Currently on display at the Propeller Gallery are the graphic works – painting and drawings – of Joseph Muscat. The theme, as Muscat describes it, centres on the issue of ‘the effect of the digital revolution on human behaviour and on the planet’. This is indeed an ambitious subject. More narrowly, Muscat aims to produce works in the style of the graphic novel (though without text), that mimic our internet activities, such as browsing and chatting online.
Installation view of Joseph Muscat, Graphic Chats at Propeller Art Gallery.
What we see are about fifteen works, the majority of which are horizontal compositions in which are placed various individually executed drawings. So each work is meant to read like a story board. What are they about, given there is no text? Muscat deliberately makes this ambiguous. He intends for the viewer to interpret them for herself. To this end, all these images are largely created by the artist spontaneously, ‘from his subconscious’ one might say. This reflects, as Muscat puts it, how he often works. His assumption seems to be that the viewer will be able to recognize or pick up on his subconscious thinking, as expressed in these works, in virtue of the imagery being shared by us all in some sort of Jungian archetypal sense.
Graphic Chat 25, Info Nympho, 2020, Acrylic and enamel on paper on board, 24 x 66 in
The imagery he produces, then, is not immediately recognisable as that most often encountered online, e.g., from pet videos, celebrity stories, movie promotions, slick graphics for science videos or news stories and so on. Rather we get fairly generic images of human figures, fragments of scenes, animals etc., all rendered in a rudimentary style. It is through the titles of these works that Muscat points to the digital world. The titles – themselves plays on words – include, for example, Streetview, Info Nimpho, In Con Troll and Abductive Reasoning.
Graphic Chat 27, Abductive Reasoning, 2020, Acrylic and enamel on paper on board, 12 x 10 in
Graphic Chat 13, Streetview, 2019, Acrylic on paper on board, 17.5 x 61 in
But I’m not sure that even with the aid of these titles it is clear that his works are illustrations of the digital world. Part of the problem here is that the visual imagery that fills the online world is extremely diverse. Unless one literally lifts images from the screen, it is impossible to see how any arbitrary image points to the digital universe as such. I aver that if he’d mimicked the graphic formats found online, e.g., grids with buttons and taskbars, then the viewer would have had an easier time of placing his subjectively derived images in a ‘digital context’. But I recognise that Muscat wants to make his compositions more interesting, less predictable.
Graphic Chat 22, Variation on a MEME, 2020, Acrylic on paper on board, 29 x 24 in
The boards in themselves are graphically strong. Many of the images grab one’s attention. That said, the long horizontal compositions seem to lend themselves to being read as scrolls rather than as story boards. The squarer compositions are more coherent, more easily viewed holistically. For example, I found his Variation on a MEME to be very satisfying in these terms. Nonetheless, Muscat has a real knack for pulling together diverse images. The best of these works are impactful. There is a lyricism to his work that I enjoyed.
Graphic Chat 19, In Con Troll, 2019, Acrylic on paper on board, 7 x 34 in
Images are courtesy of the artist
*Exhibition information: Graphic Chats, September 16 – October 4, 2020, Propeller Art Gallery, 30 Abell St, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sun 1 – 5:30 pm.