Thursday, June 22, 2006

West Coast Palette – Hamptons Man Michael McDowell
J.Z. Holden

If there is such as thing as a West Coast palette, Michael McDowell has it. While growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Mr. McDowell developed an appreciation for nature, it’s subtlety of color and sense of composition. His eye was developed by the influence of green rolling hills and his senses touched by the luscious fragrances of imported Mediterranean gardens, situated in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. His mathematical mind initially took him to university as a math major, but it was not long before his true passion for painting emerged, and he was off to art school in the colorful town of San Miguel Allende.

The colors of Mexico infused in him a palette attuned to Hockney-esque visuals, inspired by the bright fuschias, oranges, and yellows of traditional Mexican embroidery, materials, and flowers.

After two years, Mr. McDowell returned to California, where he was thrown into a time of great experimentation that was taking place at the distinguished art school Cal Arts. Home to a host of luminaries that created the West Coast “Light and Space” movement.

After graduation, his exposure to new ways of thinking and seeing, and a hunger for the unexplored, catapulted Mr. McDowell on a journey through Belgium, France, Spain, and Morocco, Hawaii and Mexico, landing him eventually in New York City, where he quickly established his studio in a loft in Chelsea. His European experience, and the influence of the 1980's art scene, grounded his work in the figurative painting that would become his hallmark. A flurry of creativity followed during which he met the woman who would become his wife, Judy, and by 1989, the two decided to move to East Hampton to raise a family.

In many ways, East Hampton resembles his childhood home, Santa Barbara. Both are alive with trees and flowers, both are by the sea, and have exquisite light. Mr. McDowell began to paint his new world; a combination of lush landscapes and figurative beach scenes emanating California color and East Hampton light.

The diva of the Hamptons art scene, Elaine Benson, who was known for her discerning eye, started exhibiting Mr. McDowell’s work in a series of group shows starting in 1987, and he was on his way. Exhibitions at Guild Hall, Ashwagh Hall, and the Clay-Libertore gallery followed. The artist is currently working on a new series entitled, “Playground,” that will be shown as part of a group show at the Hampton Road Gallery in July.

During a recent telephone interview from his studio, Mr. McDowell talked about where his latest work was headed. “I chose the image of a playground because it seemed to me that it is a microcosm of good and evil. On the one hand, it is a place of innocence, and on the other, a place of nudity and sexuality.”

The artist stopped for a moment to think, then he took a breath and continued, “It is a departure for me from the usual. I needed to invent a theme, and pursue that a little more. I am excited about the narrative, and working with the dark side as well as the light is cathartic. The way the idea came to me was very funny. I’d gone to a birthday party at Bamboo where I ate a lot of sushi. That night, I dreamt about an oversized Koi colliding with a 1951 Ford. When I awoke, I understood the dream to mean that our cultures were colliding - and the old car was the symbol for Western Civilization. Interestingly enough, I inherited a chartreuse and black 1949 Ford Fairlaine from my father.”

With each new image, Michael McDowell escorts us into his world: The 1950's and ‘60's cars that are garish and bright transport the bikini clad women who lie provocatively on the beach, surrounded by sensual landscapes, while innocent children romp playfully in the surf. If the old saying “things are not what they seem” apply, then beneath that perfect world, something darker simmers and waits. The beautiful figurative images are bright and playful, but the darker and more interesting reality is what the viewer is left to contemplate.

For more information about Michael McDowell’s upcoming exhibition, contact Hampton Road Gallery in Southampton or call 631-875-3955.