This month, the contemporary Victoria gallery Arthall Gozo presents Sophistikós, a vibrant and thought-provoking exhibition of colourful women underpinned with wit, wisdom and wow-factor. The exhibition includes the work of three artists, Fox Daniels, SJ Fuerst, and Tomas Hed, who each consider the dichotomy of the natural and the artificial, and the place of vanity and illusions, in their own inimitable styles. The result is a sassy exhibition that is both artistically-strong, and fresh, feisty and fun. The paintings are both a joy at face-value and rather a riddle: it is intriguing to delve behind the artists’ rationale and glimpse beyond the glamour portrayed. Each of the artists is a story-teller, and just as beauty is only skin deep, these paintings too hint at a different reality behind the scenes.

Tomas Hed is a regular exhibitor in this space with atmospheric, characterful, and often quirky paintings. There’s a dark undertone to many of the tales he tells as he captures moments of everyday life. In one of the paintings, for example, a sophisticated lady sits alone in a Parisienne café, the picture of elegance in contrast to a street performer who is clamouring for her attention with his tricks of the trade. Can she help but react to him?

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a Maltese girl stands by her grandmother dressed in lady’s shoes, whilst the matriarchal figure contemplates the golden apple of eternal life and, perhaps the perpetual repetition of the pattern of life through the generations. Is it within their power to change this?

Hed’s work is perfectly complemented by the resplendent and exuberant art of Fox Daniels. Her large luminescent paintings, on show in Malta for the first time, depict vivacious women in brilliant caricature: confident larger-than-life socialites in glamorous attire, with sweeping hair and voluptuous curves peer from giant brilliant blue eyes. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and these gloriously expressive women symbolise beauty, talent, ambition, intelligence, wealth and luck both as disciples at in ‘The Last Supper’ and across the series. Fox’s palette is strong and positive: the luscious pinks, indigos, blues and sunshine yellow are celebratory and yet the expressions of the protagonists vary from the subtlest smile to mournful or questioning. Ponder a moment whether these women are in fact a brazen parody: although endowed with bold beauty by the brush, the figures in Fox’s work are concerned with the onslaught of creeping age, and the artifice required to hide it.

This is the first time SJ Fuerst’s inventive paintings have been exhibited on Gozo.  They are a wonderful combination of traditional talent and playful paradox, as ancient legend meets twenty-first century, combining popular culture with classical tableaux.  Two large paintings hang together with apparent serenity and innocence. With their timeless backdrops, they could each be a theatre set or the staging of a whimsical magazine photoshoot yet with a surprising surreal twist they engage and entertain.  With unexpected contrariness and verve, painted inflatable animals hint at another story which goes beyond the original narrative. These are more than entertaining escapism; these make-believe moments highlight contemporary conundrums.

In ‘Swaraswathi,’ the Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts nestles aboard an inflatable swan while strumming gently upon a plastic sitar. The swan is an enduring symbol of grace and purity, love, music, and poetry, beautiful yet fiercely powerful, a force to be reckoned with. Despite the  elegance the giant swan represents, the 21st century desire for luxury that it epitomises is the seedy underbelly of consumerism, the plastic a danger to the natural world.

Circe’ shows the Greek enchantress born of the sun god and an ocean nymph. Legend tells that she could transform people into lions and tigers, and turned Odysseus’s men into forest swine. Traditionally painted with animals at her feet, in Fuerst’s wry depiction the animals at the feet of a captivating Circe are once again throw-away inflatables.

Interestingly, in ‘Circe’ Fuerst’s subject look straight out at the viewer, a stance that deliberately evokes an emotional response. Historically the female model was passive, her eyes cast down in a non-confrontational pose. In eighteenth and nineteenth century art, paintings such as Manet’s Olympia and Goya’s The Naked Maja in which the model looks directly at the viewer were considered shockingly immodest in their day. In Sophistikós, this painting begs the question, is Circe provoking or inviting? Are we celebrating her power and individual agency or might we be viewing the model in a possessive, predatory way?

Today in only one painting by each artist the protagonist holds our gaze and in the current climate of #MeToo perhaps invites us to question what we see.

A single man appears in the paintings in the exhibition. Painted by Hed, he’s a classic ‘gentleman’ yet formidable nonetheless, and like a voyeur he lurks alongside Hed’s site-specific installation of Facebook Likes falling from above. Like the women, he too is perhaps an Orwellian man, shaped by the society in which he lives.

This is a brilliant exhibition that brings together what it is to be a sophisticated woman in Malta today, a flamboyant feast of femininity and its flaws, feminism and its challenges. In unabashed technicolour with humour and charm, it is a compelling and engaging show with wide appeal whatever your art experience.

Sophistikós runs until 17th November at Arthall Gozo, 8, Triq G.P.F. Agius De Soldanis, Victoria, Gozo. The exhibition is opens Wednesday to Saturday from 10am – 1 pm & 5 pm–7 pm and on Sundasy from 10am – 12pm. (It is closed Monday and Tuesday).

Published in the Sunday Times of Malta 3rd November

Reviewed by Esther Lafferty 27th Oct 2019