Michelle Mackey is a painter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and Dallas, TX. She has exhibited extensively in both of those locations, as well as other places inside of and outside of the United States. In 1999, she received an MFA from Pratt Institute. Her work has been featured in several publications, including The Christian Century and New American Paintings.
A variety of everday textures, surfaces and structures make up the visual repository from which Mackey’s paintings emerge. She describes her process in this way:
The story of my process is embedded in layers of paint (layers of choices) visible on the canvas: a trail of past decisions shutting off certain paths to allow other possibilities. I’m searching, tweaking, scratching, both my mind and the image on the canvas, to uncover what I am really seeing and the process of how I see. On my microcosmic-level, I am looking into a larger system beyond the individual. I do not believe in chance or events without purpose, so I do feel that my search will reveal certain truths or aspects of a larger truth.
How do you paint a memory? Memory is a constant theme in Mackey’s work. We all have some idea of what it might mean to paint from our memories, but Mackey’s paintings are more like the memories themselves.
Like a memory, one peers into the amorphous forms that haunt her canvases, and one has the sense of staring backward into time. These images are often vague and nebulous, and they tantalize us with the distance between what could be and what really is. Her 2011 Black Series (see Intermezzo below) is an excellent example. Although these paintings are bare and monotone, Mackey achieves a remarkable sense of depth and ambiguity. Forms emerge and disappear. Mackey gives us representation with one hand, while she simultaneously takes it away with the other.
Like a memory, viewing one of Mackey’s paintings can be spatially disorienting. Her collages of textures, surfaces and structures do not obey the laws of the physical universe. One texture bleeds into another. What appears, at first glance, to be up may on a second viewing strike us as upside down. In Fashion Awards (below), the lines and structures that appear are actually old blueprints for television-show scenery. These plans, which no longer serve any function, are so covered that spatial orientation and dimension is difficult to decipher. They are the remains of a television image; a memory of a memory.
Like a memory, Mackey’s paintings are layered. Our deepest memories are colored and warped by the passage of time. What they mean to us change and shift along with us. A painting like Blue Spring (below) is suggestive of process of layering that builds up over time. Although much is covered, there is very little in this painting that seems dispensable.
Memories form an essential component of our sense of identity. Who we believe our selves to be, and what we believe ourselves to be capable of becoming, is inextricably connected to our own memories and the memories that have been handed down to us. For many of us, these memories bear the dead weight of regret and failure, and they tell us that history will only ever repeat itself. Mackey’s process suggests, to the contrary, that we are free to explore our memories and that we are graciously and mysteriously free to imagine new ways of relating to our memories.
Memory is really only one aspect of a very rich body of work. If you would like to learn more about Mackey’s work, I encourage you to visit her website. There, you can view online galleries, an artist statement, video of her painting process and more.