Michael McGrath

Published on July 7th, 2022

Michael McGrath

The work of painter Michael McGrath forgoes the existential question of, “Why are we here?” and instead asks, “Where is here, anyway?” McGrath’s paintings transport viewers to a realm between life and death, here and there, Earth and beyond. Drawing on paganism and modern spiritualism in everything from witchcraft to Ouija boards, McGrath invites us to communicate with the unknown — but, he says, not too seriously.

This month’s featured artist in PureHoney, McGrath is an American artist and painter with a BFA in Fine Art from Ithaca College and a parallel career in graphic design. His most recent work focuses primarily on ideas of mysticism, mythology and religion as well as the history of his environment and surroundings in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Surroundings which, coincidentally, are only four hours away from Hydesville, N.Y., the location where historians believe the modern spiritualist movement began in the United States.

An online search of Hydesville turns up information about the Fox Sisters, three siblings who could supposedly speak to the dead in ways only they could decipher. As mediums, they held seances to commune with spirits and convinced the public they were less parlor tricks and more wholly divine. McGrath uses similar elements and sleight of hand in his visual storytelling and vocabulary.

Veiled by the unknown while awash with repetitive symbols and tacit meaning, it’s easy to understand why McGrath communicates in metaphor: Floating heads, orbs with eyes, fire, smoke, and skulls recur throughout his body of work; clowns, mushrooms and horses also make frequent appearances. Seen together, these symbols evoke an unnerving fear, kind of like stumbling upon a secretive ceremony of the occult. These fears as well as monsters, weather, insects, gods, and death are all common motifs of McGrath’s work. He examines these ideas and concepts through innocent eyes because, “as adults we tend to take ourselves too seriously,” he says in an interview.

In an imagined world where both the living and the supernatural can coexist, it’s unclear what is real and what is a mirage made by gods, ghosts, or magic. In paintings like “Night Negotiations” these fears are represented as ghosts; other work alludes to the presence of specters nearby. Through multiple mediums, such as acrylic, oil, collage, colored pencil and pastels, McGrath layers his work with opaque strokes of shadow and color – mimicking the multiple realms of existence on his canvas. With no discerning vantage point or formal shadowing or depth perception, McGrath has diminished any differentiation between foreground and background. Together, these techniques allow the mind to embrace the harmony and simultaneity of parallel worlds and live, even just for a moment, in two places at once.

Almost all of the fully formed faces we see in McGrath’s work belong to the otherworldly creatures that inhabit the canvas – smiling skulls below a campfire, celestial heads as omniscient clouds, the woman in “Magic Transfer” who reaches for the same ethereal orb as her other half. Yet, a majority of the human-like figures either rarely face us or are face-less. With their backs often to us, they become an additional mystery to the work. Whether through a magical trance or by their own volition, these figures will levitate in the forest or conjure flames of a bonfire. Dislocated hands produce thick black smoke and project pink streams of energy from their fingertips. A similar light connects two strangers in “Learning Hypnosis” and emits a highlighter yellow vibe from the hands of a woman on a faceless figure on the ground.

Inviting his audience into his private fears is a powerful and vulnerable position for McGrath. Sometimes going through the fears of someone else allows us to examine our own obstacles head on. Much like the boldness of a child, McGrath has allowed his audience to get in touch with their true selves, find sanctuary in their own power and make room to be their own gods.

McGrath’s work has been re­cently shown in New York, Ger­many and Bel­gium and a solo show at Fir Gallery in Beijing, China. With a growing family and as the owner of a design firm, McGrath is open to new opportunities. Find him online at mmcgrath.com ~ Veronica Inberg