The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

Eighteen years of transformation

Marika Azzopardi Tuesday, 8 January 2019, 09:28 Last update: about 2 years ago

Eighteen years is a long time. I discovered Mark Sagona’s art precisely half-way through this time-frame, giving me another perspective of the man who was, at the time, one of my University lecturers.

To History of Art students, Sagona is mostly known as a careful educator who specialises in the art of distant centuries, the kind of art dictated by academia - still life, portraiture, views of distant lands - all produced via rigid methods learnt and practised at the hands of the masters of times past. Think religious art in all its forms: saints and  popes, as well as lords, dames and kings. But then one discovers the other side of the coin - Sagona's contemporary art compositions - wild, free and full of the kind of energy only a free spirit could produce.

I went to view Sagona's ongoing exhibition in Valletta, a retrospective with works spanning from 2000 through to 2018. The selection, aptly curated by Nikki Petroni, visually displays the evolution of his art, the massive changes the artist has gone through over these years. The paintings include a few very early examples, where abstraction still had a strong tinge of the figurative. Then come the first abstracted landscapes, colourful, variations on a theme, mostly vivid in colour, yet still somewhat veiled, ghostly.

The first exhibition I had personally reviewed by Sagona was where I came in touch with the kind of experimentation he seemed more inclined to delve into. Diaries of Abstraction was a 2008 exhibition where he started utilising oversized canvases within which he painted with fluid colours, a conglomeration of expressive works that abolished rigidity of any form. This was pure emotion, adventure in paint, an exciting moment for the artist, yet one which left most of his faithful viewers baffled.

In the Nocturne exhibition of 2010 Sagona returned somewhat to his roots and focused on night-skied seascapes and landscapes, with an extremely strong colour scheme that resonated determination. However, the vivid veils had no intention of masking the locations Sagona was depicting, and the works proved to be popular - the viewers recognised the subjects and felt safe. Everybody seemed happy, yet Sagona knew it was not what he really intended - there was too much control, the works were too self-contained. As I had written for this newspaper, back in March 2010: "After his last artistic forage into paint with Diaries of Abstraction, which surprised the art crowd and attracted a great deal of attention to what had been, intrinsically, an open-hearted statement, this exhibition, which focuses particularly on the night theme rather than ephemeral emotion and sentiment, offers us a more stable perspective of Sagona's mindset as we see him returning to his old favourite - the semi-abstract scenic painting."

What I had witnessed as a radical detachment from what had been obvious, to what was to become extremely fluid, intangible and filled with emotional undertones, seemed to have gone back into hiding. Indeed, it seems Sagona needed time to come to terms with what was to become this present exhibition, The Painted Psyche. At a distance of a few years, he has come out with resolution, firmly consolidating a transformation that harks back to his 2008 works.

With these new paintings, 22 all produced in 2018, Sagona embraces spontaneity. His intentions are better defined and clear-cut. Gone are the scenic works. This is pure colour, pure feeling, outbursts of energy, intense and profound. I am surprised and vaguely disappointed the works are so small. But the strength with which Sagona has inundated these small works compensates for any lack of expansiveness.

The characteristics Sagona veils are omnipresent, but now the painting is not haphazard. It is intentional, at times bombastic and yet a pleasure to the eyes. Rupture, Amore, Fulfilment, Revelation... the names are mere excuses to identity and are not necessary. The works, in a mix of acrylics, oils, pastels and charcoal on panels, are part of an exhibition which proves that experimentation is an ongoing exercise in art. One never reaches a "destination" - being an artist is a constant state of "works in progress". And to communicate with intensity, one must wear one's heart on one's sleeve and not be afraid to splash some paint on it every so often.

'The Painted Psyche & other narratives 2000 - 2018' by Mark Sagona is on show at Palazzo de la Salle, 219 Republic Street, Valletta until 19 January.


  • don't miss