Natura Viva

Teresa Sciberras 2021

‘’Art is the highest form of hope’’ Gerhard Richter

One of the first things that strikes you about Stefan’s works as you approach them is their luminosity – they glow as if backlit, or like small tanks containing self-illuminating deep sea creatures, or fireflies. Technically, Stefan tells me in his studio, the luminance is achieved through careful preparation of a traditional ground, meticulous selection of the most transparent pigments – Indian yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Viridian, Winsor Blue– and glazing, layers and layers of translucent glazes. All of which give his works the impression of being jewel-like, and lit from within.

But it is not just a technical thing, this sense of being animated, or of having an ‘anima’. The paintings seem to pulse with life and movement: fronds sway rhythmically, spiked creatures push forwards, a flash of something slippery vanishes into dense background: one does not so much look at these paintings as watchthem. They appear as vivariums, each an individual ecosystem, natural in its processes, though artificial in its conception, and enclosed within defined boundaries.  Lush and teeming, diverse and prolific, these are paintings which have not so much been constructed, but grown. Everywhere are indications of their growth  – they are inhabited by past lives and pentimenti, layers like geological strata, populated by life forms past and present, slow time compressed into one tightly cohabited space.

The space of the painting is something Stefan and I have endless discussions about. His choice of title for this series of work is telling, carefully and deliberately selected to shed light on the relationship between the frame of the painting and what is both inside of it and outside of it.  “A ‘quadrat’, the dictionary tells me, “is a frame, traditionally square, used in ecology and geography to isolate a standard unit of area for study of the distribution of an item over a large area.” The item here is normally a life-form – plant or animal – and the area inside the quadrat becomes a microcosmic representation or sample of the greater world beyond it.

The parallels with painting are fascinating. For one thing, there is the physical frame of the quadrat: often a gridded affair of around one metre by one metre, it is strongly reminiscent of Alberti’s frame or drawing machine, a perspective device used for placing over a scene in order to define and trace a composition. Then there is the very action of framing, which is intrinsically tied to the activity of painting – whether one accepts the traditional frame of the painting, or negotiates alternatives to it, as many contemporary painters do. And then there is the crucial connection between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, the relationship between the smaller world of the picture plane and the bigger picture, the ‘world out there’ which it attempts in some way to represent, refer to –or turn its back on.

“It’s really important to understand that in these paintings, the world continues beyond the frame,” Stefan insists. This is a fiction, of course, as unlike a photograph or even a traditional landscape painting, this is not a stolen slice or segment of the world, recorded or replicated as an artwork. One could not return with the painting to the original site or source of inspiration and hold it up to the horizon so that its edges seamlessly disappear. On the contrary, here, each ‘quadrat’ talks about an imaginary world, or at least a world which exists somehow beyond the naked eye, either too miniature, too monumental, or too mysterious to be perceived from a standard human viewpoint.

And yet I think I understand why it is important to Stefan to conceive of the quadrilinear containing device as being incidental, and to imagine the painted microcosm spilling out of the frame, stretching beyond our peripheral vision. It marks an important shift from his previous work, not just in his compositional approach, but in what he sees as the nature of Painting. In an earlier series of paintings, he explored the idea of a garden, using the enclosed, artificial yet natural space of the garden as a metaphor for painting, and likening the role of the painter to that of a gardener, who prepares the bed, plans, plants and nurtures, grafts and weeds, digs and buries. All of those actions are still going on here, but these new paintings are not gardens. Or perhaps, they are no longer gardens. They are wilder.

The shift from seeing a painting as a defined, curated and constructed place to a random sample of a wild and independently existing world involves a major shift in the understanding of the role of the painter in the painting, and by extension, of the human in nature. I feel there is a strong Romantic impulse behind the works in this series, as the artist takes a step back from the human-centered positon of control to let the greater forces of the nature of painting take over. Indeed, the sentiments expressed in Stefan’s artist statement on the role of the painter as ‘listener and messenger’ seem to echo Barry Schwabsky’s reflection in a recent anthology of contemporary landscape painting on “…the ultimate Romantic dream: to be the channel through which the world-soul finds a communicable form.” [i]

Living in the second decade of the 21st century, as the devastation caused by the opposition between the human and the natural becomes increasingly evident, and as the relationship between humans and nature rapidly moves to the forefront of most global discussions, the role of listener and messenger to the ‘world-soul’ seems to take on an unprecedented urgency.  In the introductory essay ‘Painting with the Flow of the World’, Schwabsky suggests that this may be the reason why the 21st century has seen such a resurgence in paintings that could be said to be landscape paintings, albeit not unproblematic ones.

