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The secret codes within the paintings of Michael MacMahon

Tuesday Night Painting #10

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Diptych by Michael MacMahon
When were you first aware of it (left), Sacrificial Rock (right)

Hello painters, 

Welcome to the 10th installment of the Tuesday Night Painting newsletter! I started this newsletter as a substitute for the classes I used to teach at the Cambridge Center on Tuesday nights. Usually those classes are ten weeks long, and so writing this edition feels like we're wrapping up another session. So feel free to have some cheese and prosecco while you read this.

My goal with this newsletter is the same as my former classes: introduce painters to a wide range of abstract genres, styles, techniques, and approaches. I'll keep writing these newsletters for you for as long as I can while hopefully expanding on my online offerings of technical instruction. I don't have any online workshops set up yet, but if you have some paintings in progress that you would like to share, set up a one-on-one critique meeting with me and I'll be happy to give you my feedback. If you're interested, shoot me an email to ask for my rate for a one hour session.

A reminder that you can view all of the past issues at this link: bit.ly/tuesnightissues

And another reminder that my recent collection of paintings continues to be shown on the AREA Gallery website.

Michael MacMahon, Untitled, 2020, Oil on canvas, 17 x 17 in

Michael MacMahon, Untitled, 2020, Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 in
Two pieces from the artist's most recent series, Borders

The focus for our newsletter today is the artwork of Michael MacMahon. Born in Limerick in 1981, MacMahon moved to the United States and made Cape Cod his home. He is currently a part of the painting faculty at Tufts University/SMFA, where we both did our master's studies. 

If you were to only look at the work MacMahon has produced over the past three years, you'd be amazed at the quantity and quality of the work completed over that time span. There are five or six different series that he has cycled through in that time, all veering between the abstract and the landscape, most recently culminating in a combination of the two.

I recently exchanged some questions via email with the artist, so read on to find out more about his work.

Michael MacMahon, Untitled, 2020, Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 in

I think of painting as 90% problem solving so the worse a painting is at the beginning, the easier it is to work on."
TM: What's your background in art-making: have you always been painting abstractly?
 

MM: I’ve always been making in a sense. I grew up farming in a very poor agrarian community so there was ample time for just making things from detritus. We were always repairing things, so from an early age I had this sense that everything and anything could be a tool and serve multiple purposes. That has translated into my own painting practice.

I would never describe myself as an artist who works in a particular vein. I think of painting as less a linear history but as a giant tool chest. So when the need arises for a painting that can be made to function using elements of abstraction I use that tool. 

TM: When you're beginning a new series of works, how do you get started? How much are your paintings sketched out ahead of time versus figured out on the canvas?

MM:
Planning is the death of creativity for me. Have you ever heard writers say they write to find out what they think? I take the same approach in painting. At one point I got into this mode of thinking where I had to come up with an amazing idea, figure it all out and then make the work. It was incredibly paralyzing.

Once I became comfortable with allowing space within the process of painting to reveal what the work was doing it opened up my productivity and the work began to become mine. I also think of painting as 90% problem solving so the worse a painting is for me at the beginning the easier it is to work on.
MM: The latest body of work looks very planned but the opposite is true, I have some ideas on what is possible but elements of abstraction and landscape imagery are really just smashed together and this is after a long almost gestural approach to creating those grid like patterns where I am reacting to what is showing up in real time.

If I can sum up my approach it would be to work incredibly hard on building knowledge on how and why paintings function the way they do so that you can throw yourself freely into crazy situations and have the confidence you can paint your way out of it. 
I Never Did Learn to Swim, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in
Don't Hold the Saw by the Blade, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in
TM: In a previous issue of this newsletter we looked at some album covers that were created based on the Baudot code, an early type of telegram code. We also looked at some other artists who base their paintings off of codes as a way to generate ideas, colors, images, etc.

You have a series of paintings you made that involve Morse code. How did you arrive at this method of working and how often do you approach a body of work in this way?


MM: I have always found text based paintings difficult, so I was really surprised at how this project took off for me. I think what has always bothered me was that I have a very strong emotionally visual response to painting. My access point is always very sense orientated and physical which then opens up avenues of thought for me. When I see readable text I find myself skipping to a cerebral dialogue with the work and feel I miss out on something essential. 

The Morse code became really interesting because it is a corporeal communication. All of the Morse code that was used were found text from 19th century shipping codes. I had been doing research and by doing research I mean I go down these rabbit holes and realize I’ve been looking at shipping codes for hours when these patterns of movement, place, origins etc started to appear for me.

It became a really interesting parallel for my own immigration experience and rather than it being an instantly readable statement it was functioning as a visual element in the painting first.

