Fleeting thoughts on an art work, one year after its purchase

Travis Vella’s To those that were missing (2018) is a medium size oil on board, a representational work, depicting four female figures in the format of a family snapshot. Three of these figures are older women clad in vintage clothing, sensible collared dresses, one in blue, one in yellow and another in red.

The figures are standing in front of black panes encased in grey window frames. The fourth, a stunted young girl, hovers in front of the three. She is depicted in one singular monochrome fluorescent yellow. Look more closely and all figures are without legs. Their eyes are hollow. Their arms lack substance. They are shape shifting, they might be ghosts.

I purchased the artwork from Vella’s solo exhibition, I don’t believe in ghosts, which opened on June 1, 2018 at Neon Parlour in Thornbury in Melbourne. The exhibition was about ghosts and more broadly about representation and that which can be hinted at, but which remains unseen. A year on, the artwork has required further attention to make the point that, in the age of digital photographic proliferation, a painting has certain enduring qualities which I can return to for critical contemplation.

For his 2018 exhibition, Vella produced a suite of paintings, by working simultaneously across the surfaces of multiple panels. His process involved building layers, laying down images, moving across surfaces playing with paint, building all the works simultaneously until they were loaded with just enough tension.

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The tactile, handmade aspects are evident at the outset. Vella mixed his paints from pigments. He began with an acrylic base before layering the works with oil paints. By lining the board as such with acrylic paint to arrest the oil paint from reacting with the wood, Vella is securing its archival appeal. He intends that his work of art about a fleeting subject matter survive for future consideration.

To those that were missing, was developed from several vintage photographic images Vella had sourced from personal archives. The subjects in this painting can be described as kindly, indifferent and malevolent. These are images without substance, illusions, vapours or clouds of light, perhaps even hallucinations, some might say the result of a disturbed mind. However, these are images that have been developed by a trained artist to convey tension between the materiality of the forms and the materials, with the ethereal nature of the subject matter.

They are also forms that have been developed from photographic images, to explore the historical tension between photography and painting.

A photograph deteriorates, a digital one instantaneously so, whereas a well-made painting can survive many hundreds of years.

Historically, photography contributed to the existential plight of painting as an artform. Why represent reality when a photo can capture it with complete verisimilitude? However, what a painting commands is singularity. Unlike a photograph, it cannot be reproduced.

Photography, a transparent medium, purports to present the subject matter as it was captured by the objective lens of the camera. Photography is also a process that can record unintended effects. For example, the capture of the shadow of the photographer inside the frame of the photograph with a click.

The historical tension between painting and photography has given rise to the contentious claim that photography lacks the repetition and variation of painting, that the photograph lacks evidence of the artist’s hand.

As photography developed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, painters strove to re-define their medium to represent that which the camera could not.

Painters considered the representation of forms limited by the surface’s two dimensions. Textures were interrogated, as were the essences of colour, the gestural instances of lines, of mark making; every step was examined to distinguish painting from photography.

Paradoxically, painting became a way of representing that which could not or should not be seen. It is ironical therefore, that Vella’s subject matter about ghosts, depicts that which otherwise remains unseen, virtually impossible to capture with a camera.

Describing himself as a neo-narrative painter, Vella immersed himself inside a strict regime, exploring techniques with brushes and strokes, engrossed in the soundscape of musical scores, pushing what could be done with oil paint and teasing its limits to achieve sublimation, his very own personal expression, mysterious and transcendent in material form.

Scientific explanations exist for all observable phenomena. Yet there are occurrences which pique our interest in the unknown. Not everything in our lives can be data farmed and forced through algorithmic equations. As Albert Einstein said, “[t]he most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science”.

Whilst manipulation of photographic technologies can produce haunting and mysterious images, photography’s poignant paradox lies in the photograph’s inherent vice. A photograph deteriorates, a digital one instantaneously so, whereas a well-made painting can survive many hundreds of years.

In sourcing, depicting and capturing where photography and painting coincide, Vella achieved a poetic synthesis, since the artwork not only stokes our fear of death but acts as a reminder that we are transitory beings in life, ghosts in the field of time.

Vella’s phantasmagorical subject matter, presenting spectral images, go to the essence of photography, painting and any gesture purporting to leave a trace behind, and just as memento mori operates in art, Vella reminds us that we are all spectral images, apparitions, who will eventually leave no trace and completely disappear.

It is strange to consider a real object in real time, dealing with a subject that may or may not exist. When you look more closely at ‘To those who were missing’, following the shadow play around the figures, there appears to be a black shadow in the bottom right hand corner, suggesting a presence outside of the painting. Whose shadow is this being depicted: the photographer’s or the painter’s?

Considering the ubiquity and proliferation of the digital “selfie” coinciding incidentally in an epoch whose zeitgeist can only be described as the “spectacle of vanities”, digital images will disappear leaving no trace, painting the artist in the artwork is infinitely ironic.

Here is Vella embedding the artist into the work, in a masterful stroke, he has usurped the photographer with his own artful selfie. By investing his expressive presence into the work of art, Vella is asserting the primacy of painting, producing works of art that are unique, imitable, singular and original capable of surviving us in historical time, glowing with a spectral aura that only an artist can produce.

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