Recently, I have been invited to the APS second collective art exhibition which is set at the APS head office building in Swatar, Malta. The launching event took place on Friday 12th October 2012.
The exhibition features a collective of four contemporary Maltese artists namely Raymond Azzopardi, Charles Cassar, Anna Grima and Valerio Schembri. The four artists are considered to be amongst the major exponents of Malta’s current artistic scene. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Louis Laganà who is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art and Art History at the Junior College, and also lectures on Art, Culture and Tourism with the Institute For Tourism, Travel and Culture, University of Malta.
Introduction to the artists (the information is being reproduced form the APS exhibition catalogue):
Raymond Azzopardi, a self-taught sculptor, was born in Hamrun in 1956. Azzopardi was interested in drawing at a very young age and used to draw in class during English and Maths lessons. As a boy he never had sculpture in mind but he kept drawing and painting. When he was about 8 years old he had the opportunity to visit the studio of the famous Maltese sculptor and painter, Joseph Kalleja who happened to be a great friend of his grandfather.
In the early 1980’s Azzopardi became a member of an Art club “Nghinu Bl-Arti” where he met his first friends with the same interests. In 1985 he exhibited his first paintings with seven other members at the Museum of Fine Arts. The title of the exhibition was “Wirja bla Isem”. During those years he became interested in wood carving and sculpture and because wood was always at hand he tried his first 30cm sculpture in Parana wood. Raymond Azzopardi never attended any carving lessons but read about carving and sharpening tools which he considered a very important aspect in carving. He continued to work on sculptures made with different kinds of wood.
In the early 1990’s the artist took part for the first time as a sculptor by participating in a collective art exhibition which was held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. It was curated by Mr. E.V. Borg. It was the most important exhibition during that period which encouraged him to pursue his artistic expression in sculpture. This was an art exhibition entitled “An Idiom in Wood” and was held at the Cathedral Museum in Mdina. Azzopardi was the youngest sculptor of the group and showed 8 works all made in mahogany. The artist is inspired by everyday life, the people he meets and the media. His most favourite subject is maternity. Azzopardi works on different shapes and textures. He believes that wood carving is a strong medium which will not die out as other crafts did. Wood carving provides the artist a great challenge to work on different themes.
Charles Cassar is one of Malta’s leading senior artists. He hails from Valletta but resides and works in Kappara. He was educated at the Lyceum, University of Malta and at the Malta School of Art. In 1964, he placed first in the scholarship exam and was awarded a four-year- government grant to further his artistic education abroad. He studied for two years at Croydon College of Art, Surrey, England and for another two years in Italy at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome where he graduated in 1967. He spent 43 years in the Education Department, where he served as a teacher, Assistant Head of school and as Head of School until he retired in 2005. For a number of years, Charles was a part-time Lecturer in Printmaking at the University of Malta and Lecturer at the School of Art.
During the late sixties he created awareness in graphic design and was a pioneer of computer generated art during the eighties. In 1983 he designed the set of four stamps marking the ‘Commonwealth Day’ and later served on the Stamp Design Advisory Board.
Charles Cassar works incessantly in his studio but travels a lot, visits museums and adores historical archaeological sites. He has nine one-man exhibitions to his credit and participates regularly in collective shows locally and abroad. His works are to be found in private collections worldwide. Cassar has works at the Museum of Fine Art in Valletta, il Museo d’Arte Moderna in Pistoia and La Pinacoteca d’Arte in Locri. Throughout his long artistic career, he has won various competitions, obtained prizes and recognitions from both local and foreign associations. In 2003 he represented Malta in the European Artist Exhibition which was held at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC. His last retrospective exhibition was held at the BOV Centre in Santa Venera in June and July 2009.Cassar’s art is about painting nature’s textures reflected in powerful representations of changing moods. He loves the sea, the rocks, the land and vegetation and all the creatures which dwell in this mysterious human world. His work is an exploration of the self open to the manifested world of reality and life’s journey.
Anna Grima is a visual artist who has exhibited her art extensively in Malta and abroad. Her work navigates around the concept of ‘time-space’ relating to natural phenomena between earth and sky matter and spirit which include a philosophical and metaphysical discourse on thoughts and theories that access the dynamic creative impulse. Interdisciplinary practices as diverse as Painting and Drawing, Paper Sculpture and Woodcut Printing, Creative Writing/Illustration and Spatial /Landscape Design are combined in fine art contexts, exploring, defining, researching and converting the multiple considerations around the subject of life into a definite art form or framework.