The Morse code really tied into this idea of a multitude of small forces, nudges and pushes, dots and dashes that impacted my decision to immigrate to a different country than the one I was born in. I also used it as a negative or reverse stencil so you are looking through the dots and dashes into the painting rather than it sitting on the surface. 
At one point I got into this mode of thinking where I had to come up with an amazing idea... and then make that. It was incredibly paralyzing. "
It Does Not Appear to Be Serious, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in
Detail: It Does Not Appear to Be Serious, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in

TM: A lot of abstract painting is about creating something intangible but potentially recognizable, and to invite the viewer to create their own ideas about the piece.

When you have a painting created out of a secret code or one that has a hidden message embedded in it, does the painting become a puzzle that needs to be solved? Does this method of working change anything about what makes the painting successful? And how do you reveal the hidden message to the viewer, is it possible for them to crack the code?



MM: I love how you talk about painting as a puzzle. I’ve always been told my work may be too enigmatic at times but its only difficult to read if you don’t take the time to decipher it.

Everything in my work is a tool used to stitch the piece together. All of those elements reinforce what’s fueling the painting. Paintings for me are living breathing things which is actually true as all of my paintings are oil paintings that are actually oxidizing over time and shifting around microscopically and chemically under the surface.

Paintings, like all living things, should not be easy reads and should have the opportunity to evolve and grow in meaning over time. So yes, it is absolutely possible for the viewer, with some work, to crack all the elements in a painting and with that information have a personal reaction to that information.

It’s like reading a great book, you’re not reading it to be told what to think, you’re stepping into a world or a world view that you have not experienced and from that you have an experience unique to you. 

Homestead, 2017, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in
Middle Out Compression, 2017, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in
Paintings, like all living things, should not be easy reads, and should have the opportunity to evolve and grow in meaning over time."
TM: Has your working method changed drastically now given our current circumstances? 


MM: I found it very difficult to work at the beginning of this. I looked out at the world and saw so much failure and pettiness from higher levels of government while so many people were working tirelessly to help in communities and hospitals. It was really difficult to think that by just staying in I too was helping my community.

When I would work in the studio, which is luckily isolated I would have a hard time making work as I didn’t know how this was helping anyone. But in the middle of all this I was looking at the work others were producing and finding real joy in it. I didn’t lose any of my interest in the work my peers were making and then I realized that what is most important in the communities we exist in is to be an active supportive participant in that community.

I realized that in this time bolstering our communities and being supportive of each other is the work we can do right now. That and vote. 
Prosody, 2016, Mixed media on canvas, 16 x 10 in
Part of the Perseveration Triptych, 2016, Mixed media on canvas, 10 x 10 in
TM: Any favorite artists you look to? Whether abstract or not.

MM: So many come to mind, I became really interested in the work of Hanna Darboven in the last few years. Terry Winters just blows my mind, I can’t stand still in front of his work. The Hyman Bloom show that was recently in the MFA in Boston was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, I kept going back and I would just choose one painting and sit in front of it for hours.

I am endlessly fascinated by Euan Uglow, such an incredible observational painter but the mathematical approach that exists in his compositions is incredible. Sangram Mujamdar has been amazing to watch for years now. The work of Sanford Wurmfeld, I’m a huge color theory nerd.

Laura Owen, Amy Bennet, Nolan Simon, Robin Francis Williams, Gillian Carnegie, EJ Hauser. But most importantly the work of my peers is constantly amazing and challenging. The New England Area has some amazing people making paintings right now. 
Michael MacMahon is the current artist in residence at the Umbrella Arts Center located in Concord, MA.

Thanks a ton to Michael for taking the time to share his thoughts with us this week. You can see more of his work at his website here. If you want to get a more in depth look into his work, you can view the virtual artist talk he recently gave about his work at this link.
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Links
Susan Rothenberg, Cabin Fever, 1976
One:
The artist Susan Rothenberg recently passed away at the age of 75. In the mid-70s, she was one of many abstract painters living and working in NYC. She distracted herself from her work by doodling images of horses. At one point, diverted herself away from her typical painting practice by dedicating three large canvases to the galloping animals. A lesson from her career: Trust your weird ideas. Trust yourself.

Two:
For fans of Joan Mitchell, a glimpse at two "significant" works by her which are soon headed to auction. If we all pooled together about 8,000 of our stimulus checks we'd be able to put in a bid on one of her works.

Three:
A really excellent looking show by the Pittsburgh based artist John Burt Sanders, being hosted at Unsmoke Systems. I highly recommend looking at Sanders' website to see some of his fascinatingly textured canvases. See one of his pieces pictured below.
I hope you had as much fun reading this newsletter as I did writing it. To steal something from the artist Austin Kleon (who stole it from the Austin Chronicle newspaper), this newsletter is free but not cheap. 
 
Chip in a few $$
I've been spending more and more hours each week researching and writing about new artists for me and you to lovingly gaze at. So if you can chip in a few dollars, I would very much appreciate it. 
And so we reach the end of another Tuesday Night letter. This week, three songs from a favorite album of mine. Please enjoy these tunes and keep the painting vibes going:

Roses - It's Eerie
Roses - Upside Down
Roses - Quiet Time

See you next time!
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