Behold the dusky silence, the olive wood logs in inert gestation; the cold, unpolished marble block and the microcosms in graveyards of weathered limestone. The mallet and chisels act as the sculptor’s cutlery; the finished works appear smug upon completion.
This still life of a sculptor’s workshop on an ordinary day is an ideal place to attempt to answer British sculptor Anthony Gormley’s voiced indecisions. Sculptor Mario Agius tackles these conundrums each time he picks up his tools to chip away in search of a solution that would resolve a lump of organic matter into the accepted components of a human form – a head, a torso and limbs.
The Gozitan artist, born in 1956, embarked on his artistic studies under the late Mgr Michelangelo Apap. He developed his passion for sculpture in wood under the guidance of the much-celebrated sculptor Anton Agius (1933-2008), who was his tutor for a number of years.
Agius admits that the influence and spirit of the older artist is reflected in the conception of his own works, particularly those in olive wood, as he pursues similar techniques as those practised by his mentor. The shape, knots and gnarls of an embryonic branch or root dictate the theme, direction and execution of a piece. The sculptural process is fluid when using olive wood; accident and co-incidence are the ingredients that allow Agius to adapt and conform as he chips away, easing out from anonymity a female nude or a saint suffering the pangs of earthly temptation.
Agius’s studies in Cheltenham, England, under British sculptor Ian Norbury introduced him to a wider variety of materials which helped increase his versatility and broaden his discipline as a sculptor. Norbury’s admiration for the work of German Expressionist sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) benefited Agius, adding an expressionist and angst-ridden dimension to some of his work.
This is evident in Seeds of Innocence, Orison and Embrace. The latter is a powerful Ecce Homo, inviting us all into His embrace. The expression is one of pathos and acceptance, which, together with the primitive, raw quality and patina of this piece, create a dialogue between the terrestrial and the divine, successfully addressing Gormley’s preoccupation with the ‘dumbness’ dimension of a sculpture.
The lump of weathered Globigerina Limestone discovered in a field in Gozo somehow falls under the category of the found object. Erosion had shaped it into curls and whirls, indicating to Agius a curly full beard and a tousled shock of unruly hair.
The accident of nature had inspired a face, and the Gozitan sculptor proceeded to shave off the excess limestone locks to uncover a remarkable effigy of St Paul. The stern gaze and the wrinkled forehead suggest the saint’s face in the famous Melchiorre Gafà masterpiece.
The storm of figures that seek ‘refuge’ in the sculpture bearing the same name seem to have been delivered from some catastrophe and are now resting after the turmoil. In Agius’ Refuge, the structure of the trunk affords shelter within its nooks and crannies – the relative safety and solidity of exile.
A veteran sculptor whose work deserves to be appreciated by a wider audience
The trunk is, like Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, overwhelmed by a humanity beset by contrasting emotions. Resilience and hope can so easily transform themselves into lassitude and despondency.
The cross has become widely accepted as a universal symbol of all Christian denominations. Its vertical stake reaches heavenward towards eternal salvation, while the horizontal crossbeam exerts a terrestrial downward pull. The empirical shape of the cross sometimes does away with the crucified human form that withstood and finally succumbed to all manner of humiliation.
In the triptych representing the Crucifixion, Agius achieves the exact reverse of this by filtering off the background noise and ditching the traditional iconography by eliminating the cross itself.
The titles attributed to these sculptural renditions of the crucified body of Christ draw upon three of the Seven Utterances on the Golgotha. In Missier Aħfrilhom, there is a mere suggestion of an ephemeral cross that supports the moribund body.
In Mara Hawn Hu Ibnek, the face and body are concentrated into an exhortation that seeks to offer solace to a despairing mother. Kollox Mitmum is the death knell that brings everything full circle as the body goes into rigor mortis.
One of the three sculptures in marble in Agius’ upcoming exhibition entitled Journey is a celebration of motherhood, which Agius has so poignantly captured in a moment of motherly abandon.
The roughness of the execution and the chisel marks add a timeless and erotically primeval lustre which would otherwise have been lost had the sculptor polished away the ‘imperfections’. This expressionist virility – the masculine strength needed to manipulate such a hard and unyielding medium – meets the softness of motherhood and the Surrender to the newly born infant.
This is a theme that the Gozitan sculptor has often explored in his past works – one which strikes a deep chord in him. He is the father of Victor and Charlene Agius.
Victor is a well-known ceramist in the Maltese contemporary art scene, whose conceptual works have been the subject of many important exhibitions. Charlene’s medium is painting, and she boasts a number of exhibitions under her belt.
Agius is a veteran sculptor whose work deserves to be appreciated by a wider audience. His mastery is evident in his consummate handling of different materials. In a century where yesterday’s news is prehistory, where trends outgrow each other in a matter of days – especially in the world of contemporary art – it is heart-warming to come across a man on a journey of love with tradition, and who pours his heart out into each individual piece.
Journey will be officially inaugurated at Il-Ħaġar Museum, St George’s Square, Victoria, on March 24 at 7pm. It will be open to the public daily from March 25 until April 16, including Sundays.
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