Michael McHugh

As though peering through a microscope, Michael McHugh’s paintings reveal an abstracted view of intricate scenes from nature. Interested in plant forms, it’s the intense detail that is replicated — cellular formations and vivid patterns. However, each work is entirely his own creation, from the dazzling colours to shapes that engage one another from canvas to canvas.
McHugh's new exhibition "Chroma" is on view at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, until 23 March 2024.

For Sydney-based, Auckland-born artist Michael McHugh his colourful paintings are informed by the reordering of plant form DNA; he undertakes extensive research in the field before following with experimental drawings and collage. Here is where the imagination kicks in, the artist commenting that, though there are certain structures audiences may recognise, there will always be a twist. There’s an artistic interpretation of the research material.

At the end of 2019, before 2020 brought a wave of lockdowns, McHugh went to the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library in London – the largest horticultural library in the world. Here the artist was inspired by the diversity of botanical drawings and studies. As soon as lockdown lifted, he visited New South Wales’s State Library in Sydney – also squeezing in a trip to Perth Botanical Garden, with the largest range of wildflowers in the country, plus the Auckland Domain Wintergardens this year.

Self-described as a “magpie,” the artist spends time with his material, constantly drawing and creating his own plant DNA that features across several works and collections. For his upcoming show, ‘Supernatural,’ at Martin Browne Contemporary, McHugh has focused on cellular structures — layers and layers that follow an organic aesthetic, yet decidedly unnatural clashing colours and patterns.

With three or four paintings on the go at once, McHugh works from patterns found within his extensive drawings, and colour palette collages made from old paint on baking paper, before heading to the canvas, the composition developing holistically across the collection. Though mostly bright in a kaleidoscope of tones, in two works, Celestial, 2021, and Nocturnal, 2021, McHugh strips back the colours to a palette of blue and purple hues. He discovered a love for blue after completing the painting Midnight, 2020, last year that offered a point of contrast to the brightness of his other work – instead, a still moment with alternate emotion: “I love shades of blue and how it can leak into reds and greens . . . In [Celestial], you’ll also see that the plant forms are not as layered; there are moments of quiet stillness.”

This new collection comes after a time of deep reflection. In March, McHugh’s brother tragically passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. “I think in lots of ways, the studio has become a refuge for me to be quite still and think,” he shares. “While you’re painting, losing yourself in these canvases and creating work, your mind wanders to times you’ve had and the unexpected nature of life.” As such, in the new collection, McHugh muses that there’s a more considered nature to his works – amplified by lockdown and the lack of noise and people. He adds, “It’s been a very solitary creation of the show. In lots of ways, I just needed to be left alone and get on with it. I’ve lost myself within these works; it has been cathartic.”

 McHugh’s artworks offer us a return to nature, a chance to consider the never-ending circle of life. “If you return to a sense of environment and Mother Nature and just lose yourself within a beach or a forest, you will immediately feel better,” the artist considers. “There is a wonder and awe too, that we can forget, particularly living in a city . . . experiencing a natural world results in a move in your mind and your outlook that can only be a good thing. I would hope that these paintings reflect on that for a moment.”

Alongside his painting practice, McHugh is the editor-in-chief and publisher of MiNDFOOD – a magazine that brings together people and creations for an inspiring life. Editing here crosses over into his practice. “You’re constantly reshaping and reforming until [the magazine] leaves the office and goes to a printer . . . you’re constantly looking at layouts, colour and words. So, that skill of editing is inherent.” Now, McHugh paints every day, heading to his studio in Surry Hills after debriefing at the magazine in the morning.

McHugh has always painted, studying art and design at the Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design in New Zealand. However, when he launched MiNDFOOD fourteen years ago, painting fell to the wayside. “About three and a half years ago, my mum died, she was ninety-five, there was a sadness there. She had a great life, but I couldn’t find joy . . . And so, I thought what has brought me joy in my life, and I thought about painting.” After years of side-lining his practice, McHugh decided to enrol in a masterclass course at Sydney’s National Art School. “It was a course every Saturday, and all week between classes, I would paint and draw,” the artist reveals. “Mentally, it helped me because it built that passion . . . I loved getting back into drawing and painting, and just the possibility of it, I think that’s what I really loved.”

When Trevor Armitage, a classmate, was offered an exhibition at Project Gallery 90 in Paddington, he asked McHugh if he’d like to join him. Curator of the gallery, Kate Hopkinson-Pointer, secured him a spot, and he reflects, “From there, it took off. I remember we were in the cab to the opening, my wife and I, and I said it’d be really nice if I could just sell one. I did twelve paintings, and pretty much in forty minutes, they were all sold.”

Soon after, Martin Browne approached McHugh, presenting his work in the summer show, and then offering him a solo show last year, ‘Exotics,’ which first brought together his research from London and Sydney’s botanical libraries. The artist also had a show back in Auckland, New Zealand, this year at Föenander Galleries, who now represent McHugh in his hometown – twenty-one years after leaving for Sydney.

As McHugh celebrates nature, seeing it as a way to enhance our lives, we can ask the same of art. These artworks reveal the innate sense of imagination from the human mind, translated to the canvas. But as the artist comments, this process finishes in the audiences’ mind as they are invited to take whatever they need from it, wherever they’re at in their life. McHugh concludes, “I’ve had amazing feedback from people that the works make them happy – they lose themselves within the work. And I think, from an emotional point of view, that’s what happens when I’m making them. You do lose yourself.”

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 56

29 February – 23 March 2024 
Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney 

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