ArtHop spotlight: Michael McDowell muses on his pandemic ‘Hiatus’ in a new exhibition at Fig Tree Gallery

Full-time painters can lead rather solitary lives in the studio, so Michael McDowell didn’t experience the pandemic in the same way as people who found themselves suddenly crawling the walls with nothing but streaming TV and Zoom to salve the soul. But the past 18 months had a strong impact on him nonetheless. You can see it in his latest show, “Hiatus,” at Fig Tree Gallery. He found that working in the studio during the period to be a kind of “refuge from the storm.”

Pictured above: Michael McDowell’s ‘Cinque’ is part of his show ‘Hiatus.’

“Hiatus” opens at the gallery as part of ArtHop, the monthly open house of galleries and studios in the downtown and Tower District neighborhoods. Most venues are open 5-8 p.m. An updated list of venues can be found at the Fresno Arts Council’s website.

I caught up with the artist via email to talk about the exhibition. From the images he sent me, there’s a heady, intellectual heft to McDowell’s work, which feels both ordered and hazy/dreamy. Here’s our conversation:

Q: What was your pandemic like? Where did you spend it? Were you isolated with family, or were you alone?

A: The pandemic was really a nuisance, but it wasn’t as bad for me as for many other people. I have not lost anyone close to me, nor have any of my loved ones experienced any long term loss of income or housing. I quit working a teaching job several years ago to pursue painting full time, so the social restrictions brought on by the pandemic didn’t change my routine much. The situation simply resulted in the opportunity to focus even more concretely on what I most love to do. I was not entirely isolated, because I live with the love of my life, so she and I have weathered the storm together.


Q: The isolation of the pandemic affected us on both an individual and collective basis. How did it impact you individually? How do you think it’s impacted us as a society?

A: There wasn’t a great change in my daily routine, so I would not say that was part of the impact I experienced during the pandemic. In retrospect, the enforced isolation may have resulted in my feeling sort of like a hermit as a result of the social isolation. Human beings seem to be social creatures, or at least we’re indoctrinated to be so from a young age. I have found myself momentarily less capable, &/or less inclined, to seek social interaction. Perhaps we, as a society, are currently less patient and tolerant of one another as a result of the isolation. Hopefully this phenomenon will pass as we eventually return to a more “normal” social situation.

Q: Tell us a little about the title. I like the word “Hiatus.” To me it suggests a constructive rest period. There’s something dignified and scheduled about it. Why did the word appeal to you?

A: I chose “Hiatus” as a title for this exhibition to allude to a period of removal from routine. In this case, the removal was from face-to-face social interaction. For a visual artist this is not necessarily a bad thing, at least in the short term. I agree that the word is often associated with “rest.” In this case, the “rest” was from social obligation. Without social obligation one is left to one’s own devices. As previously stated, this simply meant more concentration on the activity I most prefer.

Q: How many works are in the show? What is your medium? Were they all produced during the pandemic?

A: There are 10 fairly large canvases in the show. All are done with oil on canvas. My tendency is to gradually work on a group of paintings, rather than to start a single painting and work on it until it is complete. Working this way allows me to contemplate where the work is going while in progress. If one painting becomes difficult, I can set it aside and work on another until an option is found for the difficult painting. It seems like a dialog between the various works often arises, and I enjoy that aspect of working on numerous compositions. Several of the paintings in this show were started before the pandemic, but all were brought to completion during the pandemic.

Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell’s ‘Serpentine’ is part of ‘Hiatus’ at Fig Tree Gallery.

Q: You say in your artist’s statement that you “prefer to start with a notion, rather than a concrete concept, then allow the imagery and content to evolve as the visual possibilities are investigated.” Is it possible for you to retrace this process for us in regards to one of the paintings in your show? What was a notion that you started with, and how did it evolve?

A: One example I might provide is “Serpentine.” The “notion” for the painting was the recent discovery of a fresco in Pompeii that featured a couple of snakes. Also, around that time I heard a phrase from a song by Morphine:

Love’s strange, bee sting, what a fool I’ve been.
Serpentine, lives unwind, trees sing, flowers cry.

The conjunction of these references to snakes led me to the idea to start the painting. I found the word “serpentine” sticking in my brain. At the beginning of the painting I had included two swirling serpents inspired by the ones I had seen in the photo of the Pompeiian fresco. In the process of working I began to feel that the depiction of the snakes was too concrete. It seemed like a very loaded symbol that was not actually what I intended. So, the snakes morphed into the swirling forms that are currently visible in the work. The other elements came into the composition after the snake forms. At the time of their inclusion they are likely to have been related to the snakes, but with time they have also morphed away from their initial solid symbols to become something (hopefully) more individualized.

Q: You also say that your paintings are like “an inventory of one’s context at a given moment in time.” I’m curious what it’s like for you as an artist to revisit these works later. Is it a concrete memory of that moment in time? Or is it more like when we recall a dream, with the details a bit wispy but the emotional and intellectual connections strong?

A: I think revisiting works in this vein at a later date is a less concrete and more ephemeral experience, sort of like a comparison of prose to poetry. Prose is more descriptive than poetry; poetry seems to seek the essence, rather than describing in greater detail. I think your suggestion that the re-visitation is somewhat like a dream is correct. And, actually, I hope the paintings themselves verge on essences rather than concrete descriptions.

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Q: Talk a little about your artistic career. Your Facebook Profile has you living in Italy. Are you back in California, or are you commuting a very long way to Fig Tree Gallery?

A: I have listed Lucca, Italy, as my current “home,” but it is only home in my mind. After visiting there a few years ago it seemed like an ideal place to live. However, circumstances do not allow that to happen in actuality, so it is my metaphysical home. I currently live locally.

There is much more to be said about my career as an artist. It dates back to approximately 1985 when I started school at the San Francisco Art Institute. Suffice it to say, it’s a whole other story…

Q: How do you hope people respond to your show?

A: I always hope to engage the viewer with original imagery and painting technique. Beyond that, my hope is that the work engages the viewer on numerous levels, including the physical, emotional, and intellectual. I believe the states of being from which the work is created exists in the work and can be translated to the viewer.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

Please see and enjoy the show!

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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