Mike McMath is one of those rare artists with a commitment to quality and craft who happens to be as engaging and experimental holding a brush in his hand as he is holding a microphone.
Along with his brother Scott, 20 years ago Mike formed the undeniably entertaining 4-piece musical concoction known as Empty Pockets, performing at clubs & festivals throughout the region while recording original material that was crunchy, melodic, and a whole lot of fun; and 13 years ago the group evolved into Empty Canvas - an innovative hybrid of music & art where McMath involves the audience in the creation of an original painting during the duration of their performance, never missing a beat - or a stroke - during the process.
Known mainly for his detailed and distinct acrylic paintings, Mike McMath is now showcasing a new body of work at The Saginaw Art Museum that employs the mediums of encaustic painting & Venetian Plaster as part of special exhibition titled Plaster & Wax: Michigan Artist Painting Beyond the Canvas that is on display at the Museum through September 14th.
Before artists employed oil as a medium for binding pigment to create luminous paintings on canvas (and even prior to the use of egg-based tempera), ancient Romans developed the traditions of encaustic painting and what is now known as Venetian Plaster. Applied over wooden panels or used to cover walls, these paintings were deeply saturated, vividly colorful, and seductively pictorial, and exhibited hardened, illusionistic surfaces. Seldom-used and labor-intensive, both encaustic painting and Venetian Plaster were revived throughout subsequent centuries when the influence of the ancient Mediterranean world became fashionable.
McMath has been working with Venetian Plaster for about 15 years now and got interested in it when he was asked to create murals on walls for various clients. “Venetian plaster and encaustic are two different processes and originally I delved into it when my company, which created faux finishes on walls, was asked to work in the medium,” he explains. “I’ve worked in every medium except watercolor and with encaustic painting you use bee wax in a resin that hardens it, so it can be very malleable. You can melt it and achieve detail with the painting, but with acrylics you have more control.”
“Encaustic is a difficult animal to work with and lends itself better towards abstract works,” notes Mike. “The colors are really bright and it has almost a high sheen when burnished, which is the same with Venetian plaster. I’ve been working with Venetian plaster for about 15 years now with faux finishes and have them on my pallet colors. It’s a slow and labor intensive process because you need to sand and burnish it so it becomes super smooth like glass. You need to know what colors will work because it looks embedded in the plaster, so you can lose some of the detail and control when doing that.”
According to Mike the value of such a labor intensive and difficult medium is that it creates a texture you cannot achieve with any other product or process. “It looks very much like marble that is smooth to the touch,” he reflects. “There is immense texture to it and many ethereal elements to it as well.”
Currently, Mike is restoring the Morris Jumel Mansion in New York, which happens to be the oldest house in Manhattan. “There is a lot of history there and in restoring it I found elements of the museum that I wanted to depict through Venetian plasters and encaustics,” he explains. “Six years ago we also restored the Saginaw Art Museum and re-painted 80% of the inside, brought the trim down, sanded it and did some marbling, mainly to retain the character of the old house.”
With the pieces on display at this current exhibition, for the encaustic part of his work Mike says he focused upon abstract plays on words. “You could have a word like ‘ethereal’ and I like the fact that with this medium, you can actually visually experience the felling of ethereal. For example, the subject can be a guitar player and it kind of looks abstract, but if you stand back you can tell what it is and ethereally feel the notes he plays. It’s like experiencing something through a different medium like music - with this process you can summon emotions that can be depicted in tangible elements.”
With his encaustic work, which Mike has been working at perfecting over the past six years, he says the most challenging component is control. “Every time I work with it I discover something new,” he states. “Wax has a particular melting point and if you try and heat it back up, all of a sudden it can change and you lose control. It’s a relatively detailed process and I what I enjoy about it is that it takes the artist out of his comfort zone. It makes you look past what you’re seeing all the time; and I think more artists should do that and challenge themselves in this manner.”
In addition to his artwork, Mike is still doing Empty Canvas shows all over the country. “We’ve done some shows in Dallas this year and have been in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles with the band,” he notes. “We do about 80 shows a year and I’ve been painting a lot. Some people don’t value the painting created during our musical performance shows as art, but I love it and would rather do that than teach. It’s a process where you’re actually creating something that wasn’t there before and your work multiplies; plus it’s something created within a specific time-frame, so you have to enforce the process. When you set parameters you have to finish them; whereas if you have no deadlines you can meander with it and say, ‘Someday I might finish that piece.’
“I never do the same thing twice and paint what I see, not what I know. I feel that makes me a better painter.”
Plaster & Wax: Michigan Artists Painting Beyond the Canvas is currently on display at the Saginaw Art Museum through September 14th and features the work of Mike McMath, Mike Crane, Chris McCauley, Graceann Warn and Valerie Allen. Their work functions as a collective composition reflective of the American classical period of the early 19th century, as well as the height of the later American Renaissance with which the construction of the Saginaw Art Museum’s Ring Museum coincided. The Saginaw Art Museum is located at 1126 N. Michigan Ave in Saginaw and is open Tuesday through Saturday from Noon to 5 PM.
9th February, 2024