In creating his paintings, Michael McLaughlin applies photorealism in unexpected ways to streets, parking lots, and New England architecture. He then encloses his traditional subject matter with mixed media, and thus prompts a reconsideration of the entire scene. Inspired by the Photorealists of the 70s and 80s, McLaughlin works to astonish the viewer through an exceptional verisimilitude that generates a visceral level of familiarity and recognition. Full of particularities and precise details, McLaughlin’s paintings reveal themselves as hauntingly familiar places. However, the unexpected addition of abstracted framing elements creates pause for the viewer, both drawing them into the scene and keeping them distanced.
First exposed to the Photorealists of the 70s while at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, McLaughlin reflects on how the movement struck a chord, particularly when seen in contrast to the popular movements of abstraction, non-objective, and minimalist art. Drawn to landscape, McLaughlin saw how his daily surroundings were being championed as viable subject matter. Looking at leaders of the movement, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, and Robert Bechtle, McLaughlin was able to take direction in terms of style and technique. Eventually, McLaughlin began to wonder about juxtaposing multiple styles as his “appreciation of abstract painting (and pop art) suggested it could be interesting to include both styles in the same work, to see how they would interact with each other and with the viewer.” The abstract elements provide a balance to the photorealistic center element and are produced through what McLaughlin describes as a “free thought process with a lot of trial and error” where McLaughlin changes and adjusts these portions much more than the realistic part of the painting.
Speaking about his work, McLaughlin seeks to “further the nature of the two-dimensional picture plane,” as he remains interested in the tactile qualities found in a painting’s surface, and how the variety of mark-making he employs can either serve to fool the eye or present an abstraction of reality. Or, in some cases, the mark simply exists on the picture plane itself. Using mark-making as the driving force within his work, McLaughlin comments on how certain marks can even stand alone within his pieces – a swipe of random color in a corner – or how these marks work within a group, eventually yielding specificities as precise as a car bumper. This attention to process is key to McLaughlin’s painting practice, where above all, he says that failure is an intrinsic part of creating his art. Working towards creating images within the picture plane that register with the viewer in an intimately familiar way, McLaughlin combines the inherent familiarity of Photorealism with elements that relate the scene to the viewer on an abstract level. Through using such diametrically opposed presentations, McLaughlin hopes the viewer will be able to appreciate more intently the essence of his urban landscapes.
Speaking further on his process, McLaughlin begins first with an urban landscape image with interesting formal values. In this way, the artist applies classical landscape and compositional principles of foreground, middle ground, etc., to urban scenes that contain interesting color or light or shadow. Yet, his process also remains intuitive as he says that “at this point the final choice of the photorealistic part of the work is subjective and [he] is never quite sure why a particular scene is chosen.” In “Charleston Cow,” the artist was interested in the extremely delineated foreground, middle ground, and background. Based on a photo taken by the artist’s wife, “Charleston Cow,” includes many of the details McLaughlin shows reverence for – everything from license plates to building signage. In “Washer/Dryer Driveway,” McLaughlin was drawn to the classical “X” composition created through light and shadow, as well as the draped cable lines.
Holding art history as central to his painting practice, McLaughlin draws inspiration from everything. Involved in the study of art and art history as much as he is in the creation of art, McLaughlin derives inspiration from seemingly unlikely places, including mythology. He says, “a story from ancient Greece about hubris and its consequences has always interested me,” as not only did this story, like much Greek mythology, inspire subject matter for artists from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, the Baroque, and beyond, but it also reflects on the very nature of being an artist. McLaughlin says, “being an artist, you have to have confidence and a degree of hubris when it comes to critics or self-doubt.”