Demetrio Paparoni

Elio Cappuccio

Tone Lyngstad Nyaas

Gianni Mercurio

Hanne Ørstavik

                      The Panthers in My Blossoming Garden

Rafael Megall’s work confronts the complex relationship between man and nature. In considering man and nature as mirror images of each other, Megall deals with their relationship in terms of complementariness despite their latent reciprocal threat.

A central theme of the works created by Megall for the Armenian Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale is the presence of elegant and aggressive panthers im- mersed in colorful and blossoming nature. In these paintings the artist emphasiz- es how it is behind the beauty assumed by the feline while in his natural habitat that the danger of his aggression hides. The title of the exhibit, The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, highlights the constant presence of danger for man, even when he feels safe within the boundaries of his environment. Yet, it also represents the danger animals face because of man. Megall, therefore, turns the panther into a metaphor of the threat that can hide behind an image of beauty, while using lush nature as an allusion to lost paradises.

The colors of the landscape, presented in sharp, electric and vibrant segments, produce contrasts that recall the saturation of a digital image. In order to empha- size this visual effect and to adapt it to the language of painting, in addition to acrylics, Megall uses watercolors, which lighten as they absorb and expand the colors through moist sifts. The expedient creates an out-of-focus effect, which causes the colors of the animal and those of the plants to blend, giving life to a unique body. While, in a sense, the psychedelic effect that, in these works, de- rives from the combination of these colors and from their saturation alludes to the idealism of the Sixties and the dream of finding a place where it is possible to live in harmony with nature, the dense and redundant intertwining of the decorations that permeate the canvas produce a visual noise that prevents the landscape to be perceived as an oasis of peace.

In these paintings one can perceive the echo of the transformation of natural elements into decorative frames, which in Armenian ancient miniatures and bas-reliefs take shape through stylization, repetition, linkages and interlaces. The resonance of this historical memory becomes particularly evident in the contin- uous references to khachkar, bas-reliefs on stone steles bearing carved crosses featuring two blooming sprouts at their base, a motif that also characterizes his previous paintings. At the same time, the overlapping of linguistic elements of a different nature eliminates any nostalgic connotation to past artistic experiences. While allusion to Medieval illuminations is not entirely preserved due to the scale of the canvases, reference to the bestiary, which is responsible for the less than realistic apperance of the animals, assumes a more pivotal relevance. Like the authors of medieval bestiaries, Megall is not able to account for nature without considering the spiritual dimension: his paintings reveal themselves as a sort of ciphered text in which the figures refer to the complex happenings of the present.

Megall uses a method that, in its initial phase, involves the digital elaboration of different studies on the canvases through a technique that includes the use of masks. The digital approach, along with flat surface painting, saturated colors and the absence of perspective, are testimony that the work follows an analysis of the painter’s instruments. Once on the canvas, the outlines and the colors of the original image are subjected to continuous modifications. It is, therefore, not the narrative which transforms, but rather the arrangement of colors and the inci- siveness of the markings.

In the preliminary phase, the narrative is constructed by associations of symbolic elements and, when present, references to the conctreteness of the day-to-day. In some works, the subjects related to the artist’s day-to-day are his family and the Italian mastiffs that live in the backyard. In others, the narrative extends to the menacing events of the present that reawaken old fears.

Between April and May of 2016, shortly before initiating work on the series The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, Megall created a large-scale painting that depicts the forces of evil. The work, entitled Lucifer, revisits an ancient Armenian illumination by showing a large serpent among flames that devours a man and en- velops other victims in its coil. In the image, the devil resembles the serpent that introduced evil in the Garden of Eden. Megall makes customary references to zo- omorphic and phytomorphic elements present in Armenian art, using them in both a narrative and decorative fashion. In the case of Lucifer, the genesis of the work finds its raison d’être in the merciless killings, mutilizations and decapitations of military and civilians carried out in April of 2016 by the Baku Army, violating the truce between Armenia and Azerbaigian for the dispute over the Nagorno Karabakh region. Drawing from the emotions elicited by these events, Lucifer is the artist’s interpretation of the reawakening of the evil forces of war. In creating this work, Megall also used volcanic soil from Mount Ararat, a territory from which Armenians were driven away in the last century, and that, despite being inaccessible to the Armenian people, continues to represent the symbol of their cultural identity.

The idea of the forces of evil that are insinuated among us by assuming the appearance of a ser- pent returns in The Panthers in my Blossoming Gar- den 8 (The Panther Snake), in which a panther seen from above, and blended in with the nature that surrounds it, assumes the appearance of a serpent with a feline head that is ready to attack. While, on the one hand, the concealed animal recalls danger and ambush, on the other, it transmits the sense of unity in nature.

The repetition of shapes that composes a unitary image, resembling modules to be placed in diffe- rent manners, allows Megall to aquire a constructive method which, while it may appear paradoxical when considering the accumulation of signs and the figurative and decorative component of his works, also derives from the minimalist experience of Donald Judd. Megall looked to Judd’s constructive method, whose work he became familiar with in various publications from 2004, when, at twenty one years of age, he attended the Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts. His attention was drawn to the way in which the American artist distributed modular shapes in space which, thanks to variations in arrangement, allowed for the attainment of different wholes, despite using the same geometric modular volumes. A symbolic-narrative transposition of the concept of the modular element can be observed in panther paintings #2 and #6.

Narrative, symbolic and fantastical, Megall’s work does not look to the fact of nature in order to insert it in his work as an element of scientific truth. And yet, as in the modernist tradition, it emerges as an analytic study of language in art. Moreover, by mirroring the spirit of time, it reflects the condition of an artist who is aware of the impossibility of giving life to works that can be considered original, innovative and revolutionary at a linguistic level. These paintings betray both historical allusion and the progressive logic of those who maintain that art must manifest a character of originality and of uniqueness.

The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #7 (Totem) depicts a panther standing up on its back legs, with its front legs crossed. Its posture makes for an anthropo- morphic figure. A lattice of flower-shaped crosses covers the entire scene, acting as a background and at the same time superimposing itself on the subject. This hieratic figure is a sort of counterbalance to Devil (2015), another painting by Me- gall that illustrates the forces of evil. Devil exhibits a close-up of the threatening face of a being that is half-man, half-animal, whose nature is undefined. In other works of the series The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden (specifically #10, #11 and #12), the title is completed by the phrase “The mouth of truth”. What truth are we brought before by the open mouth of an animal showing its teeth? And what truth are we placed before by the same bleeding animal? (Sacrificial Victim, painting #3). By gathering big cats within an enclosure that is rich with vegetation and memories, Megall reiterates that the way in which we confront cohabitation and exchange, both today and yesterday, manifests itself in art. It could not be any other way. It is the absence of a common language that divides us from others. Art, on the other hand, is a univeral language. It aspires to be understood by all, and to shatter the barriers that make us into unsettled people by separating us. 


                      The Man and the Mask in Rafael Megall`s Bestiary 
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.