Born in Malta in 1958, Grima studied art at the Malta School of Art and the Accademia di Belli Arte in Perugia, Italy. She continued to study painting and practised the ancient Japanese art of Gyotaku and had sailing expeditions in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (1984 – 1988). Her first invitation to exhibit her work was in 1982 when Norbert F. Attard and Denis Vella presented the exhibition ‘Maltese Women Artists’ at the Gallerija Fenici, Valletta. Her first solo exhibition was at Galerie Ripard, Fontainebleau, France, in 1984.
In 1995 she represented Malta in a collective exhibition at the United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, celebrating the International Woman’s Day. That same year she was the first woman artist in Malta to design a postage stamp for the Malta Post Office on the occasion of the United Nations International Woman’s Conference in Beijing, China.
Recently, her works have formed part of international exhibitions and symposiums related to the study and interest in temple culture and sacred sites with a focus on sacred geometry and iconic presentations of the sacred in relation to time, space and light, depicting symbols and concepts that echo her native ancestral heritage to resonate with universal truths and beliefs. Many of her paintings hang in private and public collections, and most recently two of her abstracts were chosen to represent Malta for the coming 5 years as part of the prestigious Summa Artis Collection at the Berlaymont building, Brussels.
Valerio Schembri (b.1969) who was brought up in Mosta (Malta) has strong ties with his native village where he spent days exploring the beauties of Wied il-Ghasel, (meaning: valley of honey). He read architecture at the University of Malta (1988 – 1993), tutored in design amongst others by abstract painter Alfred Chircop (b. 1933) and Architect Richard England (b. 1937). A few years later he set up his own practice: Valerio Schembri Project Workshop in 1997. Later Schembri obtained a Masters degree in Baroque Studies at the University of Malta (2000 – 2002) under the guidance of the architectural historian Prof. Dennis De Lucca (b. 1952), Philosophy Professor Rev. Peter Serracino Inglott (1936 – 2012) and art historians Prof. Keith Sciberras (b. 1970) and Prof. Mario Buhagiar (b. 1945). In 2003 Schembri had his first experience of artistic clay expression with ceramist Zell Osbourne (b. 1953). In 2005 he started attending lessons with George Muscat (b. 1962) and participated in throwing workshops with Kenneth Grima (b. 1971) in 2006. He has been under the constant guidance of Paul Haber (b. 1940) since 2007.
As a ceramist he participated in various local collective exhibitions including several editions of the prestigious Malta-Cyprus Collective Exhibition, in Malta and Larnaca, Cyprus. Schembri participated in the International Ceramica Multiplex in Varazdin, Croatia in 2009 where he was also invited to deliver a lecture on his ceramic works. He has also been selected for participation in the 2012 edition. In 2010 the ceramist was awarded an honourable mention in the prestigious European Biennale for Ceramics in Mamer, Luxembourg. In 2011 Schembri also took part in the Sicily-Malta-Cyprus collective in Bagheria, Sicily. In 2012 he was selected among the finalists and exhibited in the 32nd Concors Internacional de Ceramica de l’Alcora which was held in Alcora, Spain.
Locally he won two honourable mentions and three runner-up awards in open competitions by The Malta Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce and was also runner up in the Sculpture Section of The Malta International Arts Biennale in 2007. The two works that Schembri submitted for the Public Arts in Gozo 2011 competition were short listed among the winners. On commission by the Ministry for Gozo, one of these models is actually being reproduced full scale in Gozitan hardstone.
Valerio Schembri presently lives and works in Naxxar, Malta, where he runs his own architectural atelier and his ceramics studio. The artist’s gallery is available online on www.valerioschembri.com.
On a personal note:
I must say that being present at this exhibition resulted to be a very positive experience. The event showcases contemporary art in Malta and its progress. This feeling is generated through the works presented to us by these four artists who break away from their established niches and embark on a virtual voyage of artistic experimentation and technical ability.
From a logistical point of view, I must say that the organisers should have opted for a more adequate setting to house this corpus of works. Large works, like the ones by Charles Cassar and Anna Grima, which are aimed to capture the viewer’s attention and transport him into a surreal world of colour, ought to be exhibited adequately thus ensuring the work’s dignity. Presentation is a vital element in an exhibition, and it is not to be taken lightly by the ones hosting the exhibition. The logistical environment of an exhibition should complement the qualities present in each and every exhibited work of art thus ensuring the event’s success.
