The Man and the Mask in Rafael Megall`s Bestiary (2014)
The complex relationship between reason and instinct is depicted through the mask in Rafael Megall’s work; the mask, represents the symbolic device through which man, in varying ways and forms, attempts to distance himself from the drives, in an effort to be perceived as being in a state of control and equilibrium.
Emphasizing the condition in which the individual finds himself every time he must decide if and how to reveal himself, Megall adopts the fundamental question of existentialism, according to which, each moment of life is characterized by the relationship to the other. The relationship between individuals, which is expressed through both dialogue and conflict, becomes, in him, the acknowledgement of the limits of the human condition and the belief in the capacity to move beyond them. These paintings bring to light the conflict between nature and human will: on the one hand lies a nature that shows its domination over man, conditioning him with the force of the drives (the animal component), on the other hand there is man, seeking to dominate instincts with morality, social rules and reason (the mask). While, as an artist, Megall grasps the tragic aspect of existence, as a man and a humanist he is involved in making visible the trust in man’s ability to overcome the limits of nature with culture. This tension emerges in the representation of animal figures positioned next to human ones, as if the animal represented the dark, unenlightened part of human rationality.
In Il cacciatore e la pantera [The hunter and the panther] (2013) the hunter is not portrayed as a man striking the animal, but as a knight next to it, as the sword that he holds is placed unthreateningly over his shoulder. Megall depicted the relationship with the animal in terms of complementarity, and not in terms of absolute domination of one over the other. In other words, in keeping his sword on his shoulder and not showing an aggressive attitude, the man expresses the power of reason over instinct. Here the reference to the medieval bestiaries is explicit and helps for understanding the conceptual and narrative dynamic that subtends the entire work of the Armenian artist. From the medieval bestiaries we learn that the name of the panther derives from the Greek pan, meaning “all”. In this case, the proximity of the hunter to the panther describes the harmonic relationship between man and creation, and references medieval iconography, according to which the animal is not considered for what it is in itself, but as an element that refers to the divine. The juxtaposition of the two figures shows that the man and the animal are complementary.
The theme of duplicity can be found, as we have already seen, in the representation of the mask. The mask does not, however, reference the relationship between the individual and nature, instead it refers to interpersonal relationships and social roles. In Sei volti sei maschere [Six Faces Six Masks] (2012) Megall makes each face and mask correspond to social roles that man must play to make his status evident. In La natura del Cane [The Nature of the Dog] (2013), four dogs are presented from the front as white and from the back as black. This chromatic device introduces another important theme for the artist that is tied to the representation of the animal: the polarity of the forces of nature. Megall represents this polarity through the female figure and the bull, which, in various cultures indicates the fertile force of the male. In the painting Minotauro [Minotaur] (2014) for example, an imposing bull looks at a female figure who is concentrating on taking care of a child. The figure is linked to a red stain, which instinctively leads to an association with menstrual blood, pain, and childbirth. Despite the fact that the work has a uniform background devoid of hues or shading, the protective gaze of the bull toward the woman is evident. The two figures, both constructed by the relationship between white and black, put in play the complementarity present in the symbols of the yin (black) and the yang (white), which in Chinese culture indicate the complementarity of night and day and thus the coincidentia oppositorum of the principles at the base of natural flux: negative/positive, feminine/masculine, water/fire. In this coincidentia oppositorum we also find the theme of the polarity between introversion and extroversion, which was dear to Jung. And once more we find the contrast, present in Chinese culture, between the tiger and the dragon, where the tiger is the female figure and the dragon, the equivalent of the bull, is the male figure.
