After 13 years exploring the interaction of memory and sense of place, the title of this exhibition, “Sense of Knowing,” May 1-31, speaks to a deep underlying unity among Michael Madigan’s recent paintings. Gleaned from numerous trips to coastal areas of Ireland and an exploration of Menorca, an island off the coast of Spain, the interaction of sea and land is expressed.
Here’s an interview with Mr. Madigan from 2003 that touches on the theme of memory:
You’re standing inside an old stone church, and although it was empty when you came in, you feel a presence around you. You turn around to see who else has entered, but there’s no one there. You close your eyes, but you can still see the light coming in through the windows and you feel like you’ve been here before, thousands of years ago.
Michael Madigan has had experiences like this. As recently as January, in an old Franciscan monastery in Donegal, Ireland, he felt a “presence” and expected to see his traveling companion in the huge monastic room, but found himself alone.
“It’s impossible to explain those experiences of places that have been inhabited for thousands of years and were considered power centers to Christians and pagans,” says the Hamilton-based artist. “These were natural places of attraction for local clans and subsequent civilizations layered their cultures over pagan artifacts. You start at a Neolithic site, and a stone’s throw, another civilization built an ancient cairn that is surrounded by stone circles, and then there’s a Christian monastery around that.”
His paintings evoke scenes of ancient, pastoral Ireland. The abstractly representational, softly muted, brilliantly hued paintings resonate with that feeling of a presence, that there’s someone else there, that you’ve been there before.
“When I feel that sense of presence,” says Mr. Madigan, “I know the painting is ready to go out and live its life somewhere else.”
On a recent morning, with sunlight seeping in through large windows at the Morpeth Gallery, Michael Madigan had the opportunity to see 30 of his paintings, all at once, in the light of day.
“Usually they get painted and then put into storage,” says the dark-haired, bearded man in a black leather jacket. Mr. Madigan, an adjunct professor of fine arts at The College of New Jersey and an instructor at Artworks in Trenton, spends most of his time painting, either in his Hamilton or Trenton studios.
About once a year, he takes a group of professional and intermediate students to the Wicklow Arts Center in Dunlavin, County Wicklow, to work en plein air. “In Glendalagh, with miles of beautiful landscape, it’s easy to lose people, so I don’t take more than 10,” he says. “It’s how I lose my winter weight.”
Mr. Madigan was born in Altoona, Pa., but his great great grandfather emigrated from County Clare in Northern Ireland during the potato famine. Returning to his roots, Mr. Madigan spent a month as an artist-in-residence at the Cill Rialaig (pronounced Kill Reelig) on the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry last year, and has been traveling to Ireland regularly for the past five years or so.
“Before, I had painted exclusively non-representationally, but in 1997 that started to change. The Irish imagery started to make its way into my work. My intentions shifted and the memory process and the way we build on it came into my work,” says Mr. Madigan.
He had always been interested in traditional Irish music and mythology, and walking through the Irish countryside evoked an emotional history. “It was impossible not to affect my work,” he says. At the same time Mr. Madigan was finding ancient memories pour into his being, his father was disconnecting from his memory. The senior Mr. Madigan, 89, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The show in Hopewell is all about weaving memories with ancient mythology. “In my paintings I build a sense of the passage of time and its effect on personal memory,” says Mr. Madigan. “As we build memory throughout our lives – as these memories layer one upon the other, and as we surrender memory back to the infinite – these are the themes in my work. I will often include images that stand as vessels of ancient thoughts, an animal form or some other object to interweave personal and mythical memory.”
Some of the acrylic paintings are on canvas and some are on panel, depending on whether Mr. Madigan wants to emphasize texture or color. “Canvas has a physical texture that is important to the textural elements of stone, grass, earth, sand, sod and sky,” he says. The panels have a smooth glossy sheen. Paint is applied with brushes and rollers.
As for the size, he will work small when the subject is more personal and intimate, large when he chooses to make a bigger impact. The use of color is more expressive than descriptive, coming from the environment but not necessarily used in the logical places.
The first painting in the exhibit, “Aione,” is a smaller work on panel and represents the water goddess Aione superimposed on a sheep skull. Although all of the paintings were created with a narrative in mind, Mr. Madigan believes talking about this is like giving away the plot to a movie and prefers his viewers to form their own impressions. “The paintings are meant to be evocative more than narrative, to bring the viewer into a dialogue as it reveals itself through layers,” he says. He uses recognizable objects to “start the interaction between the viewer and the painter. Viewers are metaphor rich – they want to give meaning to the painting.”
For Mr. Madigan, part of understanding the memory process is understanding where myths come from, and “Aione” seeks to do that using physical objects and the weather to represent the mythology. While walking in a field near Lock Gur, a peat-infused lake the color of tea, where Aione was a major deity to the Celts, Mr. Madigan found a sheep skull and painted the water goddess as a manifestation of it.
Each panel may have 10 to 15 layers of paint and glazing. Mr. Madigan works a number of images on top of one another, then uses sandpaper and solvents to reveal underlying images. “The painting process is a metaphor for the way we form memory,” he says. “As we get further from an experience, we tend to (revise the memory). I come from a large family, and we all have different memories of the same events.”
While in Ireland, Mr. Madigan uses a digital camera and camcorder to document visual experiences including changes in the weather – storms, sunrises, sunsets, the age and decay of a place, the sun breaking through on a stormy day. “When I come back I use it as a reference source to restimulate me. I always pay attention to where the work wants to go. I have no idea what the final image will be.”
“Near to Warren” depicts a walk along the road to an old monastic site. Sheeps’ wool gathers on barbed-wire fences. “That’s the only wool that peasants could keep because the wool from the shorn sheep had to be paid to the landowner,” recounts Mr. Madigan. “It was a beautiful visual experience, watching the wind off the ocean blow it. All of a sudden a young lamb was taken by a badger, but as soon as I looked the event had passed. So much is going on in your peripheral vision while you’re engaged in something else.”
“Passing in Beauty” is an acrylic on canvas of an old work boat at a water bank. “It is symbolic of my father’s passing. The strength and dignity of the work boat against a beautiful environment in a state of decline… I saw boats like this in County Galway. They looked quite past their prime in low tide but when the tide comes in they’re used again. That lifestyle in Ireland is passing, and it’s a metaphor for my dad’s later life.”
Like the old boat, his father has withstood the pounding of the seas. “My father was a strong man. He went off the coal mines in Pennsylvania’s coal region and into the railroad.”
“Anam” takes three points of view of a monastic site on an island off County Kerry and combines them. A jagged rock juts out of the ocean, and another is inhabited by millions of cormorants.
“The sea life is so rich, it draws the birds for nesting, and being eight miles out to sea, they are protected from predators,” says Mr. Madigan, who documented it with his camcorder. Long ago, monks traded the eggs for wine, meat and turf. The pagan myth, Mr. Madigan continues, was that this was a spiritual haven for drowned people’s souls.
“Mountain Gate” is, perhaps, the portal piece to the exhibit. At 48-by-60 inches, it is one of the larger pieces. Mr. Madigan first saw it when in what he calls an altered state of consciousness. It was his first day in Ireland and, having been awake 72 hours, he climbed 3,400 feet in the rain into the mountains. Passing an old iron gate in decline, he saw the sun break through behind clouds, contrasting the dark weather with the brilliance coming in through the gate. A tree that had taken root where it could catch through the rock was sculpted by the wind. Petroglyphs were carved into the rock.
Mr. Madigan says he doesn’t put the metaphors there, they just grow with his work. “Portals play a big role for the transition from ordinary stages of consciousness into altered ones,” he says.