I feel that I have to make something really clear, right from the start. I like David Faltrego. He’s a genuinely nice guy. And I like David Faltrego’s art too, very much so. I like it enough that there were at least three of his paintings, in this exhibition of new work, that I would happily have bought if I were not an impecunious writer.
But the reason for the awkward preamble is that I am going to have to include a fairly sharp criticism in this review. I’ll leave it till the end. But it will still have to be made and so the more sensitive reader can take this as a trigger warning, as we artists and writers can be generally a little uncomfortable with criticism of other artists and writers, at least openly and when they are as nice and as talented as David.
He is one of those painters who could be a very fine realist. Instead, he takes his talent and his painterly skill in a less fashionable direction to jolt us into seeing his own inner world. And that – as with the inner worlds of most – can be a very weird place indeed. Fish run on two legs, perhaps in search of a bicycle, while a flock of beds flies overhead. Red-coated toy soldiers, grown human-size, advance across the shattered landscape of a battlefield. A gigantic canary lies dead upon its back in a snowy valley, as miners gather solemnly around it.
Like most of us, too, his imaginal world is riddled with bits and pieces of popular culture that find their way into his paintings. The Beatles and Pink Floyd make frequent guest appearances. There is, for example, a “Mellow Submarine” making its serene progress undersea in Harvesting the Sea Weed, and in Retreating Within My Shell, Ermintrude the cow (from The Magic Roundabout) floats above a power station in a witty nod to the cover of the Pink Floyd album, Animals. There’s at least one reference to television advertising. There are reminders of childhood for those of us who are of a certain age. I spotted the tail end of Stingray, and Stingray’s nemesis the Aquaphibian “Terror Fish” in pursuit from the other side of the canvas. A spacehopper grins out from the middle of Chained to Reflections Past.
David is not beyond slotting in the occasional joke, too. Look carefully at A Tryst Up North and you’ll see, poking over a parapet on the roof of the shuttered Penny’s Massage, the peaked cap and hands of a lurking traffic warden, painted in the guise of the eponymous Mr Chad.
If there had to be a comparison of Faltrego’s work with any past artist, and thus a tracing of painterly influence, then it would have to be with Magritte. That the artist himself is conscious of the debt is obvious enough. Faceless and almost-faceless bowler-hatted men abound; centre stage in Man and His (Alter) Ego, Diary of a Common Man and Onset of a Mid Life Crisis, obliquely in Garden Watch (where the hat is, I think, a trilby). There is something reminiscent of Magritte in Faltrego’s skies and, in some paintings, achingly empty vistas, as well.
There is a danger of slipping into mere whimsy with this kind of thing. Faltrego deftly steps around that pitfall. If anything, there is a rather dark texture that adds depth to his work. What, or who, killed that canary in Miners Lament? What sinister narrative weaves through Birds On A Wire, or Charades and Conundrums?
The only painting in this show that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the work, the one that I think trips into a kind of sentimentality that is missing from the rest of Faltrego’s work, is Far Away Cries for Diana. But the fact that only one painting in the whole show has that weakness says something about Faltrego’s strengths and vitality as an artist.
If I have to make one significant criticism, though, it’s in relation to use of the term, “surrealist”. This has been an issue for actual, practicing Surrealists for many years; as one among them, I find myself again forced to point out that Surrealism is a living movement that aims at a revolution in everyday life – “the imagination armed”, as the strapline of Arcturus, journal of the London Surrealist Group, declares on its cover. Surrealism cannot be reduced to an art style. To be absolutely fair, David Faltrego doesn’t really claim to be a Surrealist as such – something he was at pains to make clear in conversation – while acknowledging that his work is very strongly influenced by surrealism. Gallery owners and curators often like convenient labels to hang on an artist, though, so the exhibition flyer announces “paintings by Medway based surrealist David Faltrego” even while the artist disavows the labelling himself. Jokingly, he’s instead called himself a Cerealist.
“Is it called surrealism? Is it called Veronica?” asks the information poster on the gallery wall. Perhaps we can settle on calling it Veronica, if we must give it a name at all.
Leaving that debate behind, though, David Faltrego is a very talented painter who deserves acclaim, and much more attention from the Medway arts scene. Delicately Misplaced Marbles is one of those not-to-be-missed exhibitions that happen once in a while, marking the public arrival of an artist who must surely be regarded as among Medway’s best. I hope he wins wider recognition, too; his work deserves that.
In the meantime, catch this exhibition while you can. Delicately Misplaced Marbles runs until 1pm on Thursday 19th June, at the Nucleus Arts Gallery, in Chatham High Street (more or less opposite the Iceland store!).
Words: Philip Kane
Pictures: Reproduced by kind permission of David Faltrego