The overarching question artist Michael Cox tries to pose in his latest works is “what is it like to live in Britain now?” Selected as one of our Graduates 2016, Michael previously captured urban structures destined for demolition, focusing on their geometry and composition. While he’s moved away from these estate-inspired paintings, Michael still depicts buildings and prosaic settings, allowing him to explore feelings of unease, both externally and internally.
“I’m looking in particular now at the subject and idea of living in a very small countryside town in Somerset and the mentality that comes with that,” says Michael. “There’s still this sense of looking for my part in something, where do I fit in to what it is I’m painting or showing? I do think it’s ok to sometimes not fit in as well… These new works look perhaps with a more personal lens at similar ideas touched upon before.”
The ideas and themes present are subtly explored in what feels like a dialogue Michael is having more with himself than with the viewer, which is reflective in the quiet, almost soothing disposition of the paintings. The subjects captured include houses, doorways, flat blocks and pathways but the second character within them is nature, which is seen winding itself around gates as floral vines, as bouncing daffodil heads against a fence and as autumnal trees whose orange leaves obstruct a grid of windows.
In these latest works it’s great to see Michael’s traditional approach to painting is still present. “The works stem from photographs collected over a very long period of time; I might sit on an image for a year before it presents itself as a starting point for a painting. This image then gets worked up quite big on canvas, at least human size, to kind of absorb the viewer,” explains the artist. “I absolutely have to paint with oil, no other kind of paint can come up to the pigmentation of oil paint; acrylic is too dull. I think a lot about the qualities of oil paint – it’s very diverse and is more of a solid than a liquid, so takes quite a bit of mixing to really thin down, the image is then built up from these layers.”
These textural layers add depth to the work and have allowed Michael to play around with light and dark, especially in portraying nighttime in rural environments. “Out here, there’s virtually no light pollution or orange glow from towns, so the moon and stars inform the colour of the sky and landscape,” says Michael. “This makes the night very dark, and quite overwhelming, but amazingly deep blues start to come through.” These gloomier paintings contrast with the brighter day-lit scenes but it allows Michael to create a richer portrait of the seemingly unoccupied and sleepy landscape of the countryside.
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