If you take a look at his art, it’s clear that Antony Micallef is a little world-weary. Many of his paintings ridicule our culture of consumerism, while others are dark, depressing reflections on the horror of modern warfare. One particularly acerbic work depicts a little girl in front of a TV alongside the words “Sometimes I get worried about the world but then I just turn the channel”. But for his latest exhibition, Raw Intent, Micallef tried to push his despair to one side.
“With all my other work, I think I was trying to illustrate a point,” Micallef muses. “And it all just started feeling like noise, and I was just left saying, ‘Do I care any more?’ Obviously I care as a person, but I needed to retract and think rather than paint about all this stuff. I just wanted to get back to painting and playing with paint. So with this body of work, it’s really about the paintings becoming objects themselves. I’ve never before used the quantity of paint that I’m using in this show. I had to spend thousands of pounds on paint and just throw it at the canvas.”
And when he says throw, Micallef means it literally. He chucked tube after tube and (for some of the larger works, bucket after bucket) of paint at the 22 canvases, and then mixed it using brushes, squeegees and knives. On some of these new works the paint is five centimetres deep, and it seems miraculous that the canvases haven’t buckled under the sheer weight of it. “The paintings are very, very sculptural,” Micallef admits. “The whole process was really physical.”
All of these latest works are portraits, a form that has been close to Micallef’s heart ever since he was runner-up in the BP Portrait Award in 2000 – an event that kick-started his career. “It’s pretty tough starting out as an artist,” he remembers. “I worked really hard in university, then coming up towards graduation, I thought, ‘Great, I’ve studied fine arts, but I can’t get a job painting church ceilings.’ So I taught myself every single graphic design package I could think of in my last year and thought, ‘Right, I’ll get a job as a graphic designer.’ I did that, then I painted in the evening every day and I had a pile of rejection letters from galleries, saying it’s good, but it’s not what we’re looking for. So when I got onto BP, I was getting contacted by galleries, which changed everything.”
Most of Micallef’s new portraits are abstract depictions of writhing, brawny-looking figures. But despite the violent first impression, Micallef started each of them by painting a soothing grey, almost cloud-like background. “The backgrounds take weeks to prepare,” Micallef reveals. “I used this kind of Renaissance technique using poppy oils and glazes. It’s actually a very slow process. And then on top of that the main figure was normally done in a day or two. The reason why I always wanted to do the figure in one or two days is because it’s hard to stop that process and come back and have that same visceral energy. It’s like being on a treadmill, it’s really fast, and once you jump off, it’s hard to get back on again. That’s why you’ve got to feel really confident when you try to make these paintings. If you have a bad day, don’t bother painting, because these backgrounds have taken weeks to prepare, so you become really precious with them.”
Seeing as the process is so fast, isn’t it hard to tell when to stop? Isn’t it tempting to just keep adding layers? “It’s pretty easy to see when it’s finished,” Micallef says. “But sometimes I’ve taken things too far and ended up destroying things by accident. I take pictures of my works in progress on my phone, and sometimes I’ve looked back at them and realised I’ve ruined one.”
Unlike many of his earlier paintings, Micallef insists that these aren’t self-portraits. “These aren’t of me,” he explains. “The figures are things I’ve conjured up, they’re almost like things I’ve found or unearthed; I feel like I’ve excavated or unmasked them. When I started them I didn’t know what I was going to paint.” Micallef did use a mirror when he was painting, but “that’s just for information,” he clarifies, “I’m not the model”.
Even if these were self-portraits, it would be hard to tell. There’s barely an eye, nose or mouth in sight, and the portraits are made up of hundreds of bold strokes, daubs and dashes that, all together, suggest a figure. The portraits could be of almost anyone, though something about the muscular, messy style does suggest that the subjects are men.
“The reason I called the show Raw Intent is because I wanted to express the nature of the energy used to make the work,” Micallef says. “It was so physical. In my studio there’s paint marks on the walls and you kind of get into this way of living where you can’t scrub it all off – the paint becomes intrinsic to your life. The studio is covered in strokes and brush marks and all the paintings and it becomes this sort of like a living diary in a sense of traces and things that have gone before. You can’t paint like this and be clean. But that was the only way I could get that visceral, expressionistic feeling, so it couldn’t be done any other way. Even outside of my studio, in my flat, I’d go home with paint all over me and sit in the bath because I was covered in red paint, and then my bath looked like I’d slaughtered a pig in there.”
Micallef’s bold use of colour – especially his extensive use of reds, ranging from light, fleshy pinks to a deep, dark burgundy – is also new to his work. “But I’ve actually found it quite annoying because some people see the red and they see it as blood,” Micallef protests. “And I just see it as colour and it doesn’t mean blood to me or horror – it’s just a beautiful colour. And people see the disfigured faces and the red and they immediately refer to Francis Bacon, which is fine, because they want to have a reference. But I actually think that a lot of this series is about Gerhard Richter as well and about what he does with paint. You know the way he mixes it, it’s really seductive and I really love that. Colour has played a huge part in these paintings because they’re all about the joy in colour, the joy in paint. I’ve never really explored that before.”
Raw Intent, which was held at Pearl Lam Gallery in Hong Kong’s Pedder Building, was Micallef’s first show in Asia, and was a successful introduction to this part of the world. (On opening night, when asked whether he has any collectors based in Hong Kong, Micallef smiled and replied, “I do now”). But now Raw Intent is over, he doesn’t know quite what’s next. “I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he admits. “This last year I’ve just been concentrating on getting to this point and getting this show in Hong Kong done. I actually want to get back to the studio. Normally after a show I take some time out, but I’m really hungry to paint again.”