Joseph Paul Cassar, 'Recent Insights',
Exhibition Catalogue, 2004

The theme of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Its demise has often been predicted. With the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, it could be argued that landscape persisted in some form in high abstraction and has been a recurrent theme in most significant tendencies of the twentieth century. In more recent times the subject of landscape has been acknowledged by Land Art and Earthworks, which brought about an awakening of environmental consciousness. Global travel and the mass media have also continued to increase our awareness of a world environment while at the same time restricted our actual experience of nature. For the urban dweller direct contact takes place during the daily walk along the city street – the horizon line is rarely glimpsed and vegetation is limited to the occasional tree. During the rushed process of travel the landscape is witnessed as a passing blur from the window of a car, train or plane. As the structures of tourism and heritage industries began to develop and the picture postcard emerged as the souvenir landscape, land has at times been represented as a packaged, marketable commodity. In short, landscape has become an unstable, contested and intriguing medium.

The Gozitan landscape is the main focus of Mark Sagona’s second one-man exhibition. He does not only present its relevance to today’s world but does so with a sense of rich invention. In fact it does not come as a surprise that many Maltese artists young and old have exploited this tradition fruitfully over the years. For Mark, the term landscape refers both to the perception of a scene as well as to the representation of it. He refers to the environment as he encountered it and offers his interpretation by filtering through his personal memory and imagination, triggered at times by photographic sources chanced upon during his urban experience, or from the repertoire of personal memories of the landscapes of his childhood. They are essentially images that make use of a curious range of colours and light effects, inconsistent perspectives and a fusion of pictorial conventions and techniques.

His choice of landscape is governed by very personal criteria, for he feels the need to respond emotionally to his environments in order to paint them. His favourite locations remain the ones he knows best and are nearer to his home. He needs to have constant contact with a place in order to discern its qualities and he employs his personal involvement in the narrative of the landscape.

The presence of people in his landscapes is absent but man is there unnoticeable. Trees, in this sense, provide a human reference, they embody time and chart the seasons, and they highlight the brevity of humanity’s life span. People have always reshaped and altered their environments to meet a variety of needs. Buildings of all kinds, in particular the churches and houses as depicted in Mark Sagona’s works, all combine to make a setting for the human drama played out in the urban theatre we have created ourselves. Sagona tries to tell us that in reality it is not just the urban landscape, which is shaped by people, but even the layout of the terraced fields, walls and hedges are structures, which are organized by people, as demonstrated in Is-Sellum tax-Xaghra.

Sagona is essentially concerned with patterns, light, a sense of architectural structure, and all that contributes to his understanding and knowledge of place. The intensity of light beams that he invents serve as veils of colour, transparently laid over the scene through the application of thin glazes. The bolder ones focus on the cityscape, while gentler lights fuse other elements together. In this way compositional elements become more prominent as they are integrated with the brushwork of uniform colour, and hence are rendered more homogeneous and restrained in the final version. Sunlight penetrates to the ground, up to the lower levels of the composition, creating translucent shades that reveal the building structures with silhouetted twigs and leaves against the deep blue sky. These beams of filtered coloured light generally make their presence felt in a vertical manner, however occasionally they take a diagonal slant literally appearing like a thin curtain raise. In the process he alters and accentuates shapes so that objects appear slightly disguised as he builds his compositions in layers. Likewise, other images emerge into adjacent areas of colour, emphasizing flat and geometrical areas. The parish churches, the houses in the village and the nearby occasional hills have been transformed into colours with an independent existence. The black lines predominant in the earlier works, give way to sharp divides of colour and a sense of shadows. Later works make use of subtler line breaks that still convey inner content. Harmony of forms is thus achieved upon the purposeful touching of one area with another according to the principle of inner necessity. In this way, the conscious, the deliberate, and the purposeful play a preponderant role in his compositions. I feel that what I remarked about Mark’s use of colour for his first one-man exhibition entitled Analytical Forms still holds today:

Colours simultaneously relate to each other and the isolated components become prismatic colours – an optical feast of new vigorous arrangements.

