Memory plays role in artist's abstracts
The latest exhibit to open at James Gallery in the West End is something of a travelogue for Micheal Madigan who created the seven works on display there.
At first glance, the seven acrylic paintings on wood panel look entirely abstract, but further inspection reveals recognizable shapes and forms that relate to Madigan's travels over the past 17 years.
Completed between 2011 and 2013, they were created from the memories of visits to areas in Ireland, Spain, France and even Blair County, Pa.
Though he has lived in Hamilton, N.J., since 1986, where he moved after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a master's degree concentrating in painting and art history, Madigan was born in Altoona in 1957 and stayed there through the mid-1970s.
The decline of the region's industrial base and the great changes in American social traditions formed Madigan's early artistic sensibilities. Formal studies in fine art introduced him to the European painters who influenced his early works, such as the artists of the COBRA movement and particularly the Catalan master Antoni Tapies. It was the influence of Tapies' work that marked a transition in Madigan's painting from formal realism to expressionism and a hybrid form of nonobjective mixed-media painting.
Through the 1980s and '90s, his work explored the power of dynamic color and emphasized the evocative potential of nonrepresentational painting. Local artists may remember his work from his involvement in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh from 1979 to 1984, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
But it was his many trips to Ireland and visits to Southern England, Italy, Spain and the American Southwest that have influenced the character of Madigan's paintings in this exhibit.
As visitors will see, they explore the nature of memory, its structure and how it is modeled and changed by time. Although still quantified as abstract in an aesthetic sense, his work often escapes simple qualification.
“My work in whole addresses the building, accumulation and dissipation of memory,” he says. “I extend the ideas of ‘memory' to both personal and collective conditions.”
The works in this exhibit — in fact, all of his works — touch upon the sense of memory held by a place and by the layered presence of human habitation in a place over many generations as well as by human interaction on and with that place, over time, and the impressions those places impart.
“I began research for these works in 1997 with a trip to the west of Ireland,” Madigan says. “Seventeen years and many, many trips to specific places throughout Ireland, Wales, Spain, France, Italy and the United States have resulted in a document body of some 17,000 digital photos, hundreds of analog images and videos, all of which I draw upon for memory sources.”
The paintings are created through multiple layering of memory sources from specific site visits, using both additive and subtractive processes and the qualities of the medium and substrate (acrylic on wood panel) to create the effects in the work.
Through subtle chromatic shifts and overall graphic design, the works engage the viewer in an ongoing process of discovery and change. The result is a document of the process of building and surrendering specific relationships established in time.
For example, three works based on his extensive travels to Ireland are real standouts.
“Gleaned From Shadow,” which is based on trips through the counties of Clare, Galway and Kerry, was developed over a two-year period. “Memories of old, abandoned villages, of preserved machines and tools, of habits and rituals, of seasons and spirits changing,” make up this painting, he says.
“Form and Aspect” is based on the west coast of Ireland, as evidenced by the slightly discernable shapes of abandoned boat hulls Madigan saw near the shorelines.
And then there is “Night Lantern II,” with its shifting doorway or portal which calls to the recesses cut into the walls of many of the medieval castles Madigan saw in not only Ireland, but also Italy, Spain and France.
With “Catalunya XI,” Madigan combined influences from the Catalan region of Spain, specifically what he saw and experienced in Barcelona and Menorca. “Barcelona is the capital of the Catalan region. The Barri Gotic area of Barcelona is the medieval quarter of the city,” Madigan explains. “This painting draws from the many walks taken through the region of Catalunya, and more directly through the Barri Gotic.”
“(‘Albayzin I') draws its content from the several day and night walks through the old Moorish Quarter, the Albayzin of Granada, Spain,” Madigan says, pointing specifically to the apparent arch in the painting that referenced the passageways he walked through.
“Le Pays Cathar I” draws from memories of days spent in and around the town of Albi in Southern France. “The title ‘Le Pays Cathar I' speaks of the region of southern France that was once the land of the Cathars,” Madigan says.
Finally, “Last of Pennsy” relates to Blair County, and even more so to Madigan's family ties to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which is referenced rather obviously in a roughed-out version of the PRR logo placed to the right in the piece.
“This is the first in a series of paintings exploring the memories evoked by the remnants of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a icon giant in my childhood,” Madigan says. “My father was a brakeman on the Pennsy, and my hometown echoed the beat of the railroad, its rise and dissolution. To this day, the life cycle of that company stands as a strong personal metaphor.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.