Shaun Grech- An Accidental Artist
by Claire Bonello
The Sunday Times: Sunday Circle/March 2006
In 2004 Marla Olmstead was the newest star on the New York art scene. Herpaintings were compared to those by greats like Jackson Pollock and WassilyKandinsky. They sold like hotcakes at $20,000 a piece and were snapped up bycollectors from as far afield as Japan. Marla showed up on the TV talk showcircuit and became one of the most talked about artists of her day. She wasfour years old. And that’s how Marla set off the whole “What is art?” debateagain. While many people let Marla’s vibrant firework canvasses entrance them,others maintained that a four-year old couldn’t produce real art - just random,meaningless splashes of colour.
A Maltese artist who is eliciting similarly diverse reactions is Shaun Grech.Looking at the paintings on his website (www.shaungrech.com) you can see why.His works are peopled with grotesquely intriguing figures with out-sized MickJagger like lips and huge eyes. Set against vividly coloured backgrounds,mostly red and black, his painted gargoyles leap out at you and demandattention. From his “Three White Scum” (which has been purchased by the Museumof Fine Arts), his take on the “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”monkey trio, to the explicit “Self Pornicator” to the more conventional“Olympic” to the quasi-cartoonish “Clueless”, Grech’s paintings are probably asclose as we get to outsider art in Malta. The term has become an umbrella termfor anything that is basically, raw, untutored and unordered in art, however“outsider art” or “art brut” was originally intended to describe works bypeople who have not been influenced by conventional social structures,tradition or culture. Their work is raw because it is untainted by the mostcommon norms - it exists in a vacuum - and stands alone, highly original workwelling up from the artist’s creative soul. Children, metal patients andprisoners are some of the foremost exponents of outsider art - they are not totallyassimilated into society but stand on the edge looking in.
This marginal theme is reflected in the title of Shaun Grech’s last exhibition“Pictures From The Outside”. Consisting of some 43 paintings in differentmedia, they are the result of some compulsive painting carried out over thelast five years, when Shaun’s need to paint intensified. Before being hung upon gallery walls for public viewing, his paintings were strewn all over thefloor and bed of the spare bedroom. Shaun’s semi-apologetic about this, “Don’tmind the ambience” he goes, but he’s refreshingly unpretentious - as are hispaintings.
So, what kind of feedback is he getting about his works? “People feel confused.They think they like my paintings but are rather puzzled as to why they reallylike them.” That I can understand. Most people feel that they’re on saferground when viewing or buying a painting by a well-known artist who has beengiven the seal of approval by the Establishment (whatever that is). Shaunagrees, “There’s a lot of pretension in the art world. It’s the same with bands(he should know, he’s a member of local band Syrup). Established artists andmusicians sometimes frown upon someone who doesn’t have an academic backgroundor training. In the musical field a new face is seen as a potential threat andnot as someone who can contribute healthily to the arts. This is often the casewhen that someone is not producing typical or mainstream material, be it art ormusic.”
The youngest of the Grech siblings (Alex, Herman and Charlotte now Stafrace),Shaun is the only one not bitten by the theatre bug- he’d feel extremely selfconscious if he had to get up on a stage and act. But he’s got another bee inhis bonnet - and that’s to work towards an inclusive society where no-onesuffers from discrimination. To this end he was one of the co-founders of theIntegra Foundation, a non-profit organization which works to facilitate theintegration of minority groups into mainstream society, with special focus onrefugees and asylum seekers.
The Integra Foundation has co-ordinated a programme whereby young people fromyouth groups spend time with refugees living at the open centres. Thisprogramme has proved to be extremely successful and teenagers who hadpreviously shown signs of resentment towards refugees started warming towardsthem, and returned to visit them even after the conclusion of the programme.Which just goes to show that what appears to be strange and threatening atfirst can turn out be interesting and fascinating after some time - very muchlike Shaun’s paintings and outsider art.