Times of Malta – Sophistikós, a feast of femininity by Esther Lafferty

Sophistikós, a feast of femininity

Sat, Nov 2nd 2019, 13:30 Last updated 3 days, 1 hour ago


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This month, the contemporary Victoria gallery Arthall Gozo presents Sophistikós, a vibrant and thought-provoking exhibition of colourful women underpinned with wit, wisdom and wow-factor, reviewed by art journalist and writer Esther Lafferty.

The exhibition includes the work of three artists, Fox Daniels, SJ Fuerst and Tomas Hed, who each consider the dichotomy of the natural and the artificial, and the place of vanity and illusions, in their own inimitable styles.

The result is a sassy exhibition which is artistically strong, fresh, feisty and fun. The paintings are both a joy at face value and rather a riddle: it is intriguing to delve behind the artists’ rationale and glimpse beyond the glamour portrayed. Each of the artists is a storyteller, and just as beauty is only skin deep, these paintings hint also at a different reality behind the scenes. Tomas Hed is a regular exhibitor in this space with atmospheric, characterful and often quirky paintings. There’s a dark undertone to many of the tales he tells as he captures moments of everyday life. In one of the paintings, for example, a sophisticated lady sits alone in a Parisian café, the picture of elegance in contrast to a street performer who is clamouring for her attention with his tricks of the trade. Can she help but react to him?

Elsewhere, a Maltese girl stands by her grandmother dressed in ladies’ shoes, while the matriarchal figure contemplates the golden apple of eternal life and, perhaps the perpetual repetition of the pattern of life through the generations. Is it within their power to change this?

Hed’s work is perfectly complemented by the resplendent and exuberant art of Fox Daniels. Her large luminescent paintings, on show in Malta for the first time, depict vivacious women in brilliant caricature: confident, larger-than-life socialites in glamorous attire, with sweeping hair and voluptuous curves, peering from giant, brilliant blue eyes. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and these gloriously expressive women symbolise beauty, talent, ambition, intelligence, wealth and luck both as disciples in The Last Supper and across the series. Fox’s palette is strong and positive: the luscious pinks, indigos, blues and sunshine yellow are celebratory, and yet the expressions of the protagonists vary from the subtlest smile to mournful or questioning. Ponder a moment whether these women are in fact a brazen parody: although endowed with bold beauty by the brush, the figures in Fox’s work are concerned with the onslaught of creeping age, and the artifice required to hide it.

This is the first time SJ Fuerst’s inventive paintings have been exhibited in Gozo. They are a wonderful combination of traditional talent and playful paradox, as ancient legend meets the 21st century, combining popular culture with classical tableaux. Two large paintings hang together with apparent serenity and innocence.

With their timeless backdrops, they could each be a theatre set or the staging of a whimsical magazine photo shoot, yet with a surprising surreal twist they engage and entertain. With unexpected contrariness and verve, painted inflatable animals hint at another story which goes beyond the original narrative.

This is a brilliant exhibition that brings together what it is to be a sophisticated woman in Malta today

In Swaraswathi, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts nestles aboard an inflatable swan while strumming gently upon a plastic sitar. The swan is an enduring symbol of grace and purity, love, music, and poetry, beautiful yet fiercely powerful, a force to be reckoned with. Despite the elegance the giant swan represents, the 21st century desire for luxury that it epitomises is the seedy underbelly of consumerism.

Circe shows the Greek enchantress born of the sun god and an ocean nymph. Legend tells that she could transform people into lions and tigers, and turned Odysseus’s men into forest swine.

Traditionally painted with animals at her feet, in Fuerst’s wry depiction the animals at the feet of a captivating Circe are once again throw-away inflatables.

Interestingly, in Circe Fuerst’s subject looks straight out at the viewer, a stance that deliberately evokes an emotional response. Historically the female model was passive, her eyes cast down. In 18th and 19th-century art, paintings such as Manet’s Olympia and Goya’s The Naked Maja in which the model looks directly at the viewer were considered shockingly immodest in their day. In Sophistikós, this painting begs the question, is Circe provoking or inviting? Are we celebrating her power and individual agency or might we be viewing the model in a possessive, predatory way?

Today in only one painting by each artist the protagonist holds our gaze and in the current climate of #MeToo perhaps invites us to question what we see.

A single man appears in the paintings in the exhibition. Painted by Hed, he’s a classic ‘gentleman’ yet formidable nonetheless, and like a voyeur he lurks alongside Hed’s site-specific installation of Facebook Likes falling from above. Like the women, he too is perhaps an Orwellian man, shaped by the society in which he lives.

This is a brilliant exhibition that brings together what it is to be a sophisticated woman in Malta today, a flamboyant feast of femininity and its flaws, feminism and its challenges. In unabashed technicolour with humour and charm, it is a compelling and engaging show with wide appeal whatever your art experience.

Sophistikós runs until November 17 at Arthall Gozo, 8, Triq G.P.F. Agius De Soldanis Victoria. The exhibition opens Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 1pm and from 5 pm to 7pm and on Sunday from 10am to noon. (It is closed Monday and Tuesday).