At first glance, Stefan’s body of work may not seem to be landscape painting: it is indeed difficult to categorize. Too suggestive to be abstract, and yet at the same time too slippery and multi-pronged to be representational.  It is definitely not figure painting, as it is deliberately devoid of figures or human presence, and nor is it still-life: this is clearly not natura morta but natura viva. However, Schwabsky provides a more expanded definition of landscape painting, seeing it fundamentally as painting that reflects on or interrogates the relationship between humans and Nature, painting that “shifts the accent away from the human and divine as sole agencies toward the interplay of all entities in the whole space.[ii] He continues: “Many of the artists who are painting landscape today are grappling with questions about what our relationship with nature can be today, how nature and culture are intertwined, and what it means to be a thinking and perceiving subject in a world that may be indifferent to our thinking and perceiving.” [iii]

These questions are clearly evident in Stefan’s ‘quadrats’. Is the painter, the human, part of nature, or apart from it? How can he become the channel of communication between one and the other? How can he be the catalyst for the ‘interplay of entities’? “These paintings”, Stefan explains, “are not paintings of nature”, but somehow, they offer an experience which is akin to an experience of nature. What he seems to be saying is that it is not so much about the nouns as about verbs, not so much about what appears inside of the painting – which may or may not refer to what exists outside of the painting – but it is about what happens in the process of painting. To paint, therefore, is perhaps to enact the relationship between humans and nature – a relationship which can be about mastery, dominance and control, or about observation, responsiveness and symbiosis.

In fact, this resonates with the concluding proposal of Schwabsky’s text: “painting can have a significant role to play in embodying the kind of shift in attitude towards our relation to the world around us that may be necessary for our survival.”[iv]

“My works are actually political” Stefan says quietly in his studio. I see it. They are about co-existence. At first I think it is just about the multiplicity of organisms, the plethora of flora and fauna which inhabit these crowded, plural spaces: aquatic, amphibious, airborne and anonymous. On my first studio visit, he shows me a worn copy of ‘The Flora and Fauna of the Maltese Islands’, excitedly pointing out some of the forms and textures which have fascinated him. Later, at the launch of his exhibition, his guests quiz him about the inhabitants of his paintings: so what are these? Passion flowers? Caper-berry bushes? Sea- anemonies? Stefan’s paintings hint at things that are just on the verge of recognition, yet slip away before a name can be given. Behind his mask, Stefan is non-committal, Sphinx-like– not because he is choosing to hide the truth, I think, but because he does not know the answer himself. Indeed, painting is a state of not knowing. When done well, painting is a type of thinking, a state of being that exists outside of language, outside of categories, taxonomies or dichotomies – outside of the safe capturing, lassoing, circling and naming of things.

I realize then that these paintings are more than just depictions of a post-human wilderness. Surreptitiously but surely, they are a collective attack on structures, on structure in general, on the type of order that involves imposition, containment, restriction, elimination. This is not art about ‘this OR this’, but ‘this AND this’. Thinking back to my first studio visit, I remember the paintings at the very early stages looking very different: several of them were composed around rigid, centralized geometric shapes. Months later, these have almost completely disappeared – and yet they are still in there somewhere, just absorbed and metabolized by the painting process. Thus, order and disorder, hierarchy and anarchy, image and mark, figure and ground, surface and depth –all the traditional oppositions of painting, all of these are in there too, set into productive, creative motion and left to breed.

 ‘’A painting has a life of its own, I try to let it come through’’, Jackson Pollock is famously quoted as saying.

Just as there is a level on which the dancer becomes the dance, and while remaining separate entities, cannot be separated, so too with the painter and the painting. This is the level on which the structure of oppositional distinctions that all thought and language are built on begins to break down. If painting enacts our relationship with nature, then paintings like these show us what is possible.

Schwabsky, again: “we can have a more equitable relationship with nature once we realize we are neither ‘one’ with it, nor entirely separate from it, and that the very discontinuities within reality make it both necessary and possible to participate in a “choreography between entities”.[v]

The object that survives out of this ‘pas de deux’, is, as Stefan puts it, merely a ‘mummified’ recording of a space-time event, a Rosetta stone that needs unlocking by the viewer in order to read the multi-layered narratives intertwined within it. However, like a Rosetta stone, which holds the key to the understanding of a larger whole through a small but representative sample, these works remain vital –in all senses of the word.

Perhaps they are what will survive of us in the potentially imminent post-anthropocene. We could do worse.

But I would like to believe that Stefan’s vision is more utopian than dystopian. As Richard Noble says in the introductory essay to the Whitechapel anthology of essays on Utopiasthe utopian impulse in art is linked closely with the aesthetic strategy of modelling. In one way or another, most utopian art postulates models of other ways of being.[vi] So these vivariums are models of more than just otherworldly eco-systems, they are proposals of ways of being, ways of staying alive. And if to be vital, to be alive, means to continue to exist, then what better medium to convey this than painting. Painting knows all about staying alive.

This is why this type of painting occupies a crucial position in the discursive arena of contemporary art: it occupies the place at the table of the listener, the messenger, the seer, the visionary, the shaman; it taps into all that is pre-linguistic, post-linguistic, non-linguistic, the crucial bits that the words don’t catch, that artists statements skirt around, the live things that swim out of the net.

Something is being kept alive in these paintings –perhaps it is hope.

[i] Schwabsky, B. 2019. ‘New Romanticism’. In Bradway, T. 2019. Landscape Painting Now: from Pop Abstraction to New Romanticism. Thames and Hudson: London. p. 143

[ii] Schwabsky, B. 2019.‘Painting with the Flow of the World’. In Bradway, T. 2019. Landscape Painting Now: from Pop Abstraction to New Romanticism. Thames and Hudson: London. p. 14

[iii] ibid. p. 22-24

[iv] ibid. p. 25

[v] ibid. p 25

[vi] Noble, R. ‘The Utopian Impulse in Contemporary Art’. In Noble, R. (ed) 2009. Documents of Contemporary Art: Utopias. Whitechapel Gallery: London and MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. p.14

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