The intricacies of the complementary relationship between opposites carry with them elements of the masculine within the feminine and the feminine within the masculine. While the title of the work Minotauro refers back to Greek mythology, Megall does not wish to create ties with the Hellenic world, just as the reference to the yin and yang symbolism is not tied to a particular interest in the Chinese world. Megall’s interest is turned toward the culture of the Christian world, as evidenced by his use of vine shoots, which symbolize the Christian universe. Megall eliminates any decorative intent to make it become an abstract grid. What the artist wants to bring to light in the universality of the symbol, which transcends the specificity of any singular culture. In many paintings Megall recreates similar figures, as if they had been generated by the repetitive markings of the same stamp. On the formal plane (formal, not theoretical!) the use of the plain background, divided in distinct sections, references a wide gamut of artistic expressions that range from Matisse and Staël to post-pictorial abstraction, from concrete art to pop, to the aesthetic of Gilbert and George. On the theoretical plane, the repetition of the stamped image, which clones itself, refers to the cyclic alternation of generations and the roles that at times men can take on through the course of their existence. However you look at them, Megall’s paintings always reference the relationship between nature and culture.
Born in 1983 in Yerevan, in Armenia, Megall belongs to a generation that is very far from the one that lived through the drama of the Armenian genocide. As a person who never lived through it first-hand but has gathered testimonies of the genocidal drama through the stories of those dear to him, Megall has focused his attention on the existential dimension of the singular, placing the uniqueness of the individual, raised in a relational environment, in the relationship that each individual has with others and with the world, at the forefront of his work. Inevitably this discourse leads us to the theme of the mask.
In the triptych I cicli degli stati psicologici [The Cycles of Psychological States] from 2011, the figure of a woman is shown three times: from the front, in the central panel, and facing the central panel in the two side panels. In the side panels the woman is wearing a mask decorated in an Armenian style that once again use the vine shoots that derive from Christian iconographic symbolism. The figure on the left is about to pick up a black cat with a pink collar, while the one on the right seems thoughtful as the cat observes her. In Megall’s personal symbolism the black cat represents the freedom that we hide with our mask. The animal’s collar indicates domestication. The motif of the vine shoots runs along the upper portion of the background of the entire triptych, and constitutes a sort of textile. In the central panel the mask hangs around the woman’s neck and the cat is not present, signifying that there is a moment in life in which we believe we can affirm our freedom without having to hide it. I cicli degli stati psicologici [The Cycles of Psychological States] describes the development of human freedom, from infancy to maturity. In the first phase of life depicted by the artist, upbringing seeks to stop the instinctiveness that characterizes infant behaviors, dictated, as Freud would say, by the pleasure principle. Thus a sort of social mask is constructed that inhibits freedom. Gradually, as the child grows, Megall says, we see the need to affirm our individuality, even if, through the course of this search we never completely remove our mask; keeping it around our necks it is ready to be used at certain times depending on the circumstances. In other words, through his work Megall shows how the illusion that has fed the idealism of adolescence, during which one dreams of being able to be freed of the social mask, gives in, over time, to a form of skepticism that makes the individual aware of the impossibility of living outside the world of simulation. The work’s narrative shows how an acute sense of the tragic that dissolves into bitter irony hides behind the apparent serenity of the pure colors, unsettling in their stamped iciness. Megall’s work thus becomes the equivalent of the disenchanted smile of those who observe the tragic contradictions of their own existential condition from a distance. The reference to European existentialism is weaved together with the irony of the characters of one of the key figures of 20th century European theater, Luigi Pirandello, in whose works the individual continually confronts the need for the social mask and the limits that the mask imposes on life.
On the formal plane I cicli degli stati psicologici recalls certain triptychs of Francis Bacon. But while in Bacon the figure and its context are dramatized at the limits of expressionism and the most exasperated tragedy, in Megall the figure and context are characterized by their inexpressiveness, and by the stamped nature both of the drawing and the layers of color. Megall was trained during the years of the telematics revolution, he belongs to a generation that is accustomed to the flow of images that lives off those brief instants that the web displays them on the screen. Contextually the synthesis that, in art, comes from pop and the minimal, is an established given that reaches us even through the stamps of those same commercial logos that pop appropriated. In Megall the attention to the styles of the present does not exclude the reference to traditional symbolism of the pictorial culture of Armenian Christianity, as is shown by his attention to the bestiaries, the medieval illuminated codices, and the themes of vine shoots prevalent in church decorations.