The Panthers in My Blossoming Garden
57th Venice Biennale
Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia
In their science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky imagine animals, birds and insects emerging from their hiding places after having watched with terror all night as a group of friends enjoyed themselves around a bonfire, listening to music.1 Such a scene can be compared to the experience that Rafael Megall’s works offer, in particular regarding the sense of something that has already taken place. A more defined reference can be found in the ritualistic dimension embedded within the artist’s research: we witness the paintings after something has already occurred, whether it be a ritual or a less precisely defined action. The lack of narrativity in Megall’s research releases a thrilling energy, particularly brilliant in an epoch in which the stories behind works often take over. In order to experience the works in their full integrity no words must be uttered; the tools the artist provides live within the canvas.
Although the subject of the series The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, a wild
feline, evokes a sense of movement and aggressiveness, the technique used describes more of a static dimension.
The intensive use of plain colours, along with a total absence of shadows, indeed highlights a sense of stillness, reminding the spectator of the cloisonné technique. This, a peculiar decoration style known already in Egypt and by the Longobards, was mostly used for enamels. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. Alveoli, or cells (cloisons in French), are welded or glued onto a support plate, where enamel is cholated.
Cloisonné, mostly used for the decoration of small jewellery, is perfectly transferred to a large-scale format by Megall, who employs it as if he were using stained glass, constructing geometric, abstract patterns. What also contributes to the sense of stasis is the iteration of certain patterns, as if the process of painting provided both the artist and the spectator with a meditative moment.
The scale of the works offers the observer the possibility to recalibrate her or his perspective and the viewing experience. In Megall’s contribution for the 57th Edition of the Venice Biennial it is possible to overlook the panther all together and to fall into the kaleidoscopic dimension of the background. Hundreds of mirrors are trapped within each single canvas: “I asked him what he meant by a mirror? ‘An instrument,’ answered he, ‘which sets things in relief at a distance from themselves, when properly placed with regard to it’2.”
The size of the canvas allows the spectator to get lost in the painting and to hack the automation of vision. Repetitive reflections mirror the works and invent new patterns, on a scale that ranges from a microscopic dimension to an aerial perspective. What is missing are the possibilities that are usually offered by the sense of touch, as if the painting were created with a translucent effect.
Part of Megall’s production also reflects a kaleidoscopic value by presenting multiple perspectives, as is the case in The Natture of Man and the Two headed panther, both works from 2016 where bodies are actually presented dissected, following various angles contemporarily and then reassembled. Shapes are inclined to each other, almost as in a Futurist painting. These artworks inspire us to think of Eadweard Muybridge, as if Megall tries to reinvent movement once more. Shadows appear and figures suddenly emerge from the acrylic canvas, as if they were able to jump out after being hidden in the background, playing with volume: new geographies are invented.
The artist’s works from the years 2010 to 2012 can be considered iconic images: just a few touches give colours shape, as if the paintings were created with the process of afterimages. Megall’s icons continue to appear to one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased. It could be said (to quote Strugatsky once again) that: “There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knowledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you to have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing. Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some so- called common sense.” The simplification of shapes, colours and perspectives provides the viewer with an extremely bright image, as if looking through Gothic stained glass.
In Megall’s paintings the design that serves as the backdrop for the subject has a binary origin. In the works in which this design evokes a geometric grid there is an explicit reference to the silence of conceptual abstract painting. Placed upon these geometrical backgrounds, the contours of the subjects, which seem as though they have been cut out, highlight the conception of painting as a mental construction. The use of grills confers a timbric value on the lines in the works. When the background of the painting is instead comprised of weaves—which the artist himself explains derive from decorative segments found in ancient miniatures and medieval Armenian bas-reliefs—Megall places his own work within the secular tradition. Contrary to what occurs in the works featuring geometric grids, by evoking memories related to the artist’s own culture, these works assume a sentimental value; there is a clear intent to affirm the moral values linked to social relations. By combining, repeating and overlapping his “décors” as if they were segments, Megall creates a redundancy effect that scatters the image in a sort of game of mirrors reminiscent of a kaleidoscope. The truth he describes is thus concealed within the folds of the painting, just as the animal blends into the forest.
1 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, 1972, Macmillan, London
2 Diderot, Letter on the Blind for the Use of those who see in Diderot’s early philosophical works, translated and edited by Margaret Journain, Chicago & London, the Open Court Publishing Company, 1916, p. 73