Azzopardi’s corpus of works presents to the viewer a variety of elements ranging from technical draughtsmanship to naivety. The caricature-like nature of Azzopardi’s work recalls prehistoric elements which mould our Maltese cultural essence. In fact one clearly senses the element of exaggeration present in the work entitled “Child’s Play” which recalls a corpulent figure, traced in the natural creases offered by the raw wood, which the artist chose as his point of departure. Azzopardi’s link with ancient civilizations is also present in his work “Arabesque”. In this case the sculptor brings to the viewer the Greek Archaic physiognomy which is subdued through the mask representations recalling the Ancient Greek Dionysian cults. The Classical masks help in bringing the characters’ face closer to the audience through the intensely exaggerated facial features and expressions. The masks may represent Azzopardi’s sculptural contributions in which he appears and reappears in several different roles. This element is very much sensed through the rest of the exhibited works such as “Moods” and “Duo”.
A couple of years have passed from Cassar’s successful retrospective exhibition held at the Bank of Valletta’s headquarters in St Venera. On that occasion Cassar has introduced his audience to his notions of colour and its application. Cassar’s innovative manner breaks away from the traditional application through the use of the brush and stretches it to include a more personal approach. The series of paintings exhibited in this current exhibition reaffirms Cassar’s intimate relationship with colour and texture. Cassar’s compositions depart from nature itself thus making use of nature’s detritus, mainly dried leaves, and regenerate itself in the artistic conceptions of the artist. “Guardians of Transparency” conveys the artist’s interest in immortalising the ephemeral beauty of butterflies. A fragile and enchanting species brought to life through the use of vibrant colour.
The diversity of colour explored by Cassar shows the virtuosity of the artist in mastering his palette. This is also evident in the works “Sparks in the Air” and “Intimacy at Risk”. The works by Cassar contrast the element of technical rapidity featured in contemporary art. Meticulous and researched brushstrokes replace the frivolous ones. Both works manifest the well-calculated and premeditated risk of textures which Cassar exploits to his very best.
One final note goes to the work bearing the title “In the Beginning Perhaps”. Cassar’s academical artistic upbringing resurfaces in this work. The Eternal Father, recalling Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, is brought back to life through the use of freely applied brushstrokes loaded with almost fluorescent pigments. Possibly, Cassar is inviting the viewer to think about his essence and existence. It is as if the artist is recalling Darwin’s theories of evolution, thus presenting the human being as the outcome of a natural process which was brought forward by minute organisms present in our cosmos. This is very much sensed in the importance being given to nature which contrasts the subdued human figure set in the background. This idea is strengthened through the bold pronunciation of the leaves which is not so present in his other works.
Grima’s inclination towards the primordial sphere is more direct. In her work “The Holy of Holies”, the artist refers to Malta’s own hypogeum at Tarxien. She is more into capturing the spiritual nature of the subterranean structure rather than just stone. The aura which is recreated with the use of purples and reds echo the mystical and eschatological purposes for which the building was hewn into rock.
In her works “Echo of the Music of Spheres” and “Sound Vibration”, Grima hints a close connection to the organised sounds which generates music. The former projects the artist in a cosmos of spirals which revolve into the mystical reds emulating elements of passion. The spiritual element projected by the artist is more pronounced in the work “Echo of the Music of Spheres” and contrasts the latter where the focus evolves to be a feminine figure set in an embryonic position at the verge of precipitance. The morphed symbols or medallions depicted are mirrored in the reflection and compliment the distorted image of the figure.
Schembri’s ceramic abstracts offer a challenging experience. The artist invites the viewer to explore creases, pointed forms and the intermingling relationship of form and space. Schembri’s ceramics recall elements from nature such as trees and rock formations. His sound architectural background is very much reflected in works like “Abstract III”, who’s quest to bridge the form together with its abstract nature is very much present. “Abstract VI” is a work filled with drama. It is set on diagonals and the play of space and form generates an element of mystery which is also complimented by the application of subdued glazes.
A final note goes to the exhibition catalogue which was presented to the audience, for free, during the exhibition night. One must say that the printed work is professional and pleases the eye. The play between gloss and matt lamination elevate the quality of the catalogue.
The biographical notes present in the book are well compiled together with a thorough yet concise critical analysis of the works exhibited. Contrastingly, the fancy dividers diverges the publication’s main focus at the expense of what one generally finds in an exhibition catalogue, that is, full-page reproductions of the featured art works. The lack of focus is complimented with the inclusion of two critical essays, which are published at the introduction of the exhibition catalogue, which have no close connection to the works on show.