Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the March 14, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Whistling While He Works
Maybe it’s the shapes in the paintings that attract:
softly amorphous, often suggesting landscape, but never saying it.
The colors would surely do it: prevailing blues and violets, as well
as oranges and greens — sea and earth tones. And those penetrating
yellows: here comes the sun. Or the textural variety could be the
draw: from rough and rutted to "implied," as the artist puts
it. And trust the artist, Micheal Madigan, to put it out there, with
insight and clarity.
To foster his intuitive painting process, which he wants to keep that
way, Madigan plays a "feadog" (Irish for whistle), during
his painting sessions. He has a number of whistles, ranging from about
10 inches to two feet long. "I try to play as much as possible
to keep the intellect at bay," he says. "That becomes an
part of the evolution of the work. I’ll stop working on a piece when
I realize that I’m thinking of the next thing that has to happen."
Madigan’s show "Aisling Gheal (Bright Vision)" opened earlier
this month at Morpeth Gallery, Hopewell, and runs through Sunday,
April 1. It warrants many long looks. The work of the last few years
and the result of frequent visits to Ireland, his non-objective
— on canvas, panel, and paper — represent "the effect
of memory and time on the way we form ideas in memory and the way
we surrender them as we age." With an artist-friend, Madigan makes
January trips to "ancient and sacred places" in Ireland.
sites we visit go from the Megalithic period, around 3800 B.C., up
through the 13th and 14th centuries — (what are now) old Celtic
church ruins on the same sites."
For him, the paintings embody the energy of those experiences. Each
piece is "a composite of four or five different experiences that
I had while at one site, or else an amalgam of a number of different
sites," he says. "The way we build memory is not of a specific
moment in time. We think we remember it that way, but it’s an amalgam
of ideas that mesh together." And, of his visits and the sites
themselves, Madigan says, "I believe in the linking between
memory and primordial memory, if you’re open to it. There’s a very
palpable sense of that in Ireland."
Not only is Ireland "a wellspring of powerful stuff," it is
also part of his cultural heritage. Half Irish, Madigan first visited
the country only a few years ago. Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and
now 43 years old, he was the last of six children, and the second
son, of a father who worked in coal-mining, then with the railroads,
and had a beautiful voice. His mother raised the family. The unusual
"Micheal" spelling of his first name is "a nod to his
ancestors," he explains.
With both a BFA and MA in fine arts from Indiana
of Pennsylvania, Madigan lives in Hamilton with his wife, Elaine,
and their two sons, Ceilidh ("Kaley"), 18, and Cianan
6. With one studio behind his home, where he now makes all his art
and gives private art lessons, and another soon to become available
in Trenton’s Urban Word area, Madigan calls himself "a one-man
operation." His teaching, both privately and at Artworks; his
travels, both for his own art and with Artworks students; his
work, including sculpture; and his self-marketing activities,
maintenance of a website (www.MadiganStudio.com) — as
well as his own art-making — all compete for his attention. And,
presumably, his sleep time.
For Madigan, his paintings’ abstracted images suggest memories and
meanings. As for viewers, ideally, he says these pieces will function
differently for each one, depending on the many ways people might
relate to the images — through their color, or shape, or texture,
for instance. "We humans have narrative mind-sets. People will
try to identify something they recognize in the piece. That’s not
what I’m interested in, but I can’t fight it," he says.
"I understand the importance of giving people a little bit of
a flavor to enter into a piece, but giving them the whole bowl of
soup would be over-interpreting. They have to look. Hopefully, a work
will earn the time of the viewer. Then the underlying qualities of
the piece will become more evident. These are meant to be evocative
images, not narratives." Besides, he adds, in a down-to-earth
way that contrasts winningly with his more usual verbal side, "I
don’t have that linear a hold on the piece’s evolution myself."
Madigan looks the part: this artist who Ruth Morpeth says "has
to paint" has stopped by her gallery on West Broad Street,
to touch up one of his painted frames, nicked in transit. Bearded,
with curling brown hair, he wears jeans and a nubbly brown knitted
sweater, and he seems happy to talk about his work in general and
this exhibition in particular. If he’s intuitive while painting, he’s
also loquacious afterwards.
"Evolve," "meld," and "images states" occur
often in Madigan’s discussion of his process. He takes a plethora
of photographs during trips to Ireland — not for graphic purposes,
but to serve as memory jogs, and he draws on them in a number of ways.
Some photos might remind him of the texture of rocks or the look of
weather conditions he encountered. He might simply flip through a
stack of photos to activate a memory sequence. "Archetypal kinds
of images appear over and over again," he says.
With idea enough to start on, Madigan considers the scale that will
best fit the idea. This can require first producing a "study
on paper. "On a smaller scale, I let the free-forming process
develop," he says. "When I increase the scale, the range of
mark-making and the complexity of technique involved change because
the larger scale is a different kind of interaction with the
By then, though, "I know where the major shape relationships are
going to be, and how to build the paint and color progressions to
arrive at that."
