Bonnici’s Transfigurations series confronts the viewer with images which are both puzzling and unsettling. The word “discombobulating” comes to mind. It is not simply that there is something odd and uncomfortable to be found somewhere in each painting. The source of the viewer’s uncomfortableness, the “transfiguration”, is front and centre of each painting, forcing the viewer to process, visually and emotionally, the oddity and novelty of the transfiguration.

To help make sense of the oddity, we may turn to Fauconnier and Turner’s theory of “conceptual blending” in cognitive science. The starting point in any conceptual blending analysis is the recognition of distinct input spaces. Two input spaces are easy to identify in each of Bonnici’s paintings. One input space is the human face, with all the inherent parts that constitute a face, along with the implied associations with the whole human being and world of humans. This input space is present in all the paintings, albeit with some variations on the gender and appearance of the human figure. The second input space varies from painting to painting and is usually indicated by the title of each painting. These are inanimate spaces. They may be quite abstract (as in Rupture), or they may pertain to earth formations (as in Crater), or other kinds of objects. The two input spaces are not simply present, or juxtaposed, in cognition, the elements of each input space are mapped onto elements of the second input space and the subsequent integration of the two spaces results in a blended space, or conceptual blending.

Consider Crater from the point of view of conceptual blending theory. The input space of the human face is integrated with the space of a crater as understood in a geographical context. The rim of the crater object is mapped onto the perimeter of the face; the centre of the crater is mapped onto the centre of the face, i.e., the nose; the void of the crater is mapped into the area of the face; the material of the crater is mapped onto the human skin of the face. When the two input spaces are blended, the novel blended space, the “transfiguration” in the artist’s phrasing, is created. The final blended space is constructed from the input spaces but is distinct from either. The new blend has its own unique characteristics, inviting further cognitive processing and elaboration by the viewer, such as imagining the daily life of the transfigured person, the world view that such a transfigured person might have, etc.

The blended concepts that we construct as viewers of Transfigurations are not fixed in their content. The more elements that a viewer chooses to map between the input spaces, the more interpretation the viewer will likely give to a painting. With Crater, a viewer may choose to see a mapping between the void, or negative space, of a crater, and the mind behind the face. Or a viewer might add a mapping between the assumed cause of the crater, e.g., a volcanic explosion, and an assumed traumatic event in the life of the human behind the face. These are paths that our imagination allows us to follow, though it is the choice of individual viewer to further cognize in this way. Some familiar conceptual blends in our cultural sphere come with their own back-stories. The persona of modern-day Spiderman, for example, has been elaborated at length through comics and movies. We know his personality, likes and dislikes, his strengths and weaknesses, etc. Similarly, classical mythology provides us with stories for a cyclops character, a character that has been imported as a ready-made conceptual blend, into Bonnici’s Cyclops painting. When there is no pre-existing legend, movie, book, etc. associated with a blend, however, viewers must invent their own narratives. It is at this point that a painting in Transfigurations takes on a new life in the mind of the viewer.

A comment on the medium is in order. In each of the oil paintings we see the product of a relatively slow process to which the artist has devoted himself, painstakingly constructing the transfiguration stroke by stroke. The slow, deliberate, manually crafted blending of oils and shapes on the part of the artist contrasts starkly with the relatively instantaneous conceptual blending in the mind of the viewer. In the modern era, we are accustomed to the visual blends produced effortlessly by image-editing software such as Photoshop. Such blends are often whimsical, visual jokes, created with a click of the mouse, intended for a moment of viewing. The slower, deliberate nature of the manual construction of the transfigured images, on the other hand, encourages us to reciprocate, viewing the paintings in a more thoughtful and engaged way than we might have done otherwise.

John Newman
Professor Emeritus, Department of Linguistics, University of Alberta, Canada.
Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures &
Linguistics, Monash University, Australia.





‘Rupture 4’
Oil on Panel,
60cm x 45cm, 2023

5,500AUD INC GST.

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‘The Cubist’,
Oil on Panel,
40cm x 30cm, 2023

4,000AUD INC GST.

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‘Tower 3’,
Oil on Linen, 
41cm x 31cm (Oak Frame)

2,000AUD INC GST.

SOLD


‘Crater’,
Oil on Panel,
40cm x 35cm, 2023 (Oak Frame)

3,000AUD INC GST.

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‘Exotic Matter 2’,
Oil on Linen,
35cm x 45cm, 2022

3,500AUD INC GST.

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Saturn Devouring His Son’,
Lumograph Pencil on Paper,
29.7cm x 210cm, 2023

2,000AUD INC GST.

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‘Unfolding’,
Lumograph Pencil on Paper,
46cm x 35.5cm, 2023

2,000AUD INC GST.

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‘The Cyclops’,
Oil on Panel,
40cm x 30cm, 2023

4,000AUD INC GST.

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‘Deficit 3’,
Oil on Panel,
30cm x 25cm, 2021 (Oak Frame)

3,000AUD INC GST.

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Mark