Exit Modeby Layla Leiman / 11.04.2012
Carla Busuttil is practically my contemporary, in age that is, and that’s about it. Born in 1982 in Johannesburg, Busuttil has already established herself as a painter both locally and abroad. Based in Berlin, Exit Mode is her first solo show back in South Africa.
For Busuttil, colour is subject, and form and shape combine with texture to fill in the rest. Her style is strongly reminiscent of the Fauves, who favoured expression as a means to representation. This preference permeates Busuttil’s work, as she explains, “within my work, it is the quality of paint that matters. Content is secondary – always secondary.”
Colour is regurgitated onto the canvases and sculpted into rough portraits (mostly) with wild brushstrokes. The works are tactile, vivid, dynamic, and affecting. Bold colours and lines give shape to strange and disturbing figures that populate Busuttil’s canvases. They emerge out of the colour blocks and leer at you as you walk by them. If you stop to stare, their gaze permeates deep inside from squint and misshapen eyes; these characters have seen things that you haven’t and know secrets that you’ll never learn. They are creatures of another plane, which speak across the pictoral divide in a language that cannot be deciphered, only felt.
Busuttil’s figures originate from the external world of archive images and media clippings. But these serve as only a tenuous starting point, from where she merges and mixes features to create characters that bear only the slightest resemblance to their original prototypes. For Busuttil, the process of painting is driven by emotional response to colour and brushstroke rather than intellectual conceptualization. The images are impulsive, innate. Looking at her paintings is like having an argument with your mother, where tears well up despite you calling for them or even wanting them, and threaten to burst the dam walls of your eyelids and rain all your emotional substance down your unsuspecting cheeks. And you don’t really know why.
Busuttil’s images are beguilingly playful on first glance, the bright childish colours and simplistic detail belies the haunting emotion that her figures emanate. As the characters begin to tell you their stories, of conflict, death, vanity and anxiety: the themes of violence and power resurface in different guises across her figure’s different faces. For Busuttil, it’s about uncovering secret dialogues that arise through unlikely parings of historical events and figures, as she explains, “I think if we drew a line through diverse histories, we could find commonalities – something that reveals a bit more about what it is to be human”. Her figures therefore become contemporary versions of Munch’s The Scream, the Everymen of our era. They are primal and disturbing, they are obscene and macabre. But because of this they are accessible, relatable; they are imperfect portraits that are in fact perfect; where expression has birthed frighteningly honest representation. Busuttil’s figures are uncomfortable to look at, but impossible to not respond to. They’re disfigured and deformed portraits of ourselves.
*Carla Busuttil’s Exit Mode is on at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until 28 April 2012
**Read Sean O’Toole’s interview with Carla Busuttil here.