Missing ... from the Garden catalogue essay by Jonathan Turner
Death is always in the future, never in the present. It is always resisted as it comes at the subject from beyond its possibilities – at a certain moment, we are no longer able to be able.’ Levinas
Under the Skin- Maree Azzopardi
The surface of Maree Azzopardi’s mixed media photographs crackle and sizzle like air just before a fierce electrical storm strikes, when the sky is ruptured by bolts of lightning and sharp ripples of light. Combining paint, photocopies, gold-leaf and charcoal, Azzopardi crumples her works to create networks of veins and creases which criss-cross her images. In the age of the electronic Paintbox, enhanced photography and computer manipulation, Azzopardi uses decidedly manual technique to achieve the effects she desires.
If portrait photography is about capturing a likeness of living flesh, then Azzopardi’s pictures attempt to also delve beneath the wrinkled skin of the surface of her photographs. Figures emerge from deep, dark backgrounds. An aura of warmth hovers over their skin, as though they are glowing from within. Shining gold objects, plush scarlet velours and fiery red flowers, all coated in honey-coloured varnish, further add to a sense of richness. Other reclining figures seem lost in vaguely neo-classical pursuits, their pale limbs partially shielded by drapery.
In her shimmering series of crackle-glazed portraits depicting patients in the AIDS ward at St Vincent’s Hospital, all the damage lays within Azzopardi’s technique, not the sitter. There is even the feeling of passing time in her portraits of Hannah, a vital young woman in a floating field of flowers.
“Hannah was the physiotherapist at St Vincent’s Hospital. I was interested in her because she was physically manipulating the bodies of the AIDS patients, while I was trying to catch their spirit. She was an important and affectionate part of the dying process.”
Azzopardi is well aware that emotions go further than skin-deep, and in her newest work, she questions the apparently superficial nature of portraiture. Our facial expressions can be simply a veneer, a flattering façade like a sweet crust over sour dough. Instead Azzopardi relishes in the concept of the body as a shell for the spirit. She often hides the heads of her subjects so as to record their unconscious body language.
There is also a strong conceptual force at work behind Azzopardi’s choice of subject. Is her image of a reclining figure a sleeping man or a corpse? Is the atmosphere funereal or decorative, lush or macabre?
Just as such religious iconography as a crucifix or a fish are not always given clear meanings in Azzopardi’s work, neither are her subjects always immediately recognizable. A pink-toned form is later decipherable as the chin of a man laid out to rest. Blossoms partially camouflage the side of the head of another luminous figure. Azzopardi’s oblique compositions, whereby the subject appears at the very edge of the picture, cut off by the frame itself, emphasize this hidden nature. Similarly, her image taken from sharply raked angles alter our sense of naturalistic perspective.
Ultimately, though, Azzopardi’s work is uplifting and optimistic. Steering clear of sentimentality, there is beauty in even the saddest moment. Her recurring use of flowers, which bloom then shrivel and fade, is a reference to the archetypal Momento Mori and the transience of life. In Maree Azzopardi’s recent gilded and painted photographs, the thick varnish may resemble treacle, but the emotion is pure, sensitive and strong.