I start, I tend to start with sketching on paper, moving on to paintings, one leading on to another, but I never set out to create a ‘final piece’ – the process always teaches me. I’ve always had this expressive element within me, and even though this may sound romantic, I also believe a lot in the unconscious – I really like the fact that I don’t always have complete control of what I’m doing. Certain elements come out in the work as I’m painting, and I don’t like to plan them out, but rather let them happen,” he says. Looking back on his journey so far, Gabriel points out several highlights, including a 2016 exhibition titled paintings at Heritage Malta, which was followed some months later by Nudes, a collection of works on paper, at Pjazza Teatru Rjal.

Another satisfying experience was a series of drawings inspired by one of the books his father released in the 1980s called Dik il-Qtajra. “It was a very underrated book, dealing with themes that I feel are still pertinent in today’s age, so I created a series of small drawings related to it,” he explains. And while there’s undoubtedly much more to come for Gabriel, he does have a few words of advice for aspiring artists. “I’ve always been a bit hard headed, and in a sense rebellious. Everyone’s got their own approach when it comes to their work, but I’ve always believed in what I was doing. Painting is still a valid medium, and I think that the most important thing is to believe in it and to be determined, forget all the references and opinions, and believe in yourself and continue to study that which you really believe in,” he says, and we couldn’t agree more.

This interview originally appeared in The Commercial Courier. 


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