Their abstractedness is merely a disguise, often behind each image lie simple beginnings. Mark Sagona already believes in the capacity of abstract colour and form to embody an idea… He does not reject nature but penetrates behind the optical experiences in order to find a deeper inner meaning. This has led him to stress subjective invention and visionary imagination.

However, I feel that Sagona decides more in favour of the principle of feeling rather than that governed by calculation. Architectural settings dominate his paintings in their given erratic character and space. They offer ideas for compositions, a play of shapes, which in spite of their often-precarious balance, they never falter in their totality, similar to a waiter who pretends to slip while carrying a huge pile of plates. It is the viewer who has to hold tight.

His images are reduced to their most basic elements, signifying only a general classification of environment. Details are meticulously registered; every colour is distinct and clear – from the blades of grass in the foreground to the distant but entirely legible cupolas and houses in the background. The deep shadows assist in the formation of structures. He is aware of the contrast between man-made landscapes and those fashioned by nature. Any unusual feature, which stands out, captures his imagination such as the peculiar spacing in the disposal of the trees, (or was it their height and its relation to these intervals?). He is not much interested in the contours of the landscape as much as in its sculptural qualities. Even the sky corresponds to the same philosophy of shapes as the buildings as in Urban Structures, where everything becomes part of a patchwork similar to the criss-crossing fields and contrasting planes depicted in works such as Irregular Forms, and Verticalita’. The presence of a Maltese dghajsa in Cospicua is testimony to the importance given to the concept of solidity. The boat in the foreground becomes almost an extension of the buildings and is held sandwiched between two beams of red light, creating a window to the distant parish church.

There are two themes within this exhibition, which have particularly captured my attention. These are the representations of the citadel and that of the temples. The citadel is represented majestically and strategically placed high up on a hill dominating the surrounding landscape. La Rocca offers a sense of grandeur, the stability of the old as manifested in both its architectural and structural components as well as for its survival through time. The sloping fields in the foreground allow him the possibility to explore decorative patterns and shapes in an arbitrary way.

The temple series consisting of two paintings appear to be sculptures in a landscape. Their beauty and mystery is emphasized in a formal manner: their surface colouring, texture and patina of golden light enhance their strange forms and mystical significance. Pietre Millenari and Scorched Stones are paintings about the solidity of rock and the lasting endurance of the temples. The megaliths are rendered almost metallic; they are restless as they reach for the skies. The temple structures come alive in the feel of the space between each rock. The two-dimensional picture plane is explored for its abstract qualities. The magic lies within the site itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings. In addition, the temple sites respond in a dramatic way to the influence of light, and stand with a beauty that is unreal. Thereafter Sagona hunted similar stone structures by the shoreline as in Rocks and Water I [Dwejra], Rocks and Water II [Beyond Xlendi]. and Cliffs. Here what is more important is the idea of metamorphoses, and the spirit and life in the stone.

Mark Sagona’s artistic journey has come a long way with some interesting results. His art is changing gradually as he remains keen in exploring simultaneously new directions in his paintings. I had the chance to review his work throughout these recent years, gaining the privilege of previewing some of his current developments, which will be the subject of a different show at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in the nearby future. They are works that link with these landscapes, are full of promise and demonstrate his serious commitment to art. One waits earnestly for his latest insights.

Dr Joseph Paul Cassar is an artist, art critic, curator and educator. He has exhibited his works widely both in Malta and abroad. In 2003 he received a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, USA, to be artist-in-residence for six weeks. He is the author of a number of monographs on Maltese art and artists and wrote art reviews for The Times (of Malta) between 1998-2001. He lectures on art history, theory and practice at the Junior College and the Art Programme, Faculty of Arts, of the University of Malta, specializing in the Modern and Contemporary period. He is visiting lecturer at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, USA. In November 2003 he published his latest book “Beyond The Surface” about his paintings executed between 1985 and 2003. He is a member of the National Society for Education in Art and Design in Corsham, Wiltshire, UK and appointed visual arts representative for the International Baccalaureate Programme for the region of Malta and Italy, by the Curriculum and Assessment Centre, Cardiff, U.K.

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