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Destructive Intelligences and The Mean Reds—The Figurative Portraits of Antony Micallef

Whilst most art criticisms need not include an introduction as to their format,  the following analysis is a combination of poetry and prose—the focus on prose means that, technically, this can be described  as prosimetry.  The anticipation however is that this is not merely poetry based on another’s artwork, but does though form the basis of a critical appraisal.  Arguably, since—as a core tenet art is interpretive—it is perhaps fitting that a prosimetric evaluation should be a higher form of art criticism; the poem formulates the interpretation of the critic whilst the prose is the evaluation of that message, and how it adds to improving the human condition. To aid the reader in this rather novel new form of criticism, it is perhaps suggested that the prose may be read first; the poetry after.  Of course, the reader will not be disadvantaged at reading the whole as it stands, which is also actively encouraged.

Out of American author Truman Capote’s outrageous stock of metaphors and visual comparisons, it is perhaps the line from his party-fuelled Breakfast at Tiffany’s which carries over to the theme of Antony Micallef’s work: “And since gin to artifice bears the same relation as tears to mascara, her attractions at once dissembled”. In this case, however it isn’t  gender which is being highlighted; indeed many of Micallef’s portraits are faceless and un-distinguishable in terms of sex, however one of the chief elements in the raison d’être of Micallef’s work is his dismantling of the idea of the self—a theme which led to a ‘self-titled’ Self exhibition at trailblazers of the uncategorical and more subversive art movements, Lazarides-Rathbone gallery—by whom he himself is represented, earlier in 2015.

Antony Micallef's Francis Bacon Inspired Work
Micallef’s style has been compared to that of the late Francis Bacon, whose disturbed realities brought portraiture to the fore of 20th century art.

But who is the face behind the name, Antony Micallef? Born in Swindon UK in 1975, Micallef is the son of a sheet-metal worker and a cleaner, and climbed up the rungs of a paint splattered studio ladder to become one of British contemporary art’s biggest names. His formal education was at the University of Plymouth, where he completed a degree in Fine Art, and subsequently went on to win second prize in the highly competitive BP Portrait Award at the turn of the millennium. His work has been compared to the turmoil-inflected pieces of Francis Bacon, however perhaps one facet of Bacon’s work which is truly shared in common with Micallef’s could again be described by Capote’s Breakfast protagonist Holly Golightly as the mean reds; the portrayal of a deep and dark internal turmoil.

A taut persona backed against a wall
Edging to the corner, pretends to have choices,
But is stuck fast, cloaked by a heavy, dark pall
And without escape! Confused by competing voices
Due to the methods of destructive intelligences
Which coerce the mind to stay in unhappy places.
But one can avoid such mental deferences
Not by moving, surely, but by merely changing faces!
To countenance a kinder, more genial mien
By surrounding it with calming folk and open spaces
To leave; demur desire of that unrealised dream.

To describe Micallef as being derivative of Bacon would be a big mistake: there are notable, yet subtle differences.  Whereas Bacon and Golightly would be quite at home at a roaring, socialite-filled party, Micallef tries to eschew consumerism in his work; digging deep into wanton wastefulness and excess is one of his aims levelled at the human spirit.

English Artist Antony Micallef's Faceless Portraits
A series of Antony Micallef’s Portraits for his ‘Self’ exhibition at Lazarides Rathbone gallery, London.

But if Bacon’s diptychs and triptychs represent fragmented realities, then Micallef can be said to actively encourage the viewer to engage in this aspect of his work due to the value placed on texture. Thick palette knives are often the tools to form the basis of contorted faces, giving enhanced dimensionality as if they they are wanting to be heard, which may resonate with the viewer’s own silent desires and media-contorted perceptions.

One sits in a library where no librarian guards
As there are none to which a sibilant need utter,
Merely you, with that lone catalogue card
At which, you glance, look up then stutter:
For you are now thrust upon a stage
Wherein you are the protagonist;
Your eyes the only audience; the only gauge,
The mechanism of which is a neural needle which lists
To judge the performance of self-expectation.

Historians (of art, and otherwise) might like to claim that the various struggles in which humanity has been employed have been between two people or more, and have—at various times—pitted one ideology against another: one social class versus the one above (‘the history of all hitherto existing societies has been one of class struggle’); groups which believe their unseen deity to be more visible than other unseen deities; or perhaps diametrically opposed tribes which may quarrel over matters of historical fact. Modern times may, however, see less of this—not because these events no longer occur, but because there are more insidious and subversive movements at work.

Antony Micallef Faceless Selfie Portraits at Lazarides Rathbones Gallery
A selection of Micallef’s faceless portraits, which strip bare the celebrity of the ‘selfie’ to what it really is: a manifestation of the excesses of the consumerist culture.

Due to a combination of sociological factors such as more targeted and subliminal marketing campaigns, one of the newest struggles facing people today is self-vs-self: the consumerist battle to better contemporaries with items, trinkets, one probably doesn’t even need, a battle wherein to lose does not intimate certain death like other struggles, but would be conducive to intense boats of self-loathing if one’s sword used to fight this battle (your neighbours is bigger; their quiver well stocked) is rent in two. It is a battle of the self because there is no consequence in not achieving ownership of the things you do not need—this factor is key. Of course one can argue that marketing forces are perpetuating this battle, but it is the individual who is engaging in the war in which they do not need to fight; the media acting as a third party, much like a hidden instigator—a shy antagonist—who casts the first invective-filled words only to step back seconds later to watch the glorious, bejewelled sparks fly (upgrades of those sparks are available for paying users).

Textured Figurative Portraiture of Antony Micallef
Like American artist Jasper Johns’ use of encaustic, Micallef uses the effect of texture to engage viewers with the deeper meanings of portraiture.

Micallef’s recent exhibit challenges these consumerist tendencies not by challenging the hidden antagonist, but by taking to task the participants—the individual, to dig deep—to strip that selfie bare to leave the textured personality underneath.

We waited so long, in measuring our span,
To apportion elsewhere that
We were students writing an infinite exam,
Preparing endlessly, for the future that never

—Ryan McMullen

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