Antony Micallef is quite simply one of the best painters in the UK today. He had a new show comprising of incredible self-portraits (cunningly called ‘Self’) at the beginning of 2015 at the Lazarides gallery in London, which was exactly the time I went to speak to him.
Your technique with your show ‘Self’ involves using a lot of paint. Like a LOT. How much more difficult is that?
I just thought with the show I just wanted to get back to basics. I started the show about a year and a half ago and it just wasn’t going anywhere. It didn’t feel right. There’s a painting my girlfriend gave me that says, “Without no love, there’s no trust.” I took a picture of that and put it in a painting and painted around that and it just wasn’t going right. I had bits and pieces going on and it didn’t feel coherent. I’ve always wanted to do what I’ve done in this show, but making the work I do, you can’t really do it half-heartedly. I spent thousands of pounds on paint. With the painting, you can’t just put a bit on, you’ve got to fucking chuck it all on. You can’t do it half way. I had a go at a couple of paintings like that and I thought it was doing something new, a bit different, which I was really excited about. I really enjoyed it.
This way of working means there’s no room for error, right?
The nature of painting like this is when you get it right you feel elated, but when you don’t you can’t go back. You have to do it all in one session, when you’re painting heads you’ve got to do it in one hard sitting, which can be four to ten hours. You can’t just come back to it and tweak it the next day. It’s an intense way of working because it will either go really well or really shit. If you scrape stuff off you leave all these shitty marks and because you’re playing with a lot of paint you’ve only got so long to get the marks in before it gets muddy. You’ve got to be in a good mood to do it as well. I started one piece and put some blue marks down and realised I wasn’t ready to work on it and just had to leave it, as I would have fucked the background up. You can’t be hungover, you can’t be tired, it can be really physical. With this project I couldn’t sit and paint and chill, I really had to go for it.
People have compared you to Francis Bacon, is that a blessing or a curse?
I used to hate that comparison, every painting of a distorted face people reference Francis Bacon. Now it seems like a compliment really. I think used to hate it because you could never own it but we’re humans and I can’t not paint a face. If you smear it then people will say it’s Francis Bacon. As long as it’s not a pastiche of someone, I think you can tell if someone’s stealing marks or this or that, and you can tell if someone’s honest when they’re making work, you know? You can’t have a go at someone for smearing a face!
Have you got to a point where you’re happy with your style?
I don’t think you ever really are. I think you feel like you should be doing more, I certainly do anyway. I think naturally as you reach goals, then another goal appears. It can be really frustrating but I guess that’s part of it really. With painting, you never reach a destination where you’re finished or happy, it’s just a constant journey and you’re exploring all the time, which is good and it’s really nice when you discover new things as you’re trying to reinvent something all the time.
Was there a point where you chose a style to follow?
You get older and you keep surprising yourself, it’s like peeling something away constantly where you’re always discovering something. What I’m trying to do with this body of work is to illustrate the point, I want the paint to do the talking and for you to feel the paint.
Why do you like portraits so much?
I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I don’t think I ever stopped really. It’s just something you do; it’s quite a private thing. I’m not painting anyone else; I’ve just been painting myself. It sounds really narcissistic, but I just use my face as a structure. It’s funny, I get people asking me to paint them and I’m like, “have you seen my fucking pictures? You’re going to look like you’ve come out of a car crash and burned to death!” I never get that, what the fuck?
Have you noticed your face changing over the years?
I guess it’s more interesting if you’ve got lines or creases or whatever. I remember as I used to paint myself as a kid I would think I looked out of Boyzone or something with a baby face so I used to paint my dad all the time. I use the face as a vehicle, I’m trying to explore things with paint – I want to be known as a painter.
You are known as a painter, but released a bunch of prints through street art pioneers, Pictures On Walls, and people thought you were a street artist. Why did you decide to go with them?
There were a lot of factors really, foremost is because of the work and people had the same vision. I really loved it, it was like a little family. That was a time when Bush was in power, Santa’s Ghetto was going on and everyone’s work was political. I made my stuff in charcoal but it was all similar imagery that we were using, so it was all connected in that sense. They were really fun and exciting times and I think everyone just naturally moves on in a way and a style – like singers go on and sing different things, we go on and paint differently. It just evolves; you can’t just stay in one spot. You always find yourself going back to things anyway, I find myself going back to ideas I had years ago.
Did you like being associated with that world?
Yeah I did, I found it really exciting, and it is exciting. I just think everyone goes off and does their own thing. I did get labeled a street artist sometimes and I never went out and did that in my life. Imagine a wall with my work on and how long it would take! It would look like someone had just puked on the wall.
Do you get angst about selling yourself?
I think every artist does if they’re honest. I think the difference between this and any other business is that it’s quite inherently to do with you. It’s quite personal, like a diary or the way you think. It’s your thought process so you want it to be well received, but I think the nature of the job is a really narcissistic profession. You spend a year and a half in a room looking in a mirror and painting your head, then you come out and go “Look at me!” Once it’s out there it’s out of your control. Sometimes I think about artists and if aliens were looking down on society and can see a nurse helping people and a builder building something and then you look at a guy standing in front of a canvas with a bit of wood and a load of different coloured bits of earth and them imagining how that helps society. I guess if it makes people smile then that’s OK I guess. It’s not decoration, I’m not making decoration, I think I’m exploring stuff.
Photos: Tom Medwell