Antony Micallef’s paintings are best known for their colourful jibes at the consumerist world but for his latest exhibition, the artist is looking inward
On the surface of things, it feels as though we have never been more saturated by self-portraiture. But for all the images we create, post, delete, share, layer with fake filters or capture from a camera on a stick – the further we travel from any true form of introspection.
For most of us, there’s not a great deal left to be learned from our own image – it’s already been put out to pasture online. For artist Antony Micallef, however, embracing the self portrait has changed everything. ‘I feel like I have just learned to paint, which is such a lovely feeling. I just got fed up of all the bullsh*t really. I just wanted to strip everything right back,’ Antony tells me as we hop, skip and stumble through his Notting Hill studio. The room looks like the site of the Holi Colour Festival – a dark pink explosion flecked with old paint. These are the remnants of the work for which he is best known – larger than life paintings filled with anti-capitalist imagery and Japanese pop colours fuelled by sinister undertones.
After winning 2nd prize in the BP Portrait award in 2000, Micallef went from receiving ‘piles of rejection letters’ from galleries to being scouted by Lazarides – the institution best known for making Banksy a household name. Although in the beginning, he was hesitant to sign up. ‘It’s like when you meet someone on holiday and they say “stay at my house” and you’ve only just met them. It takes a while to form a relationship. At the time my work really fitted in. But it’s nice because the gallery has matured with artists like Jonathan Yeo and Conor Harrington,’ he says.
We are surrounded by life-sized portraits – distorted images of Antony’s ‘head’ created in heavy, viscous layers of paint that need to be laid flat to save escaping from the canvas. It is the work-in-progress for his first solo show in four years, Self, at Lazarides. He seems relieved to have temporarily moved away from the literal, world-weary tone which helped make his name. ‘It all just overtook me, really. I sort of just became this thing I was painting about.’
In his years with Lazarides, Micallef has found favour with the upper-echelons of Hollywood, with the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie buying his work. ‘You get startled by it sometimes; it got more complicated the more I thought about it.’
He says Angelina even asked him to paint her children, but he turned the offer down as he has ‘never been interested in anyone else’s face – because I can do what I want to my own.’ Growing up in Swindon, what Antony describes as a ‘cultural desert’ at the time, his father worked as a metal sheet worker and his mother as a cleaner. Art was largely something he discovered on his own, ‘They never understood what I was painting at all. We’re a Maltese family; very Catholic,’ he says, ‘I remember going to see [an exhibition] and there was this construction, a metalwork, and my Dad was just looking at all the welding points going “this is terrible”.’
Antony eventually left Swindon to study Fine Art in Plymouth – under the tutelage of the prolific landscape artist John Virtue (‘he would come in to my studio and see photos on the walls – he’d rip them down and say “paint from life!”’). Many of the works set to be featured in Self are reminiscent of the expressive portraits of German artist Frank Auerbach, who for a time was a mentor of Virtue’s. ‘I like that there’s a thread there that links to me,’ he says.
Antony is at a point in his career where he’s not afraid to be influenced – he mentions Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Bacon, ‘I’m not saying this is an amalgamation of everything I’ve seen at all – but ideas have filtered in. It’s like sediment, it slowly rests. And I just feel a bit more mature,’ he says. ‘There’s a reason why people like Lucian Freud and Auerbach exist. They are never in fashion, but they are always around. Solid painting. I just wanted to f*cking do some life drawing, I’d like to paint some pears now, and do all the stuff I hated when I was at college!’
As we travel across the road to his home – handily located in the same maze-like garden block as his studio, he politely asks that I wipe my feet – yet manages smear pink paint on the dark wood floor from his own boot the second we get inside. It’s hard not to be endeared towards him – casually smoking cigarette after cigarette of Camel Blues as he explains he’s just signed up for the London Marathon. He appears, at least superficially, to be a fairly calm person, though the scalpel scratches in his canvas suggest something more. ‘It’s funny because I have heard that before. Or like, some of my stuff is quite pink, so people expect me to be more camp. But for me it’s my own little world, escapism,’ he says. Beside us, a dark, foggy painting of a couple embracing catches his eye, ‘These different pieces – the scarring of different layers. They are more poetic than the heads are. I am quite a romantic really, at heart. I’ve been through a few break ups in the last four years, and I just thought they needed to be in the show. But there’s not really an explanation behind them,’ he says.
What radiates from Antony however, is an immense sense of pride surrounding this latest work – as though rediscovering his own face has helped take him back to where he was meant to be all along. ‘When I realised “god you’ve been painting yourself for 20 years” I thought, “actually, I f*cking like that” because it’s nice, it’s just me…it’s not about anyone else,’ he says with a smile.
Self will run at Lazarides Gallery from 13 February to 19 March. 11 Rathbone Place W1T 1HR, lazinc.com