"On a larger scale, if a piece wants to go off in its own
I let that happen," he says — spontaneity cannot be denied.
"It’s kind of like playing a jazz riff: you know you have to be
at a certain point at a certain time, so there’s an orchestration
to it. What happens between those moments is still the art of creating
Some of the nearly 40 paintings on view at the Morpeth Gallery are
framed works on paper that began as studies, then took on a life of
their own. "They have to stand by themselves as finished
Madigan says, and for that reason, they don’t necessarily hang near
the larger, and different, versions. While some viewers may see the
relationship between the two sizes of an idea, that’s not important.
A triptych, or three-part work, represents Madigan’s memories of his
experience "up in the cairns (burial sites) in County Sligo and
Roscommon. It’s a complicated compositional arrangement," the
artist says, "to get these three things to work and dialogue
with one another." He recalls that doing small canvas studies
beforehand gave him a "kind of physical entree into it. Then when
I got into the larger works, I was freed from that and could be more
intuitive and experimental with color progressions or subtle glaze
Color. It’s awash in Madigan’s memory-laden, layered images. He uses
acrylic paints, "the perfect medium," exclusively in all his
abstract work. "The palette has become much more complex because
the ideas behind the pieces have required it," he says. His
abstract works were brighter — a viewer might have said
— because they were purely non-representational. Now, Madigan
is pulling colors, including earth tones, from actual memories, even
though those hues are deliberately dissociated from a descriptive
function. For instance, he might take a tiny detail from actual
and use it large in a work; similarly, he might juggle the occurrence
of both colors and textures for a personal conglomerate that still
triggers his own memory. He might literally see something in cool-bias
colors, and then, through the prism of his reactions and memories,
express it in warm-bias hues.
Madigan’s "Bright Vision" includes some new paintings on wood
panel. They look textured, but they’re smooth. "Texture,"
he explains, "can affect or even preclude strong chromatics,"
and for that reason, he may build up 10 or so layers, with a lot of
sanding between them, to create "implied texture." At other
times, he’ll want "the visceral quality of the texture" to
be part of the work. Combined with color and raking light, it lets
different memories come through.
His process, Madigan says, is "maybe 15 to 20 points of
One piece evolved over a year and a half, "going through many
different `image states,’ some of those destroying prior image
What can hold up the process he calls "a little battle of
he knows what has to happen next, but hesitates to move to the next
stage. "Beneath Amber Waters," the painting on the
show card, is an example of this. Reminding him of "many treks
and visits to coastal areas," the finished piece includes
to the effects of storms, a mussel shell, an old work boat of the
type commonly found there. Madigan calls responding to what the piece
may call for and having to let go of some elements "a wrestling
match." Finally, he says, the work arrived at this image state,
in which for him the ideas and memories have a palpable presence.
In alluding to his own memory sequence and suggesting what for
him a piece is about, Madigan’s titles bring his memory-melding
process almost full circle. Only frames, where they’re used at all,
remain. Past a certain size, the artist believes, "the work
itself without a frame." Other pieces are presented in frames
painted in a neutral shade for "the effect of gray stone."
The few gold leaf frames, for which Madigan credits Morpeth’s
eye," lend elegance to the works they surround. More than an art
dealer with a good eye, Morpeth is, in Madigan’s view, "a
He thinks she’s a risk-taker for showing abstract work in an area
that’s heavy with representational art. She aims high, he says; she’s
"a wonderful support." And, it should be noted here, Morpeth
Gallery has quickly become the opposite of the Arthurian "Siege
Perilous" — everyone wants to "sit" there.
For her own part, Morpeth observes that "it’s hard to say why
you like abstract work," then readily cites Madigan’s
use of color and balance in his compositions. His work is
she says; "there’s obviously a thought process behind it."
Noting that his paintings complement each other, she refers to the
tension between colors and textures — a decided help in hanging
a Madigan show. During an Artworks class some years ago, she overheard
Madigan talking about his painting to another class. This marked the
beginning of her interest in his work.
Madigan has been affiliated with Artworks for about 12 years. Teacher,
board member, and committee chair, as well as prime mover behind the
distinctive mural on the side of the Trenton building, he has been
an active part of the institution’s own evolution. On Sunday, March
18, he’ll give the first gallery talk in Morpeth’s new venue. Those
who enjoyed or missed the artist’s opening reception on March 3 are
welcome to bring questions, comments, and, as the radio announcer
says, their "finely tuned ears." If they’re lucky, Madigan
may whistle a tune or two, adding the language of music to those of
art and conversation.
— Pat Summers
Hopewell, 609-333-9393. "Aisling Gheal" runs through Sunday,
April 1. Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Madigan’s work will
also be featured for the month of April. Gallery talk is Sunday,
March 18, 1 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.